Science policy fellowships: Determining where to apply

Before determining to which fellowships programs you will apply, it is incredibly important to examine why you want to pursue a career in science policy. In order to craft a compelling, successful fellowship application, you need to have specific reasons why this field is a good fit for you. Simply wanting to escape from the bench is not a good reason. If you cannot describe what science policy is and have never talked to any science policy professionals, your chances of getting a fellowship are basically zero. Fellowships are highly competitive. While you do not need actual policy experience, knowing why you want to pursue a career in the field and understanding what that means are important. If you need help determining these, the following are great resources:

  • What do you want to be when you grow up? My IDP can help you figure it out.
  • What is science policy? Former ASBMB fellow Geoff Hunt has the answers.
  • What skills do you need? Former ASBMB policy analyst Chris Pickett knows… a lot.
  • We would highly recommend talking to scientists already in a science policy careers. You can reach out by e-mail, and, if you do not live in the same place, talk by phone. In addition to giving you valuable information, these people will form the base of your career network, an extremely valuable commodity in the field.

Once you have decided on a career in science policy, your next step is applying for fellowships. While it is possible (but difficult) to go directly from a Ph.D. or postdoc into a policy job, most scientists make the transition by completing a fellowship. There are a number of different programs available, which can be broadly categorized based on where you will work — in the legislative branch, the executive branch or at a scientific or honorific society. Your experience will differ greatly based on where you work, so this is a significant consideration. The best way to learn about the different types is to talk to current or past fellows. The following information will get you started:

  • Legislative fellows work for a member of Congress or a congressional committee. They meet with constituents and stakeholder groups and provide members with information to inform their votes. They may also help draft legislation. Their portfolio includes scientific as well as nonscientific topics.
  • Executive branch fellows tend to work on specific scientific topics. For example, a fellow working in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services might work exclusively on vaccine policies, or a fellow at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security might work on biosecurity policies.
  • Fellows at a scientific or professional society work for the members of that society. This means they engage in advocacy efforts to promote issues important to the members. They also spend a fair amount of time engaging with members on important policy issues.
  • Fellows at an honorific society work on the projects in which that society is engaged. For most societies, these are roundtable discussions and reports on specific policy issues led by members of the society.
  • State Science and Technology Policy Fellows work in state governments (legislative and/or executive branch) to facilitate evidence-based policymaking. Fellows serve as honest brokers of scientific evidence to state lawmakers, advise on draft legislation, and tesify before lawmakers on policy-related evidence.  

While the type of fellowship will dictate your responsibilities, there are also other considerations, such as location, salary and environment. Most fellowships are in Washington, D.C. Salaries vary widely, ranging from $45,000 to over $75,000 per year. Some depend on your experience, but most are defined and non-negotiable. Most will also come with some benefits, typically insurance or an insurance stipend. Finally, the environment in which you will work is also important. It is no different than choosing a lab. If you do not like where and with whom you are working, you will likely be unhappy.

That said, given the competitive nature of science policy fellowships, it is advisable to apply for as many as you can. As part two will discuss, the applications are often very similar. You can always decide whether you will accept an offer after it is made.

Now that you have some basic information about the different types of policy fellowships, it is time to make a plan. Define your goals. Are you sure you want to pursue a career in science policy? What do you want to do — advocate, write policy or something else? Investigate the different options and see which fits with your goals. Do you require a specific location, salary or benefits? Answering these questions will give you a road map for how to proceed. Apply for as many as you can; it never hurts to have choices.