With many graduate students and postdocs looking for career opportunities outside the laboratory, science policy is becoming an increasingly popular field. I won’t go in to the basic details of what the field entails and the different types of organizations and jobs involved (there are plenty of posts here and elsewhere that cover this), but I wanted to address a common question from those considering seeking a career in the field: how do I even get in to science policy?
The well-trodden path for PhD research scientists to enter science policy is through fellowship programs operated by AAAS (Science & Technology Policy Fellowships) and The National Academies (Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Policy Fellowship). These fellowships allow scientists with PhDs to gain experience in either the US federal government (AAAS, via a 1-2 year program) or a component of the National Academies (12 week program). Thanks to the prestige, longevity and alumni of these programs, many fellowship graduates move easily in to science policy positions throughout the US. Again, more detailed information on these fellowships can be found elsewhere. Both programs are highly competitive, have citizenship and age/experience requirements, and require a substantial commitment. What about those people who aren’t eligible? How about those who just want to get a taste of science policy to see whether it might be for them?
Thankfully, there are a number of ways to break in to science policy. I say “break in” deliberately – if your ultimate goal is to get a position in science policy, you’ll need a way to convince an employer that you have the skills and personality necessary to successfully negotiate a move from a field you’re well established in (laboratory research) to something different (science policy). While it’s true that a PhD gives you many transferrable skills (e.g., project management, communication), these skills are found in most PhD graduates. A potential employer will want to see evidence of something that sets you apart from other applicants, particularly given the competition for positions and the sheer number of PhDs who “think they might like to try science policy”. In short, you need some way of convincing an employer that you’re worth taking a chance on.
The key is getting some experience. This demonstrates your genuine interest in policy, as well as showing you have some aptitude for doing the sort of tasks required. Where can this experience be gained?
A somewhat hidden resource is professional societies. Most large scientific societies (e.g., Society for Neuroscience, American Society for Cell Biology) have public policy offices or staff members. Some organizations and groups (e.g., Research! America) offer formalized science policy fellowships or internships. However, if you’re not able to commit the time required, many societies will be happy for the offer of volunteer time to work with their policy team. The same goes for many universities and institutes – most will have a federal relations or policy office that may be willing to take you on as a volunteer. Again, some institutes will offer the possibility for more formal detail/secondment/internship arrangements, but this will depend on their needs and the willingness of your research supervisor. The advantage to offering to work with these groups is thatit is often possible to combine with your research work, allowing you to gain some valuable experience and get a sense of the sort of work involved in science policy, without needing to commit fully to leaving research (or lose your income stream!).
In addition to policy specific experience, a key skill for anyone working in science policy is the ability to write well. With this in mind, any sort of extra activities that demonstrate your writing skills will be very valuable. Writing scientific manuscripts doesn’t really count, as the type of writing involved in policy is often for readers without detailed technical knowledge of the topic. Instead, look for opportunities to write for lay or non-specialist audiences. Again, professional societies commonly publish newsletters for their members that are in need of content, and university or institute communications offices often do the same. Graduate student and postdoc communities also may have newsletters or journals that are looking for writers or editors. And if they don’t, there’s always the option to start your own!
Clearly, these are only some preliminary ideas for how to explore the transition from the bench to policy. As with any non-research career, talking to those who have already made the transition is an invaluable resource. Most people who have moved from the lab into policy received advice or help from others during their transition, and are therefore more than happy to talk to people just setting out. Contacting people and asking if you can conduct an informational interview about their career is an excellent way to start.