Why I left academia: The Knauss Fellowship

Every day I wonder if I made a mistake when I left academia. The short answer is: I don’t know. I guess a more important question is: Do I have any (major) regrets? Well, no.

Previously I wrote about what it takes to become a Knauss Fellow. So while y’all (the one piece of language that I picked up from grad school) know what goes into becoming a fellow, next thing that should be discussed is what it actually means to be a fellow.

Note: I’m creating quite the que of posts that will hold truer to my original intent for my contribution to this blog (i.e. the cross-section between science and policy). Something that will be discussed is the disparity between the “traditional” postdoc versus an experience like I had. 

When I was selected as a Knauss Fellow, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I wanted the “science-policy experience. I really had experience in science policy. Even to this day, if pressed, I could probably give half a dozen different explanations. So, gifted with this absence of knowledge, I was incredibly happy when I was placed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in their office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs. Of all the offices at the USFWS, that office was as far away (aside from Budget) from primary research as I could get.*

This is the job description as taken from my resume (yes, I had to make an actual resume versus a CV for things outside of academia, and honestly, it’s a good exercise that I would suggest to everyone):

United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Sea Grant Knauss Postdoctoral Fellow, Division of Congressional and Legislative Affairs

  • Served as a liaison for the Service with the offices of Members and Committees of Congress.
  • Advised the Service’s senior leadership regarding pending legislation.
  • Initiated, drafted, reviewed, and facilitated clearance of policy positions on testimony and reports on many and varied legislative issues referred to the Service by the Department of Interior’s Legislative Council.
  • Coordinated preparation for congressional hearings and briefings.
  • Maintained active communications with congressional offices.
  • Coordinated with other governmental environmental agencies.
  • Assisted in listing and outreach for species under the Endangered Species Act.

Depending on your background and interests, that all may sound incredibly interesting or extremely boring. For me, it was interesting. One of the best parts of my position is that I was considered a full contributing member of the team. Sure, I was a fellow who was admittedly paid much less, but my responsibilities were the same as most of my coworkers. On day 1, I was presented with my “portfolio”, or the list of topics that I would cover during my tenure. They included the Endangered Species Act, coastal barriers, and fisheries and aquatic conservation. I also dabbled in disease, climate change, and environmental contamination. What was very clear was that not only did I enter a completely different world, but I was also going to cover topics on which I was not an expert.

That lesson, the “I’m not an expert” part, is something that means very little in this city, and I mean that in a positive way. As academics, especially graduate students, we know a lot about a little. My job, and many non-academic science jobs, was the exact opposite. Everyone in my office was/is expected to know at least something (often a lot) about many different subjects. The office doesn’t have the resources to have subject-matter experts on everything that the USFWS does. This is common throughout the government and non-profits as well. Once someone learns that you are a scientist, you are the resident expert on all things science. While this was a very daunting task at first, it was ultimately the most enlightening part of my experience. Because I was initially forced to branch out, I became interested and knowledgeable in many different areas of science. Additionally, I now have a proven record of being able to adapt to new, and oftentimes foreign, opportunities, a quality that I hope will be desirable to future employers.

In addition to the big-picture takeaways from my fellowship, I had some amazing day-to-day experiences. A big part of what the office does is prepare USFWS employees to be witnesses to testify before Congress. Especially in the current political climate (excuse the climate pun), the USFWS is being called to testify more now than ever before. Some of the issues include: climate change, endangered species, fish hatcheries, wildlife refuges, wind energy, and coastal barriers. Whomever takes lead on preparing for each hearing depends on the topic area. This method was advantageous for myself as two hearings fell into my topic areas – one on coastal barriers, the other on the effects of climate change on hunting and fishing practices. As the lead, I was responsible for drafting/compiling written and oral testimony, preparing sample questions for the witnesses, coordinating with the “friendly” staff on the committee, organizing pre-hearing meetings with witnesses, and ultimately serving as support during the hearing if required (if you have ever watched a hearing before Congress and a witness turns around to talk to someone sitting in the seats behind them, that was my spot). Knowing that top members of the USFWS looked to me for guidance is an opportunity that I will always value and never forget.**

Towards the end of my tenure as a fellow, I realized that  I missed research and teaching. While I am still pursuing an active research plan, it’s not the same as actually having a field season every year, or even being closer to science. I truly value my time at the USFWS and want to use my experience in policy to shape my future professional goals. However, before than can happen, I decided to take a detour into science education and outreach in a professional setting. Next post – working at the National Academy of Sciences and doing outreach for a living.

*I should note that I am still pursuing an active research program even though I am not at an academic institution. I am co-PI of an ongoing long-term project at a wildlife refuge in eastern Arkansas. I am also collaborating with colleagues from my former lab and at another institution in Tennessee. I have been able to keep my academic ties through research and conferences while also pursuing a side of science that few scientists ever see. Hence the “no regrets”.

**Writing for the government was a bit tricky though. They promote passive voice and two spaces after a full stop. That took a little bit of getting used to.

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