Scientist in Training: Exit Interview

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Yeonwoo Lebovitz, Anthony Franchini, Megan Duffy, and Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new posts.

Current position: PhD student in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health
Program start date: August 2014
Institution: Virginia Tech

And just like that—my six-month gig with NIH-BEST is at an end. I had tremendous fun exploiting my blogger status to bother interview accomplished scientists, who helped to demystify the world of science policy for me. To my great relief, I learned that I am still very interested in pursuing this career track. In fact, the more working scientists I interviewed, the more impatient I felt about joining the science policy workforce.

Fortunately, my PhD student angst was soon mollified when I attended a public workshop held by the National Academies’ Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (ILAR) Roundtable on Animal Models for Microbiome Research in Washington, DC. It was nice to be back at my alma mater, so to speak, as working at the National Academies is what inspired me to seek doctoral research training in the first place. As a staff member, I would have been busy trying to reign in long-winded presenters and taking meticulous notes from which the summary report would be written. But this time, I had the luxury of attending as a researcher and an audience participant, who—incidentally—could eat as many of the conference cookies as I wanted.

Me (!) during the Q&A session. Photo from screen cap of the recorded meeting

This experience was different from simply attending a scientific meeting; rather, it was like going back in time, except with all of your current knowledge intact. I recognized several of the invited speakers as authors of papers that I had studied closely for my own dissertation project, and was thrilled to be able to keep up with most of the science in the presentations. Overall, the workshop served as a good reminder that perhaps I am not that far from where I had hoped to be when I embarked on this PhD path.

At the start of this blog series, I conducted a self-interview to outline my initial thoughts on science policy and the type of career it might entail. Now, I can appreciate that “science policy” is a very broad term encompassing a wide variety of potential career pathways. Perhaps a better set of questions for defining specific interests under this umbrella would start with the following:

  • What aspect of the policymaking process is most interesting to you?
  • Who is your preferred audience?
  • How important is advocacy to you?
  • Do you want to be involved in politics?
  • What issues/topics are you passionate about?

While I can answer some of these questions, I am still unsure about the others. For example, I know that I am passionate about topics related to microbiome, immunity, and neurodevelopmental disorders, and that I would gladly advocate for patients, caretakers, and other researchers involved in these areas. However, I am still unclear on whether I would prefer to expend my energies on the development, translation, and/or implementation of science-related policies, and what type of policies would be most interesting to work on (e.g., regulations, research guidelines, proposed bills). In addition, willingness to engage in politics, such as working as a Congressional aide, would imply a different pace, writing style, and audience altogether.

I expect further informational interviews and internships will be useful to gain firsthand accounts/experience in these areas and to clarify professional priorities. In the meantime, I intend to follow the advice shared by my interviewees and simply enjoy my time as a PhD student.

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