The Training Page: Policy Wonks
SPECIAL REPORT FROM FORMER FELLOWS
So You Want to Be a Science Policy Wonk?
Considering making the jump from the lab to a career in science policy? For many it is a tough decision to make (and may seem even harder to execute). For others it seems like a natural career progression. As two NIH postdocs who successfully made this leap of faith, we wanted to share a few tips we learned along the way.
When people start to think about science policy as a potential career path, one of the biggest questions that they often grapple with is, “What is science policy?” What you hear by chatting with people in the field makes it sound both interesting and exhilarating, but they often give very different answers about what they do on a daily basis. Science policy is often rather vaguely described as filling that space at the intersection of scientists, policymakers, and the public—a reflection of how nebulous a field it is.
In reality, what science policy actually is depends on which door you are looking through. In other words, it depends on where it is being done. There are many doorways into the science policy world—too many to cover here—but five of the key sectors are the government, the advocacy community (including professional societies), the Hill, academia, and think tanks. They all play different, but vital, roles in the science-policy arena, and what is the best fit for you will depend on many factors, including your personality, your skill set, and the reasons driving your desire to transition into this field.
For example, if you have a strong desire to draw attention to the need to increase funding for a particular research field or disease, then working for an advocacy organization in that field would be a good fit for you.
So what makes a great science-policy wonk? The good news is that science policy draws on many of the skills that have been honed by years in the lab. One of the most obvious prerequisites is of course good scientific literacy. We say “literacy” rather than “knowledge base” because you are likely to be quickly drawn into working on areas outside your expertise and you will need to able to rapidly become versed in those areas. That skill mirrors a more general ability to pick up new concepts quickly.
Two other key skill sets for which the lab provides a training ground are project management and analytical ability. For instance, the critical thinking involved in analyzing large datasets and evaluating others’ work translates well into day-to-day tasks such as assessing the potential impact of new policies on the research endeavor. Experience gained planning and coordinating experiments prepares you for a role in managing large projects, often on a short deadline, and often juggling several projects at once.
As hinted above, organizational skills are vital to this field. Because a large aspect of the science-policy arena is bringing in experts in the field to inform policy decisions, chances are that you will be involved in organizing conferences as well as in running committees or working groups. These interactive functions segue nicely into one of the key differences between the lab and science policy: Whereas research is essentially a lone endeavor (you might collaborate with others, but at the end of the day the research is yours and yours alone), policy is a team affair. Those who succeed in this career path are almost invariably good team players, well versed in the art of diplomacy.
Last, and by no means least, you have to be a good oral and written communicator to a variety of different audiences from the general public to Congress. Can you explain what dual-use research is to your grandma? Great—you’re in!
The transition from lab to policy is challenging, but with a thoughtful and informed strategy, advance preparation and a large dose of perseverance, landing that first job is possible. If you are like most NIH trainees, your training is designed to prepare you for a career as a researcher. Your advisor may not have an understanding of other science-related career paths, such as science policy, and your training program may not have resources that enable exploration of other options. As a result, it is up to you to take the initiative in charting your career trajectory. You’ll want to start in earnest right now, no matter where you are in your training, and ideally at least three years before your program ends.
An important thing to recognize is that although your scientific expertise and publications are important, they are not sufficient in today’s job market for any career path. Take a look at some science-policy analyst job postings on https://USAjobs.gov and at your favorite scientific societies and advocacy organizations. Although, as we mentioned, many of the skills developed as part of your training are translatable to a career in science policy, you will likely find that you lack several of the required or desired areas of experience for the job. Let these gaps guide you in the activities you choose to engage in to boost your resume.
Many of the additional experiences and skills needed to succeed in a science-policy career can be developed through extracurricular activities while completing your research training. For example, demonstrate that you are a versatile communicator and able to engage with lay audiences by building a writing portfolio of accessible and publicly engaged articles, including on topics outside your scientific expertise. Simple ways of doing this include blogging and writing for the NIH Catalyst, your professional society’s magazine, or graduate program newsletter. You can also get a taste of policy development through committee participation, for example, as a member of the NIH Fellows Committee (FelCom).
However, there is no substitute for work experience in this field. It will help you to make a fully informed decision about whether this transition is right for you and also make you a more-attractive candidate to prospective employers. Fellowships are a tried-and-tested route to gaining first-hand experience in the field and can last from as little as three months to as long as two years. For example, NIH hosts up to 40 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellows every year across our 27 institutes and centers.
Alternatively, you can set up your own part- or full-time work experience, such as volunteering at a scientific advocacy organization or the professional society for your scientific discipline, or detailing in one of the policy shops at your institute or elsewhere. As well as informing your decision to transition and turboboosting your résumé, these experiences will also help you build a reputation and develop important professional relationships. (Read the NIH Catalyst article on details.)
Speaking of which, in parallel with developing your skills and experience, developing professional relationships through networking is key to your career success, and most people (including us) will tell you that they got their job through networking. In today’s job market, building and sustaining a network is vital in the development of your professional identity. You can make connections through science-policy forums and meet-up groups, LinkedIn, and informational interviews. Ask your advisors, colleagues, and friends to recommend people you might ask for an informational interview. The goal of an information interview is to find out what someone’s job entails, how it fits into the function of their organization, and what their career path is like—not to get a job. To have a successful informational interview, do your research on the best questions to ask by reading articles and blogs that cover this topic.
Finally, as you proceed, be clear on why you have chosen a science-policy career path. If you have just three minutes to explain your passion, enthusiasm, and drive for a career in policy to a potential employer or professional contact, be prepared to make an impact. A future job, fellowship, or other opportunity might be in the wings!
This page was last updated on Monday, April 25, 2022