When, after completing my Ph.D. in immunology, I told colleagues and mentors that I had accepted a position as a Science & Technology (S&T) Policy Fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—publisher of Science Careers—the most common response was, "So, you're leaving science?" I would be working at the National Science Foundation (NSF), focusing on science workforce policy. "Science" was in my official position title and job description—four times! Yet, I still found myself defending my professional choice.
It was not an easy decision, and I did not make it lightly. The idea of becoming a faculty member still held appeal. However, despite my productivity, I couldn't see myself continuing on a path on which I was not finding the satisfaction I desired. Thus, after much prayer, I decided to break away and explore the world of Washington, D.C. science policy.
I trace my decision to pursue a career in science to the words of a speaker I heard during high school:
If you're a medical doctor, you'll likely treat at most 10,000 patients in your lifetime. The guy who discovered penicillin has treated billions of people on every continent for the past 6 decades.
I pursued a career in research because I saw it as a way to make a contribution to the lives of others on a national and global scale. I spent the next decade completing rigorous basic science research training: completing a high school summer internship, attending the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a Meyerhoff Scholar, and completing my Ph.D. in the Stanford immunology program, where my work focused on the mechanisms regulating hematopoietic and leukemic stem cells.
The further my scientific training progressed, the further I felt from the reason I went into science in the first place. I could see potential applications of my work, but I wanted to have a more direct and tangible impact. I wanted to work toward understanding and addressing society's broad and interlinking health and educational challenges, especially those that are particularly acute in the black community. I refer to this as the "tyrosine/Tyrone" dilemma, where "tyrosine" represents the technical knowledge valued by the enterprise, and "Tyrone" represents the community connectedness that I find important. Was there a way to bridge the two?
When I revealed my deliberations to my mentors, the nearly uniform advice I got was, "stay the course." I could always help people after I got tenure, I was told, when I'd be in a position of broader influence. But ignoring my desire for another 10 to 12 years was not tenable. When I was given the opportunity to be part of the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship program—a program designed to equip scientists with the skills needed to apply scientific knowledge to benefit society—I seized it.
My fellowship provided me insights into how the scientific enterprise functions, along with skills and connections that allow me to operate more effectively. I was placed in NSF's Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Division of Human Resource Development. HRD works to enhance the quality and excellence of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and research through broadening participation of underrepresented groups (women, minorities, and persons with disabilities). I have worked with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, drafting sections of the federal government's STEM education strategic plan; helped plan conferences to engage students from diverse backgrounds in STEM subjects; and connected with inspiring colleagues across the STEM landscape. These connections will benefit me no matter what direction my career takes.
Even as I was enjoying these opportunities, I started to miss research—badly. While I was certain I never wanted to work with mice again, I longed for the excitement of discovery. I teamed with a colleague to launch "STEM Ph.D. Careers" with the goal of creating knowledge that could be used in policy to improve training.
I learned from my AAAS fellowship that I need both research and policy application to feel fulfilled in my career. Again I asked, is there a way to bridge the two?
Becoming a "policy scientist"
The next stop on my career journey is the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program (CPFP) at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland. The goal of this program is to train leaders in cancer prevention and control; it provides a great opportunity to synthesize my interests in research and policy. As part of the CPFP, I am completing a master's in public health (MPH) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Following the MPH program I'll work at NCI, where I will establish a research agenda that I hope will springboard me to a career as a different kind of translational scientist than I was exposed to in the lab: Whereas physician-scientists take discoveries from "the bench to the bedside," I want to take my research from "the bench to society."
So it turns out I wasn't "leaving science" after all. I was just taking a scenic route.
Planning your own journey
Here, I'll share some practical advice I've picked up along my career path:
1. Do your current job well. Your scientific credibility opens the door to your next position. Even if your passion for the research is not what it once was, you have an obligation to do the job you're paid to do, and do it well. But—doing it well doesn't mean chaining yourself to the bench.
2. Recognize that you have valuable skills. Science is a high-failure proposition, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Spending your days around people who are blazing the frontiers of knowledge can distort your self-perception. Many graduate students and postdocs are unaware of the transferable skills they pick up during their scientific training: identifying relevant problems, synthesizing information, understanding the difference between data and evidence, and drawing conclusions from evidence. These and other skills are valuable in many professional contexts—and if you're a Ph.D. scientist, you possess them to an astonishing degree.
3. Recognize there are many, MANY career opportunities, in research and beyond. It's not just "academia or industry." From policy to business, nonprofits or government, opportunities to use your Ph.D. are many and diverse. In fact, 75-85% of today's Ph.D. scientists have careers off the tenure track. If you're interested in using your training outside of the lab, don't feel bad about it.
4. Be intentional. There's a disconcerting moment in the training of many Ph.D. scientists when they realize that, while they have acquired phenomenal knowledge and skills, they don't know what the future holds professionally. There's only one thing you can do: Take charge of your career planning, now. Don't wait until 3 months before your thesis defense or your postdoc ends.
Individual development plans can help you assess your interests, strengths, and career options. Disciplinary conferences and societies offer professional development opportunities. Once you have identified a position or career path of interest, informational interviews are a great way to find out more about what the job entails; they can teach you what you need to do to prepare to be competitive.
5. Let passion, not fear, drive your decisions. Whether it's the "postdoc clock" or the notion that "once you leave academia you can't go back," many forgo opportunities in industry, consulting, policy, or other domains for that it will harm their CV. I am not immune: I worried that by taking the AAAS fellowship I might disqualify myself for some opportunities. But I realized that through my "nontraditional" career path I might gain something greater. The fellowship was a clarifying step; it helped to define my passions and skills, and it connected me with a new group of incredible colleagues.
6. Network. Many scientists are uncomfortable with networking and self-promotion. But a successful career requires more than scientific competence: Connections to people open doors, giving you opportunities to demonstrate what you know. As a scientist, your job is to accurately describe a phenomenon; in this case, the phenomenon in question just happens to be you. So don't think of it as self-promotion; think of it as clarifying yourself, your skills, and your achievements to those who need that information. This line of thinking has helped me get over my discomfort with using the first person. Without doubt, the most powerful asset you have access to is other people. Utilize them.
7. Go for it. As my mother told me when I was growing up, "Never self-eliminate. Let them tell you 'no'. Don't close the door on yourself." Expect rejection, expect setbacks, and push forward, strategically and hopefully. Keep your eye on the prize, and opportunity will present itself.
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