Policy Careers for PhDs

By Erin Wenzel, PhD
PhD Candidate in Pharmacology

As more and more PhD’s pursue careers outside of academia, science policy has emerged as a viable and popular career path for those with doctoral degrees. Many people think of science policy as working on Capitol Hill with Congress; however, science policy is a multi-faceted field with many entry points.

There are two primary ways that science and policy primarily intersect. First is to use science for policy, which is utilizing scientific data and evidence to provide recommendations regarding legislature. Second is policy for science, which aims to improve scientific research, funding, or communication through legislation.

There are numerous opportunities at the national, state/local, and institutional level to get involved in science policy during your PhD or soon thereafter. This post aims to help you recognize the different levels at which you can be involved in science policy or advocacy, and to provide a list of resources to help you get started.

Federal Science Policy Opportunities

Two main science policy opportunities in the federal government are the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program and the Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship program at the National Academy of Science. The first, PMF program is a two-year fellowship where recent graduates are placed in all branches of the federal government. This highly competitive fellowship has a two-week application period every fall and has opportunities in policy and beyond. The second, the Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship is a 12-week appointment in DC for current students or recent graduates. Fellows are placed in units of the National Academies of Science within the Policy and Global Affairs Division, Health and Medicine Division, or Division on Earth and Life Sciences among others. If you aren’t ready to commit to a fellowship, consider leaving public comments on legislation. These opportunities will often be posted online by science policy groups.

National scientific organizations also recognize the value of science policy training and have supported the transition for PhD students or post-doctoral fellows to away from the bench. The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) organizes Hill Day to advocate to congressional representatives regarding funding for basic science research and the Rally for Medical Research in the fall. AACR has also started the AACR Science Policy Fellowship with hopes to expand in the near future. Other opportunities include, the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) Washington Fellows Program and the American Chemical Society’s Science Policy Fellowship and Congressional Fellowship to provide insight into science policy careers. I recommend checking with your society to see if they have their own sponsored science policy fellowship.

Events and Networking Opportunities

In DC, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is one of the most significant organizations aiming to bridge the gap between science and policy. AAAS hosts many science policy events with the goal of connecting scientists, policymakers, and communicators. For example, their Annual Meeting (February), Science Diplomacy Conference (September), or Forum on Science & Technology (May) all offer opportunities to become involved in science policy and engage with like-minded scientists. Additionally, every year Georgetown sponsors several graduate students to attend the AAAS Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering workshop (March).

Additionally, AAAS has a Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (AAAS STPF), a competitive program (application opens in October) that places fellows at several government agencies including the National Institutes of Health, Health and Human Services, Department of Defense, or the National Science Foundation.

State/Local Science Policy Opportunities

State governments are increasingly seeking people with PhDs to advise on the use of science for policy and provide support for data-driven recommendations of legislation. Two such programs are the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) Science Fellows Program and the Eagleton Science and Politics Fellowship in New Jersey. These fellowships do not require your degree in hand when applying, only by the start date of the fellowship. More states are developing these programs to place PhDs in their state legislature.

If you want to focus locally in your city (or district), there are groups and resources already in place to help you succeed. Join the Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy (ESEP) Coalition or the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) to stay up-to-date on local events and chapters. Both of these organizations and many others are active on Twitter (@ESEPCoalition and @scipolnetwork).

Institutional Science Policy Opportunities

At the institutional level, you can get involved in student groups and advocate for yourself and other graduate students to gain experience in science policy and advocacy. You can create your own student group to address a need you see in the student body. For example, as part of a science policy group, you could organize guest speakers, congressional visits, or even write policy on your own. A good resource to help with this is your school’s Government/Federal Relations representative. They have insights into how your school and governmental institutions interact and can help you find specific opportunities relevant to your goal.  At Georgetown, the Medical Center Graduate Student Organization and the Women in Science and Education are two organizations that promote advocacy for the graduate student body and host science policy related events.

In conclusion, whether you want to engage on a national, state, local, or institutional level, there are numerous opportunities for PhD students or post-doctoral fellows to get involved in science policy.

Erin Wenzel

By Erin Wenzel
Erin Wenzel is a fifth year PhD student in the Pharmacology Department. She studies the molecular mechanisms behind HIV-associated Neurocognitive Disorder and researches potential drug therapies. She’s passionate about communication of basic science research, graduate student advocacy, and science policy opportunities.

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