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Switching Career Paths: Rediscovering Your Scientific Passion

The Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

My Fallout with Academia

Changes. Many of us start our Ph.D. journey with a preconceived idea of what our future will look like. Even as someone who has been very interested in politics and advocacy, I envisioned a traditional academic route, in which I would establish my own laboratory after being a postdoctoral fellow. The past two years of being a graduate student has taught me that usually things do not go the way you expected them to, both in terms of experiments and career plans.

The first year went as I had expected: classes, rotations and picking a lab for my thesis. During the second year, however, my qualifying exam started to change everything. As second-years, we take a couple more classes, but we mostly prepare for a rigorous oral examination that covers the breadth of our field. In the test, the students talk about their proposed thesis project and then the exam committee, composed of five principal investigators, can ask pretty much anything related to your classes, proposed thesis work or their own work. Going through such an emotional rollercoaster of an exam made me think critically about the future I wanted and whether I believed my abilities would be best applied in an academic position. I asked myself: Do I want to contribute to science by making new discoveries as an academic researcher? How would my interests in advocacy play a role then? Am I a good fit for academia? Answering these questions took time and many conversations about what the world outside of academia actually looks like. Through the course of my exploration, one thing seemed clear: Academia is not for me.

So, there I was, questioning the main factor that brought me to graduate school in the first place. It felt like the only thing to do was investigate my other options more comprehensively. As scary as it might sound to reevaluate your career path, it can be enthralling to find connections between yourself, unexplored interests and science.

Discovering Science Policy

While attending a seminar on careers outside academia, an option I had never heard of resonated with me: science policy. The fact that the advances and discoveries from the lab are not fully translatable to society unless they are accompanied by policies really captured my attention. On top of that, the personal and professional interests of the science policy experts on the panel mirrored my own. They were interested in politics and advocacy, in addition to being eager to learn broad topics of science. During the seminar, the professionals encouraged graduate students to explore their career options while still in school. They emphasized that showing different interests outside of lab as well as dedicating some time to show commitment to such interests is essential if you want to transition into a career in science policy. Demonstrating these interests can include activities like writing on a topic you’re passionate about or even advocating for research funding at the Capitol. Taken together, these activities will demonstrate your dedication to a science policy career.

What Is Science Policy Exactly and Why Does It Matter?

By now, many of you will be thinking: what exactly is science policy? I find a good way to disentangle it is by separating science policy into two main categories: science for policy and policy for science. The first relies on science and scientific facts to inform and shape evidence-based policies to best serve the public interest. The second includes all the policies that govern the scientific field, from research funding to guidelines for animal use in laboratories.

Thus, science policy encompasses a huge variety of issues, topics and questions, tied together by their relevance to science and society. With the many advances, discoveries and tools that science has provided over the last couple of decades, science policy needs the involvement of scientists. Yes, you’ve read it correctly. Scientists. It is somewhat upsetting to realize that the majority of decisions impacting the scientific community are made by policymakers who haven’t taken a science course since high school. From funding to policies involving animal models for research, the effect Congress has on our work in lab is immeasurable. How can the general public benefit from the scientific discoveries if there aren’t evidence-based policies that promote science and engineering?

Exploring other careers could help you rediscover your scientific passion. Since I started to explore science policy, I have taken science policy classes, become part of the executive board of the Science Policy Group at Johns Hopkins and attended a Capitol Hill Day with the American Association for Cancer Research. Each of those opportunities reaffirmed my will to transition from academia to science policy. Change was tough: It’s easier to stick with a career path you’ve worked at for years than to start from scratch. No one knows whether you’ll be good at it, whether you’ll actually enjoy it or whether it’s the wrong professional move. But that is exactly the reason why we should be constantly challenging our professional aspirations: None of those questions have answers if you don’t embrace change and try those new opportunities.

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