Monday, October 21, 2013

Careers outside academia: After the science policy fellowship

I have been involved in discussions of non-academic careers (yes, it's problematic wording - substitute "diverse" or your favorite term of art as you wish) for longer than I'd like to admit. As a graduate student 10-15 years ago, I started a student section of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), my primary professional society. As a student, I also organized a career workshop for several years at the annual meeting, and the tradition continued beyond my tenure with the section (which is super awesomely active these days). Increasingly, I find myself on the same kinds of panels I once organized - including one at ESA this summer.

There is a lot to say about these workshops and panels, but one of the most interesting to me over the years has become how frequently a singular piece of advice is given to students interested in careers outside of academia over and over again. And that advice is to do a science policy fellowship (whether it be AAAS or the Presidential Management Fellows or Knauss Sea Grant). I will undoubtedly write about my own experience as a AAAS science and technology policy fellow in the future (turns out younger me wrote about it here), but for now I raise it only to say that I have also increasingly been having side conversations with other folks that have done these fellowships, as well as some very savvy graduate students, that are more along the lines of okay, what comes *after* the fellowship?

I sense a student frustration with this being the main advice that they receive for several reasons: they are interested in opportunities *during* graduate school, many folks can't or don't want to pick up and move to DC for a year or two (yes, there are some state level opportunities, but most are DC-based), and the opportunities have been limited to government agencies (I understand this might be changing with AAAS at least). I'm sure there are many other reasons.

I also sense a frustration coming from those of us who have done the fellowships because if we continue to offer that as the main piece of advice, it tends to stunt the conversation and keep it from moving into richer territory about what it means to be a scientist practitioner. And there is a big discussion to be had - I'm going to try to articulate pieces of this in future posts, but for now I think it has to with a need for professional identity and community once the fellowship has ended.

There are probably multiple solutions for these challenges, and I'm going to try to dig into some of them as time goes on. One I am interested in is what a professional training program for graduate students in the natural sciences might look like - more akin to an MD or a JD, both of which have strong clinical /practice components. And for those of us already in these kinds of careers, I am interested in ways that we might be better able to connect with each other. By dint of our diverse careers, we are a scattered group, but for the peers that I do manage to find and interact with regularly, the support is priceless.

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