July 2012

‘I didn’t even know what skills I needed for a career in science policy’

Editor’s note: Shortly after Pickett’s essay was accepted for publication, he was informed by the ASBMB public affairs staff that he had been chosen as the next ASBMB science policy fellow. He starts his new job in mid-July.

“I have absolutely no idea how to help you with that.”

That was the response from my postdoc adviser after I told him I had decided to pursue a career in science policy. He was supportive, but he knew even less than I did when it came to finding a policy job. That’s about the time the excitement over all the career opportunities lying in front of me began to mix with the terror of trying to find a job-shaped needle buried in a very large and unfamiliar haystack.

Like most biology postdocs, I was well trained in the specialties of my lab — the genetics of C. elegans, high-power microscopy and the voodoo that is polymerase chain reaction. So when it came time to start looking for a job that required none of these skills, I was at a loss as to where to start. I thought crafting my résumé would jump-start my search, but I quickly became discouraged when I realized that even the most inventive descriptions of my lab experience (wearily trudging into lab on the weekends shows that I’m highly motivated, right?) weren’t enough to cover the gaping holes in my qualifications. Ever the optimist, I puffed out my chest and began to build my skill set. And that was when I realized something far more daunting: I didn’t even know what skills I needed for a career in science policy.

As a lifelong student, my first instinct was to find a class or program that would introduce me to policy work and teach me the skills needed to get a job in this field. I was looking for something geared toward a life sciences Ph.D. with aspirations beyond the bench, something between a one-hour seminar and a semester-long undergraduate class and something more interactive than a book. I was looking for a collaborative program between nonscience and science departments that would prepare newly minted Ph.D.s and postdocs for careers inside and outside of academia. Instead, what I found was that my postdoc institution, which has trained thousands of other professionals for nonscience careers, had no such training program.

Having to cobble together my own job training, I embarked on two years of extensive research, myriad mistakes and many failed job applications. There were some bright spots, though. I found a group on campus that helped Ph.D.s network their way to a new job. This team, led by university career counselors, gathered weekly to discuss job searches and share the contact information of experts in various fields. Thanks to this group, I was able to piece together a team of career mentors that assisted me in improving my résumé and finding organizations that fit my career goals.

Nevertheless, I remain confused as to why scientists constantly have to reinvent job training. On one hand, Ph.D. students and postdocs are becoming increasingly disenchanted with academia, while on the other hand career academicians bemoan the media, government and just about any other entity that “doesn’t get it” when it comes to understanding research. Collaborative job-training programs would address both problems by providing the training needed for young scientists to bridge the gulf between academia and the general public. For example, Ph.D.s trained in communications and journalism could engage the public online and through the media to rally public support for academic research. Collaborative job-training programs would allow young Ph.D.s to weave their science interests together with their interests in government, communications, education and so forth. Such programs have the potential to strengthen academic research while saving young Ph.D.s like myself time, money and a whole lot of heartache.


Chris Pickett

Chris Pickett (cpickett@wustl.edu) is a postdoc and science advocate at Washington University in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ChrisPickett5.

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