1. Please describe your current position:
I do public and science policy as a government relations associate at Lewis-Burke Associates. We are a lobbying and consultant firm; our clients are all either mid to large research universities or scientific societies and associations. I advocate on the Hill with their respective delegations regarding the issues that are of importance to them, and work with the leadership and faculty to help come up with creative solutions to their problems.
2. How far in advance of your planned starting date did you being looking for jobs?
I started looking for jobs about a year and half before I finally found a position that transitioned me out of the lab.
3. How did you learn about your current position?
I ran into the CEO at a defense lobby holiday cocktail party; it probably doesn’t get more DC cliché than that. We had met a couple of times previously and I believe she was familiar with my work at my last job because she received the monthly newsletters I sent out. She told me they were hiring and her business partner who was attending with her looked mildly horrified that she was telling this strange woman that I should send in a resume and meet her partner for coffee so he could tell me more about the job. However, this is my third position in DC. My first job, which I started about four years ago, I found on their website because it was an advocacy group I was familiar with and when I saw they were hiring, I applied.
4. Were any resources (inside or outside your university) particularly helpful in your job search?
I went to talks on “alternative” careers and some of the information they shared transcended job searches more broadly, so I did a lot of informational interviews and read as much as I could about getting my foot in the door in the science policy community in DC. A state senator who I met to offer my services to for free said she had more interns than work to do, but connected me with a health policy non-profit where I volunteered for a while, which was more helpful than anything I could learn from reading or interviews. My future employer also told me that experience with the health policy group was the thing on my resume that got me the interview for my first policy job in DC because it demonstrated genuine interest.
5. What was your work or educational background before you were hired?
I have a BS in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a PhD in neurobiology and anatomy from the University of Utah. I held two previous positions here in DC, which are discussed below.
6. Which aspects of your background (postdoctoral training, internships, etc.) were required for your position?
Most of my colleagues are liberal arts majors or lawyers who came from the Hill or federal agencies, so the PhD isn’t required to work for our firm, but it lends credibility to my analyses and perspective having spent many years in academia. My asset was having experience in advocacy and academia.
7. How long after your interview did you start your position? Were there any barriers to starting your position when you’d hoped?
For my first fellowship in DC, I got the offer right after Thanksgiving, and moved from Utah to DC on New Year’s Day to start that week, which was a shorter time frame than was desirable or convenient. For my current position, I interviewed in February and started at the beginning of May. They wanted me to start as soon as possible as they were low on personnel, but I loved my previous job and boss and though I felt the time was right to move on to a permanent position rather than something that still denoted traineeship, I wanted to make sure I gave them a couple of months to try to find a new person for the position so they wouldn’t be left short-handed.
8. How would you describe the interview process and how did you prepare for it? Were there any skills or experiences in your CV that seemed to stand out?
I had two interviews with panels of six to seven people each time. Other friends who have applied at our firm before I did remarked on how intimidating that structure can be, but it reminded me a lot of meetings with my thesis committee. I read up on the firm, and read the profiles of everyone who works there as I didn’t know who I’d be meeting with and only knew a couple of people who worked there in an informal capacity. I also read up on generic interview questions, but I never found them to be that helpful in the interviews I experienced. When it came to what resonated, they thought I was a sociologist PhD based on the work I had been doing, so that had been part of their interest as they already had a couple of biomedical PhDs on staff. The other thing that provided a lot of conversation was my years of sports, from being on varsity basketball and soccer in high school to rowing at a Division One school in college. Demonstrating your ability to be a team player and work well with others in this profession is important whether you’re on the Hill or off it.
9. Did you pursue any other position or career path prior to being hired in your current position? If so, what factors led to your ultimate job choice?
When I moved to DC I initially worked at a biomedical research advocacy group in DC doing a science policy fellowship for several month. This was followed by two years of public policy and advocacy for the Association of Women in Science (AWIS), a non-profit that represents what the name suggests. In that position I managed legislative affairs (reviewing and contributing to Congressional bills), conducted and published NSF-funded research on projects related to recognition of women’s academic achievements by scholarly societies, initiated a series of projects related to STEM workforce areas in which women are traditionally underrepresented, and produced a monthly newsletter for the membership. I enjoyed both of those jobs, and decided to accept my current position in part to get a title that no longer conferred a traineeship, and also to get experience on the for-profit side of advocacy. I was also interested in getting back more toward advocating for research rather than social issues, though I remain passionate about the latter.
10. Has your career trajectory followed the path you’d expected when you started graduate school?
I knew when I started that I was interested in science policy, but I envisioned myself working on Capitol Hill, advising members of Congress on science policy and legislation. To that end, my trajectory is different than I expected. However, I’m still in the city and sector where I thought I’d be and this is a greater alignment with my initial goals than many people likely experience.
11. Was anything about your job not what you’d expected before you were hired?
I spend so much more of my time in meetings and talking with people than I ever expected. I’m an introvert who comes across as an extrovert, and having focused, intense, strategic conversations all day long sometimes really wears me out without necessarily leaving me the opportunity to recharge.
12. Are there any particular skills or experiences you wish you had before you started?
I’m not sure there is any particular skill set that prepares for you for this line of work, besides perhaps understanding how a bill becomes a law, and all the different ways you can influence that process. I’m learning new things each day and expect that will continue to be the case for a long time to come!
13. How do you spend an average workday?
On any given day I may be writing letters on behalf of university presidents, drafting memorandums and reports, creating a strategic plan, or analyzing some new bill and providing feedback. I may be in internal brainstorming meetings, visiting our clients on their campuses, dealing with some emerging crisis on one of our campuses and managing the federal relations with the delegations, having calls with faculty from the various universities and societies we work with and trying to find solutions for their issues, meeting with Congressional staff or program officers at federal agencies, attending a briefing on Capitol Hill or advisory committee meeting at one of the institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or attending meetings of one of the academic or research-focused coalitions with which we engage. No two days are the same.
14. What do you most like about your work?
The fact that no two days are the same is great for people like me who love novelty and new problems to solve because it’s never boring or slow. This is also my first position in an organizational structure that’s really team based. Our firm makes a focused effort to hire people who are good at putting the team’s success before personal ambition, which is pretty unusual in the lobbying industry in my experience. This creates a work environment that’s really invigorating and interesting without the drama you often find in office settings that depends heavily on interpersonal interactions.
15. What do you find the most challenging about your work?
Part of what we do is forecasting, making judgements about future expectations based on trends. For someone accustomed to making all statements in a way that is backed up by hard data, this aspect of the job is anathema to the training you receive as a scientist. Trusting your own judgment, and then being confident enough in it to share it with the president or chancellor of a top-tier research institution, can be nerve-wracking.
16. What skills do you think are absolutely essential for your position?
For government relations, you need to be able to take the high level view when analyzing what positions to take on various broad issues as they pertain to your client and reflect not just on how that one choice may impact them, but consider the long term consequences and other ripples. Many people in government relations only represent one client. At our firm, we each represent half a dozen. Knowing enough about each of them to understand their needs, while also being well-versed in a range of issues and the nuances to understand how to represent each of those clients in their unique way, even if they aren’t the positions I would necessarily advocate for personally, are challenging but necessary. This kind of multi-tasking requires tremendous organizational skills.
17. Do you think it helps to have a certain personality to do the work you do?
One part of succeeding and enjoying work in this space, in my opinion, is having a positive attitude and relishing hard work. The other part is being flexible at certain times, firm at others, and knowing when to be which. I think the former qualities are part of my personality, and the latter are interpersonal skills I’m working on developing still but also relate to my temperament as a scientist; I’m always experimenting even if it’s not at the bench. But the willingness to work with people is a fairly critical part of any job in science policy, whether it’s lobbying, advocacy, or working on the Hill and trying to address the needs of your constituents. It’s hard to be a jerk in this community and get away with it.
18. At any point, do you repent not having pursued a career in the academic field?
I repent many decisions I’ve made over the years, but this is not one of them. I find the kind of questions I get to try to find answers to in policy far more interesting than the ones I was asking in the lab.
19. What advice would you give to someone looking for a position like yours?
Get some preliminary experience locally in politics and see if you enjoy it all. If you’re near a state capitol, you may have more options for where you can try to get your foot in the door, but there are always groups looking have an impact whether it’s at the city or national level. Many scientific societies have some kind of advocacy effort and that can be a great place to get a taste for this line of work. Leverage your network using LinkedIn to ask others to connect you to people they know at places you might be interested in, it can be a really powerful resource for exploring new careers in a wide range of sectors.