Leaving the bench to advance public knowledge of current research
We have recently posted the article : Careers In Traditional Academia : Outlook Bleak by Meghan Mott. Given the current dismal job prospects in tenure-track science academia, it’s no wonder more science PhDs are exploring alternative career options. Although we were groomed to succeed our mentors in the academy, bench life isn’t for everyone. Some of us don’t have the passion for conducting the same meticulous experiments day after day or the wherewithal to generate the endless grant writing required for PI survival. We are tired of spending nights and weekends in the lab, sacrificing sleep and social life to experiment-based timetables. But what non-bench career options are available that utilize our doctoral experience ?
As postdocs, we are responsible for staying current with research in our field. However, sometimes that field is so narrow that we find ourselves unable to converse with other scientists about our work, much less attempt to explain it to our family and friends. We are intelligent detail-lovers, but we can also be generalists. A broad understanding of contemporary science is essential in order to produce high impact research, which is typically a by-product of collaboration. But inter-disciplinary collaboration produces more than prominent publications ; it enhances our ability to communicate science across other fields. Some scientists are gifted communicators with a knack for relating research to anyone. And for those who can put research into a social and political perspective to engage and enlighten a non-technical audience, science writing may be the perfect career path.
Science writing encompasses a variety of career prospects, from technical writers who prepare users manuals for biotechnology companies to science journalists who work for media outlets. Science journalists don’t always write for lay audiences, though. Some write for professional audiences in institutional or society newsletters, alumni magazines and in-house publications. For science PhDs interested in public relations, there are a myriad of public information positions available at universities, non-profit organizations, government agencies and private research foundations. These organizations seek spokespeople as conduits through which research can be articulated to the public. For example, public information officers write press releases that are distributed to the media and serve as liaisons between reporters and institutional staff.
Trading pipette for pen is a daunting transition, but postdocs would be surprised at how they already fulfill the job requirements. Science writers are expected to attend scientific meetings, read journals, and maintain contact with scientists in their field of interest in order to stay current on advances in the area. Depending on the size of their organization, science writers may be responsible for covering a wide range of science or they may have a narrow range of interest such as biotechnology or neuroscience. Science writers, like postdocs, spend their professional life continually learning. Each article challenges them to master a new vocabulary and become familiar with new concepts. All science writers share a common responsibility : to monitor research developments and translate information of interest to their audience. The advent of social media has many science writers producing more than print journalism. Podcasts and videocasts are becoming popular, and prospective science writers need not only an in-depth understanding of their topic, but also the ability to accurately and clearly communicate research to a broad audience.
So how do you know if science writing is right for you ? Dr. Sue Ambrose, science writer for The Dallas Morning News, offers advice for aspiring science writers in Alternative Careers in Science : Leaving the Ivory Tower, a book I recommend for any science PhD who is considering alternative career options outside academia. As Dr. Ambrose puts it, good science writers “would rather learn a little about many areas of science than spend the rest of [their] career focused on a single, narrow field.” If you savor the sense of accomplishment that comes with publication, loathe writing in the context of academic prose, and would be relieved to never have to run another experiment again, then science writing is a career to consider. If the prospect of returning to the classroom isn’t appealing, there are other ways to launch a career in scientific journalism that don’t necessitate financial investment in formal coursework. Several awards, fellowships, and grants are available to aspiring science writers ; a listing of these opportunities is maintained by the National Association of Science Writers. AAAS sponsors an annual Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program that places STEM graduate and post-graduate students at media organizations nationwide. The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing is also a great resource for the science writing community, and includes a guide to careers in science writing.
As trained scientists, we anticipated a future at the bench. But for many of us, due to the current state of the academic and industry job market, alternative career options represent more tenable choices. And for those who love science but not lab work, science writing may offer the perfect solution.
Applying your research knowledge to protect public health
Postdoctoral fellowships provide budding scientists with the advanced training necessary to prepare us for the next step in our careers. Traditionally, these fellowships are geared toward a future in academic research. For most of us, however, as I described in my first post, our career paths will likely take a different route. Recently, I suggested one alternative career option that utilizes our training : science writing (See Part I). But for those who are not titillated by journalistic endeavors and/or prefer to work in a research-oriented environment that doesn’t involve bench work, I submit another possibility : careers in regulatory affairs.
Regulatory professionals protect the public health by evaluating the safety and efficacy of healthcare products and procedures before and after commercial release. Pharmaceuticals, medical devices, cosmetics and complementary medicines all fall under their purview. As highly skilled experts, they provide strategic operational support to expedite the development and delivery of safe and effective healthcare products around the world. In addition to playing critical roles in the development and approval of new healthcare products, regulators also maintain surveillance over these products to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Their duty is to advance, preserve and protect the public health.
Both government and non-government institutions employ regulatory professionals, who have origins in medicine, research, pharmacy, project management, engineering and manufacturing. Most people entering the regulatory field have prior experience in scientific and clinical research, and many have a degree in higher education – primarily in the life sciences or clinical sciences. Specialization by product type, such as medical devices, pharmaceuticals, biologics or biotechnology, is common. Furthermore, the regulatory professional development framework encompasses distinct domains that reflect the scope of responsibilities of the regulator, given their position. These domains include premarketing, postmarketing, interfacing, and strategic planning.
Premarketing occurs during research and development, in the preclinical and clinical phases of a new healthcare product. Regulatory specialists with backgrounds in toxicology, pharmacology, and the like help design preclinical protocols. Medical officers review investigational new drug applications and approve them for clinical trials. Regulators in the postmarketing domain administer inspections to assess compliance with government regulations and/or create the product’s promotional, advertising and labeling information. For example, interdisciplinary scientists at the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research monitor drug production and distribution within the United States to ensure quality control of products. Those who work in the interfacing domain are heavily communication-oriented, as they interact with regulatory agencies, professional trade and standards organizations, and stakeholders. They represent the public relations specialists of the regulatory field. Strategic planning is applied throughout the product lifecycle and guarantees the integration of regulatory strategy and policy into the organization. Professionals at this level have a scope that is less technical and more tactical, as they expand and integrate their regulatory knowledge with business aspects of effective management and strategy development.
As you’ve probably gathered, there is no typical career path to regulatory affairs. While bachelors and masters programs in regulation exist, they are not requisite, as on-the-job training is customary. There is ample opportunity for advancement within regulatory affairs. Early career professionals are expected to possess skills in project management, writing, coordination, and communication. Their job is to develop basic knowledge and understanding of regulatory and legal frameworks, regulatory requirements, legislation, and the procedures and processes relevant to the profession. The Regulatory Affairs Certification (RAC) is the only certification specifically for regulatory professionals in the healthcare product sector, which is obtained by passing a rigorous exam. Obtaining the RAC is not critical for employment in the regulatory field (approximately 5,000 individuals have one to date), but it serves as recognition of professional achievement and is correlated with higher compensation and higher-level job placement.
To get started, I recommend joining the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS). There are currently 10 RAPS chapters within the United States and 15 international chapters. Membership dues range from $70-210, but are well worth the cost. Individual chapters organize events frequently to help aspiring regulators build a professional network and gain insight into global issues and advancements that play critical roles in the profession. RAPS offers educational opportunities including formal coursework with an emphasis on professional development. Students can elect to specialize in Medical Devices or Pharmaceuticals (or both) within the Regulatory Affairs Certificate Program. Additionally, the organization sponsors an annual meeting of regulatory experts, replete with workshops, exhibits, educational sessions and networking opportunities.
As postdocs, there are a multitude of alternative career options available to us that expand on our scientific training. Regulatory affairs lies at the interface of research and the public health, and professionals in this realm have an incredible responsibility to serve their community in a unique way. If protecting and advancing the public health appeal to you, consider a career in regulatory affairs.
Serving the scientific community through policymaking
Postdocs have few years to identify career goals, strengthen CVs, and construct a professional network, all while working full time in the lab. Given the current situation in academia, most of us will end up in what used to be considered alternative careers. There is a long list of non-academic careers ; we just have to know where to look and how to market ourselves. For the creative communicators among us, science writing [Part I] is an option. For those interested in protecting public health, a career in regulatory affairs [Part II] could be appropriate. If you fancy leaving the bench but find neither appealing, consider a career in science policy.
What is science policy ? It sounds sexy to most postdocs, but few can accurately define it. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), science policy establishes guidelines and regulations for the practice and conduct of science. This includes the development of STEM educational programs as well as research and development funding priorities and directions. Scientists must contribute to the federal policymaking process. Who better to identify, evaluate, and meet difficult challenges facing society from a scientific perspective ? Unfortunately, we are trained to communicate in academic prose, and most of us have little experience relating science to lay audiences. For a job that typically entails a hefty amount of writing, management, communication and coordination with non-scientists, this creates a daunting barrier for postdocs interested in policy.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to get your foot in the door, but it takes considerable time and effort. Science policy fellowships teach scientists about the intersection of science and technology policy to help us develop basic skills essential for working in policy at the federal, state, or local level. The gold standard in policy fellowships are the AAAS Science Policy and Technology Fellowship Program and the National Academies Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. Both are highly competitive with very specific criteria. Only US citizens are eligible to apply for the AAAS Fellowship, although they can be early or late career scientists. Both US and non-US citizens can apply for the National Academies fellowship, but they must be within five years of receiving a PhD. The AAAS program is a yearlong fellowship in one of five areas at either Congressional offices or federal agencies. The National Academies fellowship is a 12-week program at one of the National Academies facilities. There are other fellowship opportunities offered by specialized societies as well. For example, the James Marshall Public Policy Fellowship at the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. Or the Hellman Fellowship in Science and Technology Policy offered by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Also, there is the Materials Research Society’s Congressional Fellowship.
While fellowships are customarily how scientists break into the world of science policy, they’re not the only way. Internships offer an alternative route. AAAS sponsors several internship opportunities, including the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program. Some internships are unpaid though, like the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies’ Science and Technology Policy Internships. However, paid opportunities do exist, like Research !America’s Science Policy Fellowship. If fellowships and internships don’t work out, volunteering for science policy committees is a great way to get involved in your free time. Most professional societies have advocacy or policy interest groups for members. To name a few, the Society for Neuroscience has a committee on Government and Public Affairs, the National Postdoctoral Association has an Advocacy Committee and the Association for Women in Science has an Advocacy and Public Policy committee.
No matter how you enter science policy, the job requirements are the same. You must have a broad knowledge of science and science policy, excellent verbal and written communication skills, analytical abilities, and experience in project management. The bulk of your responsibilities will include writing briefs and speeches and communicating with scientists, lawmakers, and the public. Your professional title will come from an assortment of flavors, including Public Health Analyst, Program Officer, Public Affairs Director, Health Science Policy Analyst or Senior Policy Analyst. Keep in mind that working in policy will probably place you in the Washington, DC area. Science policy jobs in government are found on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and at the National Institutes of Health. Of course, academic departments at universities also need science policy officers. There is a market for science policy officers at non-profit organizations and think tanks as well, like the American Heart Association, Friends of Cancer Research, and the New York Academy of Sciences.
If you want to serve society by offering your expertise to policy-makers and influencing legislative issues, then a career in science policy is a perfect fit.
Applying your scientific expertise to preserve national security
Postdocs in the life sciences : the time to assess career goals is now. It’s easy to get comfortable in daily science, but we must be proactive in our career development ! Competition for academic jobs is fierce in a market flooded with PhDs, and the odds are against us getting tenure-track positions. Thus, it’s imperative to explore the world outside academia, where opportunities exist that you may have never considered. Depending on your interests, careers in science writing, regulatory affairs, or science policy are viable options. If you want to work in a highly influential and multidisciplinary field aimed at protecting national security, a career in biodefense may be ideal.
The events of September 11th elevated biodefense to the forefront of national security. Biodefense or “biosecurity” refers to policies and actions taken to protect civilian and military populations against biological agents that may be intentionally released, or actions taken to prevent or respond to naturally occurring epidemics or emerging infectious diseases. The Department of Homeland Security protects citizens both within and outside our borders, and its goal is to prepare for, prevent, and respond to domestic emergencies. Other biosecurity agencies include the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Health and Human Services (CDC and FDA), and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The need for expertise in global health, public preparedness and response, medical countermeasure development, and biological research bolstered the job market in this field, and not just in government agencies.
Scientists in biodefense come from diverse backgrounds. Often specialties include immunology, biochemistry, toxicology, neurobiology, pathology, antibody resistance, bioinformatics, virology, molecular biology, microbiology, genomics, or bioengineering. Bench work in biodefense is fast-paced and dynamic. Research sponsors choose the lab projects to develop, which are typically in applied science. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at the National Interagency Biodefense Campus is the principle biodefense research institution engaged in laboratory-based threat assessment and bioforensics. At the NBACC National Bioforensic Analysis Center, evidence from biocrime and terrorist attacks are analyzed to identify perpetrators and determine the origin and method of attack. The National Biological Threat Characterization Center conducts studies to understand current and future biological threats, assess vulnerabilities, and develop countermeasures such as detectors, drugs, vaccines, and decontamination technologies.
Centers for biodefense are distributed throughout various government agencies. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) employs scientists who are experts on an array of chemical, biological, and radiological threats. DTRA maintains programs in basic science research and development and an in-house think tank that aims to anticipate and mitigate future threats both here and abroad. The U.S. Agency for International Development(USAID) provides economic, development, and humanitarian assistance worldwide in support of US foreign policy. Its programs in global health prevent suffering and save lives with the Infectious Disease Initiative, which targets interventions in antimicrobial resistance, tuberculosis, malaria, and tropical diseases. The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) develops vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, and information to protect service members and civilians from biological threats. It is the only laboratory within the DoD capable of studying highly hazardous viruses that require maximum containment at biosafety level 4
Biodefense positions at NGOs are typically away from the bench and involve advisory or policy work. MITRE manages federally funded research and development centers including the National Security Engineering Center at the DoD. The Geneva Foundation is a non-profit organization that provides management and administrative expertise in areas of federally funded research and industry clinical trials to support and advance military medicine. The Gates Foundation Global Health Program in infectious diseases focuses on fighting and preventing enteric and diarrheal disease, HIV/AIDS, malaria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. The International Council for the Life Sciences is a non-profit organization that enhances global biological safety. It focuses on implementing an internationally recognized conduct of science that includes curricula for biosecurity and biosafety, instituting common methodology for assessing biological risks, and building networks of life scientists and policymakers.
Identifying an agency or organization you are interested in is the first step in your career transition. No matter the sector you choose, you must demonstrate key qualities beyond scientific expertise. Project management is critical in a changing field. Communication and leadership skills are essential, particularly away from the bench. Some positions are stationed abroad, and language proficiency may expand your options. The UPMC Center for Biosecurity sponsors the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative, which offers an annual fellowship for those are interested in entering the field, and is a great way to get started.
Protecting our armed forces and civilians from biological hazards is a national imperative that can be achieved with a career in biodefense.