Pursuing a science policy career as an international student

This guest post is from Young In Oh, a Korean grad student in her 5th year at Caltech.

As my graduate career progressed, I quickly came to realize that the career I was looking for was one that would move me away from the bench. As exciting as academic research is, I find the slow progress and abstract applications to be somewhat frustrating. Initially, I pursued a career in chemistry because I wanted to make a tangible difference in the world. My personal background also played a significant role in my aspirations of finding a career with real-world impact. I grew up in four different countries in communities devoted to international development, and I believe that continuing down this path may be what I want my “purpose in life” to be. After quite a bit of research and soul searching, I found a career path that not only utilized my science education, but also fulfilled my greater interest of making real-world impact: science policy.

If you are an international student such as myself, and want to stay in the U.S., there are a few unique challenges to breaking into a science policy job. The most common way Ph.D. scientists enter the policy realm is through various science and technology policy fellowships. However, very few of these fellowships are offered to non-citizens, and career opportunities seem even more limited in agencies and projects that require US citizenship and/or security clearances. To my knowledge, there are only three mainstream fellowships that accept international students:

The Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program, based in Washington D.C., is a part of the National Academies Policy and Global Affairs Division, and works to help fellows develop the skills and make the connections that are needed to work in science policy at the federal and state level. However, this program is only 12-weeks long, so it may not be the best option if you do not have something planned ahead for immigration status reasons.

The California Science and Technology Policy Fellowship is a one year program based in Sacramento and allows fellows to work directly with California State Legislature in diverse areas of policy making.

Similarly, the ACS Science Policy Fellowship is a one to two year program based in Washington D.C. that allows fellows to work in the Office of Public Affairs (OPA). Fellows work with OPA staff to learn the process of providing information and recommendations in areas such as federal funding for scientific research, environmental policy and regulatory policy. JAEP profiled a former fellow last December.

The alternative path, one that fewer scientists take, is to enter specialized masters programs in science and technology policy. There are a surprisingly large number of programs that offer programs in various fields within science policy. In the area of environmental policy, there are programs such as Columbia University’s program in Environmental Science and Policy, and UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM). If you’re more interested in international science policy, George Washington University Center for International Science and Technology Policy and MIT’s Technology and Policy program are both great options. There are also programs that focus on science and international security such as Princeton University’s program in Science and Global Security. These types of programs seem to be the most viable route for international students to get experience in specific fields within policy without being limited by citizenship status.

As I looked for information on how to transition into science policy, the most helpful resource for me was advice from friends who had already made this same transition. I have been fortunate enough to make connections with people who were fellows of two of the three fellowships previously mentioned, as well as some others in the private sector. They essentially gave me the same advice: there is no path laid out for you, so be creative and take every opportunity that comes your way.  Ultimately, there is no defined way of entering science policy, whether you’re an American or international student. Though opportunities may be limited, and we may have to take a couple extra turns along the way, I am hopeful that international students such as myself will still be able to find a way to successfully begin a career in science policy.

Author: Rachel Pepling

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2 Comments

  1. Great post! Very helpful. Thank you for all the info.

  2. I really like this blog, make sure you do not quit!