As my pre-doctoral sentence of four-to-six-years-with-time-off-for-80-hour-work-weeks was coming to a joyful conclusion, I started to look for opportunities.
I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Nights and weekends of caring for my research subjects, cup-o-noodle dinners in the med student lounge, and endless hours of counting fluorescently labeled cells and sitting at the electrophys rig would soon be a fond memory. I knew I didn’t want to go the academic route, and had little interest in pursuing a career in bench science.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a pretty successful graduate career. I was awarded a Ruth L. Kirschstein Institutional National Research Service Award (NRSA) through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). And I found a certain amount of comfort and freedom in having my own grant funding. I produced three first-author peer-reviewed primary research articles, a handful of supporting author articles, and a healthy number of conference abstracts.
One of my early publications even made the cover page of a pretty high-impact journal. Well, one of the images from the article made it to the cover. I participated in several graduate program committees, including the Carnegie Initiative for the Doctorate. I was even a “Research Finalist” at a National Conference.
My lab-mates were top-notch, brilliant people from amazingly diverse backgrounds, and I had two mentors, one of whom was nothing short of fabulous, and the other who was a bit of a nightmare. But that’s a topic for another time.
I knew quite a few scientists who took alternative routes after receiving their doctorates or completing the first of potentially endless postdocs. One of the alums from my lab went on to be a very successful science editor, working for a top-tier journal. Several went on to become consultants. Another took a patent examiner position at the U.S. Patent Office, where he still works over a decade later. Sure, plenty of my misery-loves-company-comrades-in-arms went on to have very successful careers in the lab, either in pharma, or climbing the ivory tower toward tenure. But I knew that wasn’t my calling.
As I was combing the internet for options, a woman in my program, and a dear friend to this day, told me that she had been awarded a fellowship in science and technology policy. She suggested that I apply. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I applied for the Science and Technology Policy Fellowship sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the same AAAS that publishes the highly-respected peer-reviewed journal Science. AAAS also aims to advance science through global outreach, policy and advocacy, and press and public engagement. Part of that includes a list of Fellowship opportunities.
The Science and Technology Policy Fellowships “provide opportunities for scientists and engineers to learn first-hand about policymaking while contributing their knowledge and analytical skills in the federal policy realm.”
Now, the Fellowships have evolved a bit since I applied in 2006, but I think I can still provide some insight about the experience, including the application process. If you’re reading this, and are intrigued, you should know that applications are open from May through November of each year, with a staged application and interview process. The pay is pretty good, especially if you’re fresh out of grad school. Note, however, that Fellows are at all stages of their careers, with cohorts including bushy-tailed recently-conferred professionals, mid-career scientists looking for new directions, and tenured professors on sabbatical.
The process itself is a little nerve-wracking. The fellowship slots are very competitive, but more seem to be awarded with each passing year. This provides a deep sense of comfort for me, knowing that exceptional scientists are being strategically placed all over the government and in congressional offices to help guide policy and develop research and development programs, at the rate of a couple hundred per year.
But I digress; back to the nerve-wracking part.
The first step is to decide which Fellowships are a good fit for you, technically and culturally. There are Executive, Congressional, and Judicial Branch Fellowships, in seven program areas: Congressional; Diplomacy, Security, & Development; Energy, Environment & Agriculture; Health, Education, and Human Services; Big Data & Analytics; Judicial Branch; Global Stewardship; and Alumni Fellowships. You can apply for one or two fellowship program areas, as long as you meet the eligibility requirements, including U.S. citizenship. The application is no joke, and requires a good deal of effort. You also need letters of recommendation, so stay in good graces with your mentors and bosses.
Once you successfully submit your application, you nervously check your Inbox every day until notifications go out in November. The Fellowships use a peer-review selection process. When you’re chosen to move forward, you’re notified. But then you exercise best practices in thumb-twittling until February, when you’re notified of the interview process. Semi-finalist interviews (yes, that’s correct, semi-finalist) occur in the February-March timeframe, with finalist interviews in April. Phew!
Continued nerve-wracking. Ok, so you’re a finalist. But you’re still not a Fellow. Part of being a Finalist means you have to interview with potential placement offices. That’s right, you’ll be working in a Department of Defense agency, or on the Hill in a Congressional Office, at the NIH or NSF, at the Department of Homeland Security, USAID, State, EPA, NOAA… I think you get the picture. Depending on which Fellowships you apply to, and which offices might be a good fit, you’ll either be working in policy or program management.
So you’re invited to interview at a list of offices, and are given the opportunity to set up additional interviews for offices you’re interested in. You spend a week running all over the beautiful Washington D.C. Metro Area, hopping from one interview to the next. And then… drumroll, please… you get your placement. Maybe. There’s a matching process, where interviewers rack and stack their top picks, and interviewees do the same. It’s rare that a finalist doesn’t get picked by an office, but it does happen.
Placement offers are extended in the May-June timeframe, and Fellowships begin in September. So – it seems like a whole lot of effort and energy, right? To maybe be awarded a placement after months of investment. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
I was placed in a DOD Agency, and ended up having a wonderful mentor, a U.S. Navy Commander on her way to Captain, with a doctorate. She was exceptional, and possibly the best mentor I’ve ever had. I learned a lot about how the Federal government works in terms of science and technology research and development.
I learned more than I wanted to know about Presidential budgets, Congressional appropriations, the Office of Management and Budget, and Continuing Resolutions. I was provided with a real education in program and project management, and had the opportunity to kick-start, manage, and transition some really cool programs in medical research prevention, treatment, and device development for a range of injuries and illnesses to help our Warfighters.
I swam in acronyms and developed a completely new lexicon. I met some truly impressive people, both within the AAAS Fellowship, and in the course of my placement. And networking was par for the course. And coming from a purely basic research background, it was supremely satisfying to see real applications of applied science making it to the field.
The Fellowship is a one-year gig, with the option to extend for a second year. In my first year, I was head-hunted (sort of) by a Maryland-based start-up. They were looking for a Scientist to be the founding Director of their Science and Technology Division. I spent the next five years in that role, taking on additional responsibilities as the DC Metro Region Director of Business Development, and the Founding Chair of the Science and Technology Center of Excellence. In other words, the Fellowship opened new doors for me. And I’m now part of a larger community of Fellows that I can call on when I need to.
There are, of course, other Fellowships out there. But I think that the AAAS Fellowship is the most immersive experience you can have in this area. It’s competitive because it’s worth the effort. It’s well-known and highly respected, and every Fellow I’ve ever talked with, active or alumni, has never had anything but positive things to say about the experience. If you think you might be interested in science policy or program management, I sincerely and whole-heartedly suggest you consider this Fellowship.
Link to AAAS Fellowship: http://www.aaas.org/page/fellowships