Science Policy Careers Analysis

What skills, traits, and experiences lead to a successful career in policy and governance for PhD-trained scientists? We conducted semi-structured interviews with individuals working in science policy jobs to find out.

PROFILE OF A SCIENCE-POLICY EXPERT

Virtually all respondents actively participated in extracurricular activities during their time in graduate school. They identified these activities, especially internships and fellowships outside of academia, as important elements for a successful transition to a career in Science Policy.

Other recommended career development activities included teaching, mentoring, and founding extracurricular organizations.

Among respondents, the most important skills needed for career success in science policy were communication abilities, both oral and written.

Humility and respect were often cited as relevant personality traits by study participants.

12 ways to prepare for a science policy career while in graduate school

SKILLS AND TRAITS OF A SCIENCE-POLICY EXPERT

Interviewees were divided into three cohorts.

  • Cohort 1: PhD-trained scientists working in science policy.
  • Cohort 2: Science policy professionals with an advanced degree in a public policy field.
  • Cohort 3: Mid-late career science policy professionals who have extensively hired, mentored, and/or managed science policy professionals.

They were asked to identify skills and traits that led to success in a science policy career. Below are the most common responses.

Most cited skills and traits for success in science policy

SKILLS DEVELOPMENT

We examined how science-trained individuals learned their skills. Only three skills were reported to be primarily learned in a curricular setting: discipline-specific knowledge, data analysis, and the ability to gather and interpret data.

Problem-solving, oral communication, and written communication were developed roughly equally in and out of the formal training experience.

However, the remaining ten skills were most often learned in extracurricular settings. These results present evidence that graduate schools should both support PhD students who wish to engage in extracurricular activities and provide additional training within the course of a formal PhD program.

WHERE DID STEM PHD-HOLDERS LEARN THEIR SKILLS

SCIENCE BACKGROUND vs POLICY BACKGROUND

We compared the science policy skills developed by and missing from both STEM and public policy training. Interviews for this report found that the skills and personality traits developed through scientific training complement those provided in a policy background and that a successful career in science policy needs a combination of both.

Scientific Training

BENEFITS

Resilience and persistence

Analytical skills and curiosity

Familiarity with uncertainty and nuance

Knowledge of the scientific process

POLICY Training

BENEFITS

Understanding how the government works

Interpersonal skills training (e.g. persuasion)

Broad exposure to policy issues

Practical policy skills (e.g. memo writing)

GAPS

Unfamiliarity with how the government works

Insufficient communication skills training

Reduced interpersonal skills practice

Misunderstanding of policy inputs

GAPS

Partial topic-area expertise

Unfamiliarity with the scientific method

Poor knowledge of the university research system

Limited exposure to science policy

Science Policy Career Analysis

by Steph Guerra, PhD, Daniel Pomeroy, PhD and R. Jason Heustis, PhD