Postdocs have few years to identify career goals, strengthen CVs, and construct a professional network, all while working full time in the lab. Given the current situation in academia, most of us will end up in what used to be considered alternative careers. There is a long list of non-academic careers; we just have to know where to look and how to market ourselves. For the creative communicators among us, science writing is an option. For those interested in protecting public health, a career in regulatory affairs could be appropriate. If you fancy leaving the bench but find neither appealing, consider a career in science policy.
What is science policy? It sounds sexy to most postdocs, but few can accurately define it. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), science policy establishes guidelines and regulations for the practice and conduct of science. This includes the development of STEM educational programs as well as research and development funding priorities and directions. Scientists must contribute to the federal policymaking process. Who better to identify, evaluate, and meet difficult challenges facing society from a scientific perspective? Unfortunately, we are trained to communicate in academic prose, and most of us have little experience relating science to lay audiences. For a job that typically entails a hefty amount of writing, management, communication and coordination with non-scientists, this creates a daunting barrier for postdocs interested in policy.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to get your foot in the door, but it takes considerable time and effort. Science policy fellowships teach scientists about the intersection of science and technology policy to help us develop basic skills essential for working in policy at the federal, state, or local level.
The gold standard in policy fellowships are the AAAS Science Policy and Technology Fellowship Program and the National Academies Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. Both are highly competitive with very specific criteria. Only US citizens are eligible to apply for the AAAS Fellowship, although they can be early or late career scientists. Both US and non-US citizens can apply for the National Academies fellowship, but they must be within five years of receiving a PhD.
The AAAS program is a yearlong fellowship in one of five areas at either Congressional offices or federal agencies. The National Academies fellowship is a 12-week program at one of the National Academies facilities.
There are other fellowship opportunities offered by specialized societies as well. For example, the James Marshall Public Policy Fellowship at the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. Or the Hellman Fellowship in Science and Technology Policy offered by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Also, there is the Materials Research Society’s Congressional Fellowship.
While fellowships are customarily how scientists break into the world of science policy, they’re not the only way. Internships offer an alternative route. AAAS sponsors several internship opportunities, including the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program.
Some internships are unpaid though, like the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies’ Science and Technology Policy Internships. However, paid opportunities do exist, like Research America’s Science Policy Fellowship.
If fellowships and internships don’t work out, volunteering for science policy committees is a great way to get involved in your free time. Most professional societies have advocacy or policy interest groups for members. To name a few, the Society for Neuroscience has a committee on Government and Public Affairs, the National Postdoctoral Association has an Advocacy Committee and the Association for Women in Science has an Advocacy and Public Policy committee.
No matter how you enter science policy, the job requirements are the same. You must have a broad knowledge of science and science policy, excellent verbal and written communication skills, analytical abilities, and experience in project management. The bulk of your responsibilities will include writing briefs and speeches and communicating with scientists, lawmakers, and the public. Your professional title will come from an assortment of flavors, including Public Health Analyst, Program Officer, Public Affairs Director, Health Science Policy Analyst or Senior Policy Analyst.
Keep in mind that working in policy will probably place you in the Washington, DC area. Science policy jobs in government are found on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and at the National Institutes of Health. Of course, academic departments at universities also need science policy officers. There is a market for science policy officers at non-profit organizations and think tanks as well, like the American Heart Association, Friends of Cancer Research, and the New York Academy of Sciences.
If you want to serve society by offering your expertise to policy-makers and influencing legislative issues, then a career in science policy is a perfect fit.