Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Robert Neubecker

To appreciate my role as a scientist, I had to step outside academia

During my first few years in grad school, I proudly told colleagues that my research on earthquake hazard mitigation technology would save countless lives and help prevent trillions of dollars of infrastructure damage. I wasn’t lying. My adviser and I truly felt as though we were about to deliver a technological breakthrough. But our confidence came crashing down one afternoon, when we met with representatives of a state agency to discuss moving our work beyond the pilot scale. “The risk of using a brand new technology is too high. The approval and implementation process can take decades,” one official told us. I left the meeting feeling deflated.

I went home and thought deeply about my priorities. I saw real problems in the world: natural hazards, environmental injustice, social inequity—the list goes on. I went to grad school because I wanted to make a difference. I felt that the world was burning, and I wanted to help people in the here and now, not decades in the future. Suddenly, it became clear that wasn’t going to happen.

I tried to pivot my project so that it could be implemented more quickly. But my Ph.D. committee was unenthusiastic. One committee member went so far as to tell me that if I went in that direction, I would be wasting time.

I was discouraged. I seriously considered quitting, and I wavered for months about whether my work was worthwhile. But I had sunk years into grad school at that point, so I tried to stick with it.

One day, it occurred to me that research might not be the only way I could make a difference. I started to brainstorm activities outside academia that would marry my interests in science, policy, and communication. But I had no idea how to get started. So, I attended a workshop in Washington, D.C., that taught scientists how to communicate with legislators and their staff. I met other graduate students and postdocs from across the country who were disenchanted with academic work and wanted to have an impact on science policy. It was a relief to discover that I wasn’t alone.

When I returned to my graduate program in Arizona, I used my spare time to start a statewide science policy network with the goal of helping early-career scientists engage with policymakers and the general public. As part of that work, I organized a “Science Day” at the Arizona State Capitol, which drew 12 state politicians and roughly 60 early-career scientists. During a panel discussion, one student asked, “We see important issues in Arizona! What can we do?” A congressperson responded, “Call your representative! We want to hear from you.” That response was unsatisfying to me. I raised my hand and pointed out we wanted to do more. Later, the congressperson reached out and agreed to partner with our network to bring more scientific expertise into decision-making. We started to meet with lawmakers regularly, submit written briefs, and testify to committees—work that we’ve continued to do remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ve come to realize that …  my scientific expertise  is valuable in other arenas.

My role with the network has brought me a renewed sense of joy and accomplishment. I’m still pursuing my Ph.D. research, and I hope that the technology we’re developing will be implemented one day. But I’ve come to realize that I can make an impact in other ways—and that my scientific expertise is valuable in other arenas.

By stepping outside academia, I’ve also developed a network of professionals who work in industry, nonprofit organizations, and the government. Some of those people have given me helpful feedback on my Ph.D. research. And the connections I’m making will be invaluable for my future career, when I hope to work in science policy.

I went to grad school brimming with enthusiasm. Over the years, I learned that my academic research by itself wouldn’t satisfy my eagerness to make a difference in the world. It was a painful realization, but I’m grateful for the times of doubt because they pushed me in a new direction. Now, I’m back to feeling proud of all of the work that I do.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.orgRead the general guidelines here.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers