If you read this blog with any regularity, you’ve heard this before. But not like this.
I left academia. When I departed, I didn’t know if I would want to stay out or, after a short time, return. There was a lot of soul searching, but for now (and yes, I believe that if I want to someday I can return), I’m staying out. So the path that I chose from academia, to a Knauss Fellowship, to a Mirzayan fellowship, to my permanent position (that I start soon, wait for it), makes sense. But there are ways for students to get science-policy experience without taking the risk of “leaving” academia, and I personally believe that everyone should do it.*
In my mind, there are a few ways to go about this. You can take my route: do a science-policy fellowship post-Ph.D. (or M.S.). This is risky if you really think that you’ll wanna go back to academia. I was unsure so I happily took that risk. Here are some of the programs that I know about:
Sea Grant Knauss Science Policy Fellowship – fisheries/marine focus but anyone with a conservation-focus is welcome (I have a herpetology background)
American Geophysical Union Congressional Science Fellows – I can’t say enough good things about AGU. With a scientific focus on earth and space sciences, the organization is actually truly devoted to science outreach and communication. Fellows can have any scientific background.
Frank M. Cushing Science Policy Fellowship – provided by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, this is for marine/fisheries scientists with a congressional interest.
Presidential Management Fellowship – with less of a science focus, PMF offers a great introduction to government inter-workings.
AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships – perhaps the most well-known of this option, brings in a wider variety of scientists. Some societies coordinate with AAAS for their own fellowships such as:
- American Physical Society/American Institute of Physics Congressional Fellowship
- American Chemical Society Public Policy Fellowship .
- Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellowship
- American Meteorological Society Congressional Science Fellowship
- American Society for Microbiology Congressional Science Fellowship
These are great options for a transition out of academia to see what else is out there, specifically in relation to the government. But what if you don’t know if you want to leave and don’t want to dedicate at least a year to finding out? Well, there are options:
Congressional Visit Days – A number of scientific organizations sponsor congressional visits, or opportunities to take a day or two to visit with congressional members to see how science is translated into policy or legislation. This is the best option to “get your feet wet” and to get a taste of what happens here in D.C. Some options include:
- Science, Engineering, and Technology
- Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition
- American Geophysical Union – sponsors four separate visits
- Soil Science Society of American (I know, right?!)
If you’re looking for a more personalized experience that’s a bit more selective, the Ecological Society of America holds a competitive contest called the Graduate Student Policy Award. Selected students spend a couple days in D.C. meeting legislators and learning about policy in a smaller setting.
So what about that sweet spot? A couple days may not be enough, a year or two may be too long. You may ask, “Is there anything in the middle?” Why yes, yes there is. Enter the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellowship provided by the National Academies (Mirzayan Fellowship for short). The fellowship is 12 weeks, basically a spring semester, and for anyone on their way to (or in my case, having recently completed) they Ph.D. in some STEM field. You pick a few boards within the National Academies in which you’d be interested in working,** apply for the program, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. If selected, you make your way to D.C. for the spring and have the time of your life. The program is great and incredibly flexible. In addition to whatever duties you have on your board, the program administrators are passionate about fellows getting the full “D.C. experience”. See an interesting hearing that you’d like to attend? Go. Wanna attend some workshop at AAAS? Go. Need a picture with Einstein? Go, though perhaps after work hours. There are also ample opportunities to work with your fellow fellows and to discuss some of the pressing issues of the day. We had discussion groups on reproducible in science, keystone XL, wind energy and migratory birds, mental health, in grad school, and GMOs, just to name a few.The Academies are well-known and certainly helped a handful of fellows on their road to receiving AAAS fellowships. I’m convinced that it was crucial in helping me get my upcoming job. But perhaps most importantly, I came out with a fantastic group of friends and peers. Some people stayed in/returned to D.C. after the fellowship to pursue careers in science policy, but others returned to their respective institution to pursue academic careers, armed with the knowledge of how what they do matters. No matter what fellows decide after the fellowship, the skills and knowledge obtained is invaluable.
I’m biased, I understand. But I also come from a place of experience. In 2015 alone, I held five positions: two in science policy, one as an academic instructor, one at a gov’t agency, and now at an NGO. I’ve experienced more diversity professionally than most scientists at my career stage. Do I suggest my exact path? No. But, I do suggest stepping into the policy world in some capacity and there are so many ways to do it!
*Obviously this won’t happen so I have no problem recommending it knowing that the selection processes are fairly competitive.
**Suggestion – contact the board prior to listing them on your application to, 1) see if they’re accepting candidates, and 2) establish a rapport.