GAC Girl: A Geoscientist in Science Policy


Recently, I was asked to sit on a career options panel at the American Geophysical Union?s spring meeting. There I was, less than a year out of graduate school, and already being held up as an alternative careers poster child. Preparing for the session, I felt like one of those reluctant superheroes who is unsure about becoming a role model. Although I had left academia to explore the science policy world, I did not consider the move to be permanent--I was just trying out an alternative career. So, was I really ready to take up the mantle of Geosciences Alternative Career Girl? I mean, GAC Girl doesn?t even have a nice ring to it!

But I?m getting ahead of myself ? Let me backtrack for a moment and tell you how I ended up in this situation.

As a teenager wrestling with the classic ?what do I want to do with my life?? question, I hit upon what seemed like an excellent way to utilize my aptitude for math and science, my concern for the environment, and my interest in writing and public speaking. After getting an education in environmental science, I would make a career out of communicating between environmental scientists and policy-makers, thereby facilitating the creation of scientifically sound environmental policies.

This was my goal throughout college, where I majored in environmental science and engineering, and in graduate school, where I earned a Ph.D. in atmospheric science. By gaining a broad training in earth system science and how scientists study it, I reasoned that I would be well equipped to apply my energy to many different environmental problems. Atmospheric science was particularly appealing because many environmental policy problems of recent decades (e.g., acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, smog, and climate change) have important atmospheric components.

But, as my studies wrapped up, I started to have second thoughts about my career goal. I found that many things about academia--the intellectual challenge, the thrill of discovery, teaching, and mentoring--appealed to me, and I wasn?t so sure that leaping into the ?real world? was a good idea after all. Although pursuing an academic career would have its many challenges, I knew the character of the obstacles and felt confident that I could surmount them.

Along the way, I also made the disturbing discovery that my long-cherished ideal job was perceived by many to be an ?alternative? career. As such, it was perhaps not quite so lofty as the chosen career of my mentors, who were so passionate about the science itself. And not quite so admirable as that of my fellow graduate students, who all seemed to be bubbling over with exciting research ideas. It seemed easier, and perhaps nobler, to move onto a postdoctoral position doing more research.

And, of course, there was the looming threat that if I left the academic fold, then the chances were that I could NEVER GO BACK! Most people I consulted in my field said that spending 1 to 3 years away from science would be okay (i.e., tolerated). But after that, it would be very difficult to get a research position, mostly because I would be ?off the radar screen? (i.e., everyone would have forgotten me!). Some even implied that it would be a waste of my talent and training if I did not become a professor.

Yet, my long-held ideal career continued to lure me. A career in academia had its shortcomings. The hours would be long, and the stress of the academic lifestyle would complicate having a family. More importantly, even while doing research as a graduate student, I felt that my work was far removed from any impact on environmental policies. My decision boiled down to the fact that I was ultimately motivated by the desire to influence the world outside the ivory tower.

A Word to the Wise

If you?re thinking about pursuing an away-from-the-bench job in environmental science and policy, here are a few questions you might want to consider asking yourself:

How comfortable are you in a job that might involve advocacy?

Many environmental jobs require you to represent the organization?s agenda with respect to environmental policies, so it?s important to familiarize yourself with their agenda and make sure it suits your personal philosophies.

Is the job well suited to your knowledge and abilities?

Because some organizations have not hired many recent Ph.D.s, they may not appreciate the level of work that most postdocs can handle. You may want to ask whether recent Ph.D.s have been hired by the organization previously and to evaluate whether or not your new supervisor seems willing to give you an appropriate level of responsibility.

Will you be encouraged to maintain your own professional activities?

If you plan to leave the door back into academia ajar, look for jobs that allow you to attend conferences, write and review papers, and keep up on the literature. Ideally, your new employer will recognize the value of your maintaining a professional network.

Are there opportunities for you to continue learning and be challenged?

If you?re like me, a big reason that you went down the Ph.D. path in the first place is that you enjoy learning and relish challenging tasks. Look for ways to continue learning, for example, by choosing a job in a discipline slightly outside of your Ph.D. work.

Thus, I decided to take a minileap and try out an alternative career for just 1 year. Like a good scientist, I researched my options and discovered a plethora of environmental science jobs outside of the traditional research path! Nonprofits, consulting firms, industry, and all levels of government are engaged in environmental issues and highly value employees with scientific training. Many of these employers are increasingly interested in hiring recent science Ph.D.s--a human resources commodity that apparently has come to their attention only recently.

Even so, getting a job outside of a traditional postdoc required quite a bit more legwork, simply because there are fewer established avenues to those positions. My university?s office of career services was able to provide information about job-hunting skills, but had few contacts with the types of employers I had in mind. Instead, I had to develop my own network by seeking advice from anyone who would talk to me about careers. And like many people, that networking was key to my finding the right job.

I eventually accepted a 1-year postdoctoral position at the National Research Council (NRC), the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences. At the request of Congress and federal agencies, NRC conducts studies that address a broad variety of policy-relevant scientific and technical issues. The product of these studies is typically a written report that offers scientific advice to policy-makers. My job is to assist in preparing these reports, which includes doing background research, writing and editing report text, and interacting with the committees of experts engaged for each study. Yes, it?s basically that ideal job I had imagined 10 years earlier!

I have been at the NRC for 10 months now and plan to stay beyond my 1-year commitment. Things were a bit rough at first because my supervisors were cautious about incorporating a postdoc into their activities. At the outset, they were uncomfortable letting me handle tasks typically given to people with much more work experience. In this respect, an existing position with well-defined projects and explicit responsibilities may have been better than the temporary position I chose. Even so, after a few months I was able to carve out a productive role for myself by working with my supervisors to help them better understand the level at which I was able to contribute.

Although I am still hesitant to fully embrace my GAC Girl alter-identity, I have no regrets about trying out an alternative career--it has definitely been a career-building experience, whether or not I return to academia. I now have objective data on the pros and cons of this particular line of work. I have learned how the government works and how science is used in the political process, at the same time gaining a broader perspective on my field. Because my job involves eliciting input from top scientists, I have had great networking opportunities. More importantly, I can honestly say that my work--even this early in my career--has played a role in influencing the nation?s science policy.

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