Profile: Congressional Legislative Assistant

Will O'Neal is, in no particular order, a PhD chemist, a former ACS Congressional fellow, and a Congressional Legislative Assistant for Representative Rush Holt.

Will O'Neal, courtesy photo.

"Basically," O'Neal said, "I am a policy advisor for anything that relates to energy policy, science, research and development, nuclear security, and foreign affairs." As a Legislative Assistant O'Neal's work is highly varied, but heavy on the research and writing, usually involving current events. And it's mostly, as you might guess, advising. "I keep the Congressman informed about policy developments or news that affects my legislative portfolio. I write talking points and background materials on upcoming bills and for legislative hearings or floor action in the House. I prepare the Congressman for public events and staff him at meetings. I develop policy proposals and draft legislation. I meet with interest groups and constituents," O'Neal said. And as you also might imagine, a lot of this work is short deadline and highly depends on the news of the day. So it's a pretty far cry from doing research in a lab. But even so, that doctoral training comes in pretty handy. “The skills you learn in science – how to think skeptically about the world, do research, and write – are universal," O'Neal said. "I have to do really fast research on a daily basis, and I have to be able to pick out what is reliable information and what isn’t. Then I have to be able to summarize it quickly in a way that anyone can understand.” O'Neal is happy with his chosen career, although working in Congress can be both rewarding and frustrating, he said. “This job offered the chance to learn new things everyday on an array of different topics and to share that work in a way has a direct impact on our society,” O'Neal said. "But I think overall, the most important thing that is missing in my job is the time to really dig into a topic and gain some depth and expertise. I think if I had more opportunity to delve deeper into certain subjects I could be a better asset to my boss." O'Neal never was really interested in industry, and although he liked teaching, didn't think he'd make a good academic. He learned of careers in public policy by seeing a poster in his grad school hallway advertising the AAAS Policy Fellowship program. While still in grad school, O'Neal got involved in the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. After finishing his PhD, he taught for a year at the Center and managed the Policy Research Shop, "which is a great program that allows undergraduate students to do policy research projects for the New Hampshire and Vermont state legislatures," he said. After that, O'Neal was awarded the ACS Congressional fellowship, which is part of the AAAS program. He was placed with Rep. Holt, and hired on after his fellowship was up. He's worked there a total of two and a half years.

Capitol Hill, photo by flickr user VinothChandar.

For scientists interested in going into policy, O'Neal highly suggests getting some kind of experience in politics before moving forward. “You will be disappointed if you come to the Hill expecting that scientific arguments win the day," he said. "Politics is about weighing competing interests, and there may be very legitimate reasons for doing the exact opposite of what 'science tells you to do.' It’s very important to understand and respect that part of the job." He recommends the AAAS program as a way to figure out if policy is what you want to do, but suggests getting some experience even before you do that. "Go volunteer on a political campaign or at your representative’s local office," he said. "You might be surprised at what you see and you’ll be doing a good thing.” Like most other jobs right now, O'Neal said that employment on Capitol Hill is hard to get. “It’s tough to find a job on the Hill, but Members and committees are always looking for talented professionals with special expertise. The real difficulty for scientists is that offices like to hire people that have Hill experience. Many staffers get experience by starting off as interns and working their way up." This sounds kind of painful for someone who just slogged through 5 years of a PhD, which is why O'Neal recommends the AAAS program. But I've heard from a few people that's getting extraordinarily competitive as well. Remember that program isn't just for recent grads--anyone with a PhD can apply, which means the applicant pool is potentially huge. The deadline for next year has already passed (December 5), but I found a huge list of policy fellowships at Sheril Kirshenbaum's blog at Discover. She started it last year, but it looks like she's been updating as she finds new ones. I haven't clicked through to find out if they're all still active, so caveat emptor. There's a lot of information about science policy out on the interwebs, but I recommend starting at Science Career Magazine. Good luck! UPDATE (1/6/11): Leigh passed on a lovely note from Alison Gershen from the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships staff. They also have an extensive list of resources on their site for those interested in policy work. -- Rachel

Author: Leigh Krietsch Boerner

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  1. “You will be disappointed if you come to the Hill expecting that scientific arguments win the day,” he said. “Politics is about weighing competing interests, and there may be very legitimate reasons for doing the exact opposite of what ‘science tells you to do.’ It’s very important to understand and respect that part of the job.”

    This is the reason I don’t think I could ever work on the Hill. It frustrates the hell out of me that Congress embarks on major policy initiatives that are silly but popular with donors or certain constituencies. The chief example that comes to mind are the subsidies for corn-based ethanol. Ethanol is so obviously not the answer to the energy crisis, and the corn we produce will be needed as food.