One Astronomer’s Transition to Science Policy
It’s no secret that since my second or third year of graduate school, I have not seen myself following in the footsteps of my research advisors. Looking back, this seemed like THE crisis of my life, but it was in fact the beginning of a (somewhat meandering) journey toward my next step in science policy. I’ve spent the last three years, first unintentionally and later fully consciously, working to distill how I’d reached this point as a researcher and what I wanted for my future career. And today, I have happily found myself the next John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow at the American Astronomical Society.
At about that point about three years ago, I began to explore potential career paths, having the benefit of a highly supportive advisor (if self-admittedly not knowledgeable about non-academic careers). I tried to figure out what I loved and did not love about my academic research. I like: discussing science with anyone and everyone, thinking critically and working creatively on complex issues, and forming interesting relationships with a diverse group of people. I did not like: hunching behind a computer for most of the day, the thought of multiple relocations based on the whims of the academic job market, and the constant pressure to find funding and publish papers. This list is much more distilled now than it was then, but that has come through the exploration I’ve done.
I started by getting more heavily involved in teaching and writing. I taught for and got involved in the organization of a local group of grads and undergrads working to improve community support mechanisms and the curriculum for Berkeley’s undergraduate physics cohort: The Berkeley Compass Project. I also wrote and edited for a local, graduate-student-run popular science publication. These activities, in addition to the joy and resume-boosting experiences I derived from them, helped me further identify what I might want to pursue with my Ph.D. in hand. I came away feeling a passion and aptitude for effective science education and communication, and a strong desire to engage in something where I personally felt a more direct social impact.
When it finally came time to apply for jobs, I knew science policy would involve a lot of what I wanted to do. As a policy advocate, one of my key duties will be to form strong working relationships with policymakers and scientists. I will get to talk to the former about the policies they are considering, and the latter about the science goals they are pursuing; what I did on my lunch hour (or three) as a graduate student will be a big part of what I am paid to do. I will grapple with the complex issues around how money is allocated for the ambitious scientific goals we have set out for the coming decade of highly constrained budgets. For many people I know, this may sound terribly boring, or futile, or unfulfilling, perspectives I can certainly understand but don’t share.
I weighed a number of other options. I (unsuccessfully) applied for science journalism jobs on the radio and in print, and for a few months thought I had landed a job working on science educational program development for K-12 students (a long, different story). After all this exploration, I am really excited about the opportunity the Bahcall Fellowship represents. I am excited to take a meaningful job that engages my continuing, strong love of science, but that also leverages the skills and other interests I have. I am ok with the idea that I may not live the rest of my life cutting along the bleeding edge of scientific discovery, and excited that I’ll still get to see that edge and have a hand in ensuring some of the necessary tools are available to keep it sharp.
— Reprinted with permission from Science Wonk
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow