Five lessons from an ecologist transplanted to the Hill

By Linh Anh Cat

Rapid Ecology Science Policy pic

Before a meeting on the Hill to discuss legislation related to increasing diversity in geosciences. Pictured: Linh Anh Cat

As a Ph.D. candidate entering my last year, I am taking a welcome break and working in Washington, D.C. for two months as part of my fellowship with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), which manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research on behalf of NSF. UCAR selected me as part of their Next Generation Fellows program, which aims to increase diversity in the geosciences and provide an opportunity for them to work in a supportive but challenging environment in one of three tracks: Earth system sciences, diversity and inclusion, and public policy. The geosciences are the least diverse of all STEM fields and this has not improved in the last 40 years (Bernard & Cooperdock 2018). I chose to work in public policy and I working on policy recommendations related to the intersection airborne disease, atmospheric research, agriculture, and human health. This is my niche in science policy, which makes use of my expertise in airborne fungal dispersal from my dissertation and can be framed to appeal to policymakers on both sides of the aisle.

Here are a few insights that are generalizable to those who are looking for non-academic jobs after grad school that I’ve learned in my first month.

  1. The skills I picked up from my dissertation work in ecology are actually translatable to public policy.

It was extremely validating to discover that skills I gained during graduate school are actually useful in the real world. I know I and many other grad students looking for jobs outside of academia wonder if we are “wasting” 5+ years getting Ph.D.’s. For me, coping with imposter syndrome was good preparation for being unfazed by the “fake it til you make it” attitude required when jumping into a completely different line of work. I also felt several career preparation programs at my university paid off, such as the acting class I took designed to prepare scientists to communicate their research to all types of audiences.

  1. Non-scientists would love more scientists to share their work and become involved in policy and the community (at any level).

In addition to an acting class, I’ve also learned how to communicate science in a way that connects with the background and experiences of individuals I’m speaking with. This usually takes practice for most scientists since we are used to data-driven approaches. Non-scientists involved in science policy are happy to see the scientific community involved at any level in policy, even if it’s communicating your research and its impacts to your representative at their local office.

  1. Everything is much easier once you are physically present.

Before I received a fellowship with UCAR, I had applied to six introductory level science policy opportunities, from workshops, to Capitol Hill visits, to the Mirzayan Fellowship. I didn’t get any of them. I didn’t know how I could consider a career in science policy if I wasn’t able to get these introductory opportunities. I felt so discouraged, and even more so since I was involved in a lot of outreach and advocacy. During my first week in D.C., I was amazed by how easy it was to meet people in the science policy community – either at happy hours or by cold e-mailing. In addition, it wasn’t limited to surface-level information exchanges as I was able to find opportunities. For example, I’ll be presenting my policy recommendations to ~200 staffers and Members of Congress at the end of my internship which I figured out through networking!

  1. There’s a spectrum of science policy jobs for ecologists in D.C.

Many of us in grad school know we don’t want to stay in academia, but we don’t know what this means for how much we’ll use ecology in our future jobs. I discovered that jobs for ecologists in science policy range from doing pure, objective research that will be used to inform policy making to working the Hill and influencing others to move policy objectives forward. Those who prefer to work with data and compile reports might enjoy working for Congressional Research Service or Science and Technology Policy Institute. Someone who wants to be work in-between data and people might enjoy being a policy analyst. Those who enjoy the challenge of communicating science to a variety of audiences might like working in public affairs for a scientific society or organization.

  1. The scientists in science policy are a great community!

If you’re in D.C., be sure to let the Ecological Society of America (ESA) know and visit headquarters! It was one of the first meetings I took in D.C. and I’m glad I did. They put me in touch with people that were important to build my network and working groups that were critical to staying informed of what was happening. I found scientists working in science policy were very engaging and relatable. One of the methods I’ve used in the past to figure out if I would like a certain field was how well I got along with the community and internship/fellowship opportunities are the perfect way to test the waters.

Beyond these five lessons, I am grateful to have this experience before the last year of my Ph.D. program. I encourage universities and organizations to establish programs with funding for grad students so they can experience non-academic jobs and be better prepared and qualified for employment in their field of choice after graduation. Gaining experience before graduating with my Ph.D. has made me feel much more confident about using my skills from graduate school in the real world.

Author biography: Linh Anh Cat (@linhanhcat) studies dispersal of fungal disease in the environment and is the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research Next Generation Public Policy Fellow. She is a fourth year Ph.D. Candidate at UC Irvine, co-host for Turn of the Tide podcast, and Miss Vietnam of Southern California 1st Princess. If you have science policy questions for her, catch Linh Anh at the ESA annual meeting in New Orleans!

Categories: Communication

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