Image: Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories, Khartoum, c. 1920
Plenty of science Ph.D.swind up in careers outside of academia. By reading about their experiences, graduate students and postdocs may get a better sense of their options and how to make the transition away from bench science. Here, in the latest of a series of interviews, Vitae columnist Viviane Callier talks with Chris Pickett, a science policy analyst at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).
Describe your career trajectory. How did you get to where you are now? And how does your job relate to skills you gained in graduate studies?
I was a graduate student at the University of Utah, and graduated in 2006 with a Ph.D. in oncological sciences, and then I did a postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis for five years. It was as a postdoc that I realized that I really had a passion for policy. Looking back, I was always interested in politics and policy; I always voted, even in midterm elections, even for guys I didn’t think would win. I felt it was my duty to go out and be part of the process.
I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia, and I was really interested in what the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation were doing about graduate-student and postdoc issues. So I started to investigate a variety of options and came upon policy fellowships, and there are quite a few such programs out there. Eventually I got an interview with ASBMB, and became a policy fellow there in 2012. And then, after a year and a half, they hired me on full time as a policy analyst. I’ve been here for a little more than three years now.
As far as skills I gained in my graduate studies, there are quite a few. Of course I’m not doing western blots anymore, and I’m thankful for that. But there’s a lot of critical thinking and communication skills that go into policy work — understanding how things will work out in Congress regarding funding or other policy issues and understanding how agencies like NIH and NSF will interpret laws and pass regulations. For the most part, what I focus on is how policy affects scientists — funding issues, training issues, regulatory burden issues. We try to stay on top of any number of conversations that are going on at federal agencies and Congress to try to shape them for the benefit of our members. Our job is to notify our members of what is going on, and inform the federal agencies about what our members want and need.
What kind of experience is needed to do the job you have now?
If you’re coming from the lab bench, you need to have good communication skills. You need to be comfortable relating what you know to a variety of audiences. Typically, the work you’ll do in policy has very little to do with your specific research area. In addition to communication skills, critical thinking skills — and the tenacity that you learn in the lab to pursue lines of investigation to their logical conclusion — are also necessary in policy.
Aside from that, you don’t need anything specific, policywise, to get into science policy. What you need to have is a passion for policy, and a commitment to a policy career path.
When I was applying for positions, a lot of places would ask: “What do you plan to do after the fellowship?” And I would say, “I don’t know. I really like policy, but who knows?” And I never got any callbacks. It wasn’t until I started saying, “I’m interested in policy, and I’m going to have a career in policy, I’m committed to it. I would love to have the opportunity to have a fellowship with you to start it off right, but either way I will have a career in policy,” that I was successful. So I think you need to be clearly committed and passionate about what you are doing.
What are some ways that current graduate students or postdocs might explore their interest in policy?
One thing I tell people to do to improve their CV is to do some nontechnical writing. Writing is a huge part of policy work — whether it is blog posts, position statements, press releases, or anything like that. They are all targeted to different audiences, but it is always nontechnical. It’s a very important skill to have. I recommend people try to write a letter to the editor of their local newspaper, because you get 250 words to introduce an issue, articulate your argument, and convince the reader in a very short space. That’s very hard to do when you’re used to writing 20- to 25-page papers.
You can also participate in “Hill Days.” ASBMB puts on a Capitol Hill Day once a year, for which we bring in people from all over the country to talk to their members of Congress about why funding research is important, not just nationally, but also to their district and state.
Another thing you can do is pick up the phone and call members of Congress and give them your opinion on science funding or some other scientific issue. They’ll listen, because you’re the constituent. It’s a great way to find out if you enjoy that kind of thing — and if you do, then policy might be right for you.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
I often wish that I had realized what I wanted to do earlier. I could have gotten out of academe earlier and not done five years of postdoc work. I think I would have tried to come to some of these realizations sooner, talked to more people, networked better.
At what point did you know you didn’t want a career in bench science and why did you decide to leave? Was it because of the lousy job market? Because of academic culture? Or because you didn’t like teaching or research?
In graduate school I was convinced that I wanted to be a PI. It was when I graduated that things started to change. After I graduated — and before I moved on to my postdoc at Wash U — I stayed in my graduate lab for a few months, and I realized that I enjoyed going home at 5 p.m. I enjoyed not reading many many papers every week.
For me, it wasn’t the job market or academic culture. It was that I didn’t have the passion for academia anymore. And I realized that before I got interested in policy. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I started to do other things. For example, I taught genetics as an adjunct for a semester. I helped teach some grant-writing courses, just trying to figure out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.
What would you change about doctoral education in the sciences to better prepare people for multiple career paths?
The biomedical workforce is my passion and why I got involved in science policy in the first place. The BEST program at the NIH is a great program, and I would love to see it expanded across the country.
Giving students a realistic idea of their chances of getting a faculty position, but also giving them opportunities to explore what they might do with a Ph.D. once they leave, would be tremendously valuable — not just to them but to the research enterprise as a whole. … That’s something that’s been lacking for a long time, and could be a substantial improvement. If there were a one-semester course that met for an hour, once a week, and was required for second-year graduate students, where they learned about a variety of careers available to them — I think that would be hugely valuable.
I also think there needs to be clarity about the purpose of training graduate students and postdocs. They are called trainees, but what are they training for? What are we trying to impart to these people? Is it simply how to do a restriction digest? If so, then we need to be clear about that. If it’s training to be a PI, then we need to be clear about that, too. I personally think the training should be about getting a rigorous scientific background, and then going on and doing other things that improve the research enterprise, but that’s just me. Clarity in the training mission is very important, and I think clarity would go a long way in helping everybody involved.
So did you even need a Ph.D. to get to where you are now? And if the answer is no, are there ways in which having one helps?
You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to be a science policy analyst. I know people who have a political-science background who are doing this work. That said, having firsthand experience in the lab is important, because people who’ve been at the bench can relate those experiences to policymakers so that we get a well-rounded advocacy effort. And if you are in science and you want to do a fellowship, then you do need a Ph.D., because most policy fellowship programs require candidates to have a Ph.D.
Where are policy analysts typically employed?
Pretty much every federal agency will have lots of Ph.D.s working in policy — not just NIH or NSF. For example, the State Department will employ Ph.D.s for science diplomacy issues. Scientific societies also employ policy analysts, although it’s more hit or miss because they tend to be small. At ASBMB, we have about 40 people, and three of us work in policy.
Beyond that, almost all universities have government-relations offices that employ policy analysts. Companies also typically have some kind of government-relations office. And some companies outsource their policy work to lobbying firms in the DC area. The lobbyists work with different clients (universities, nonprofits, etc.), and lobby on their behalf.