Image: Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories, Khartoum, c. 1920
In the sciences, many Ph.D.s opt for careers outside of academe. 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 Noël Bakhtian, former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and former energy-water nexus lead at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Describe your career trajectory. How did you get to where you are now?
Bakhtian: I started as an undergraduate in mechanical engineering and physics at Duke. When I graduated, I was awarded a Churchill Scholarship for a year of study at the University of Cambridge in Britain, where I completed an M.Phil. in engineering doing wind-tunnel research on bird flight for unmanned aerial vehicles. Then I went back to the States and did my master’s and Ph.D. at Stanford in aeronautics and astronautics engineering. I did most of my research out at NASA’s Ames Research Center with its advanced-computing division, coming up with a new entry, descent, and landing technology for Mars missions.
At Stanford, one course in particular ended up really changing my path. It was Professor Windham’s “Science and Technology Policy” class, where we learned the difference between “science for policy” and “policy for science,” talked about the intersections between government and academia, and learned about budgets and international affairs. We also learned about really interesting opportunities in the policy space for engineers. And the rest is history. As I was finishing my Ph.D. in 2012, I applied for a AAAS fellowship that brings STEM Ph.D.s to Washington to work in Congress and in the executive-branch agencies, and I ended up loving it so much that I stayed.
What was your fellowship experience like?
Bakhtian: For my first year, I did a fellowship on the Hill, working in the office of a Senator. That year, there wasn’t actually a lot of demand for space-policy fellows, so I decided to move into the energy and environment world, something that I had always been interested in. I so enjoyed that 30,000-foot view of the E&E sector that, for my second year, I took a position at the Energy department, working in the wind-and-water-power office where I got to focus on innovative funding mechanisms for research and development in renewable energies. I was technical lead on projects like the wave energy prize and the wind energy incubator.
Then I took a position — still at DOE — in its international-affairs office, where I was asked to start up and manage the department’s portfolio of international projects at the intersection of water and energy policy. It was really an amazing year, being on the front lines, at the beginning stages of major bilateral and multilateral partnerships between the U.S. and partners such as China, Israel, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, and the European Union.
Then this past year, I got the opportunity to work in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to focus on a lot of the same things: the water-energy-food nexus, energy innovation, and also the Arctic.
You did some policy work for the Palo Alto City Council when you were still in graduate school. How does that compare with the policy work you do now in Washington?
Bakhtian: I’ve worked at different levels of government now — at the local level and at the very highest level of federal government at the White House. What I’ve learned is that at the local level, although the decision-making affects a smaller amount of people, you can see the change happening. At the highest levels, the decisions you’re making are broad and can have lasting influence for years across the country and even the world, but it’s harder to point to direct impacts, especially for work involving R&D budgets or science diplomacy.
How does the work you do relate to skills you gained in your graduate studies?
Bakhtian: People take this for granted but, as Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines, we are learning how to think logically, how to solve problems, how to work in teams, how to think across disciplines. That is a translational set of skills that is really valued everywhere. Other skills that helped were things like being able to: communicate complicated science-and-technology concepts simply and concisely; zoom both out and in to understand the whole picture; multitask and complete tasks on schedule; and confidently voice concerns and suggest solutions.
Other skills key to the work I’m doing I’ve had to learn on the job — such as how federal agencies and Congress function, how to write a strategy and implement it, and how to run interagency working groups.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Bakhtian: People in grad school end up being in their own little bubble. It’s not their fault; it’s just the way the system works. But I wish that — early on in my studies — I’d started digging into how my research would be applied in real life and bringing different stakeholders into my projects. I did work with aerospace companies in my last few years of graduate school, but I wish I’d been thinking about the bigger picture the whole time: What does the private sector need? What does the government need? What do associations, think tanks, and nonprofits need in order to make the change I envision? How can I be working across the whole scope of stakeholders during my research to make this a strengthened research project? It’s important to gain awareness of the bigger ecosystem in which research is happening.
At what point did you know you didn’t want a tenure-track job?
Bakhtian: For me, it was subtle. In the last years of my doctoral program, NASA had shut down the space shuttle, and there was discussion about limited U.S. participation in the International Space Station in the future. So I decided to take a year-long fellowship in DC to learn how these decisions are being made and how scientists in the field can influence policy decisions like that. And I ended up enjoying the science policy world so much that one year turned into four years.
What would you change about doctoral education to better prepare people for all the careers that are out there?
Bakhtian: It’s important to gain exposure to nontraditional paths, get outside of the academic bubble, and just learn more about how your specialty has the potential to change the world.
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?
Bakhtian: You definitely do not need a Ph.D. to do science and technology policy in general, although having one can help. I actually did need a Ph.D. to get where I am now, because without it, I wouldn't have been eligible for the AAAS fellowship.
Any career advice for graduate students or postdocs looking for their next step?
Bakhtian: A few things come to mind:
- Learn how to translate what you do into nonacademic language in a 30-second elevator pitch, with an emphasis on how it is useful outside the academic world.
- Take internships with nontraditional stakeholders, and try something outside your path, just to see how that world works and how it might affect your world. It will all be of value, even if you stay in the path that you’re on now.
- Keep a running list of jobs that you’re interested in. Over time, I have grown a list of job positions that sounded interesting to me. Then, when I was looking for a job, I’d go back to that list and do some research: Who has that job now? What is their background? And how did they get there?
- Finally, do some informational interviews. They are a really powerful tool. You’re not asking for a job, you’re just asking to grab coffee with someone and learn about their career path and what their life is like. It’s a great way to learn more about what that person does and how they got there, which can be valuable to you as you decide your next steps.