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Applying Your Ph.D. Skills to Careers in Science Policy

A 2017 survey of 5,700 graduate students showed that 52% of respondents were planning on a career in academia. Despite the interest, tenure-track positions are only available for approximately 12.8% of new Ph.D. graduates.

One sector in which a growing number of postdoctoral fellows are seeking, and finding, careers is science policy. For many, a career in science policy can actually be a better-suited, more fulfilling career path. Several transferrable skills acquired in previous training can also be assets in science policy including multitasking, communicating complex science to nonexpert audiences, and managing multiple complicated projects. For trainees interested in exploring this career option and becoming more competitive in a science-policy job search, the NIH intramural research program can help.

Ten years ago, then-postdoc Kristofor Langlais (now the Genomics and Health Program lead in the NIH Office of Science Policy) and then–graduate student Sandra Chapman (now a program officer at the Office of Naval Research) established the NIH Science Policy Discussion Group (SPDG). The Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) serves in an advisory role. Since its beginnings, SPDG has met twice a month from October through June.

For some meetings, members invite guest speakers who are experienced in science policy and can offer a glimpse into the policy world of science. Most meetings consist of small-group discussions in which members discuss topics relevant to their interests in science policy. The group is completely trainee-run and is currently co-chaired by postdoctoral fellows Mary Weston (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases) and Lynda Truong (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute).

“Beyond the exposure to science policy, SPDG also provides an intellectual outlet for scientists who are curious about the intersection of research and policy,” said Weston. “We’ve had fantastic speakers from a range of fields, and the discussions are useful both to fellows pursuing a career in science policy and to fellows simply interested in learning more about how science can impact policy.”

SPDG members also have the opportunity to hone their writing skills by contributing to a public blog, Science Policy for All. Writing for the blog is “a chance to explore a policy topic of their choosing,” said Truong. Members also have the opportunity to peer-review these essays before they are posted.

Many former SPDG members have gone on to participate in the American Association for the Advancement of Science Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) and subsequently moved into a wide range of policy jobs in government and industry. In September 2019, a former SPDG member and postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Aging, Calais S. Prince, began an STPF appointment with the United States Department of Defense.

“The best advice that I can give is to determine whether you are interested in science for policy or policy for science. Once you know your interest, then you can participate in activities that will give you the experience you need for the next step,” Prince said. “There are so many lessons I learned from my time as a postdoc. The most important was to take advantage of the resources available through your training office and OITE. I said ‘Yes’ to as many opportunities as I could without sacrificing lab time or time with my family.”

Weston offered similar advice: “The OITE is a wonderful resource for fellows interested in pursuing science policy careers.”

OITE’s “annual career symposium, which is hosted every May, always features panelists of scientists working in policy,” Truong added. “And [OITE] frequently host[s] events for a variety of career paths including science policy. Taking advantage of these events is a good first step to learning more about the realm of science policy and expanding your network to include other scientists interested or working in the policy realm.”


For more information about the NIH Science Policy Discussion Group, visit the SPDG website at https://www.training.nih.gov/spdg. OITE emails an application announcement to fellows each August with specific deadlines. In the meantime, check out the resources on the website. For more information, contact Lynda Truong (lynda.truong@nih.gov) or Mary Weston (mary.weston@nih.gov).

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