This post was written by lab alum Amalia Aruda Almada, Ph.D.
Hi everyone! It’s a pleasure to be a guest on Ann’s fabulous blog. Ann and I go way back (see photo evidence above…I’m on the right, Ann’s on the left) – Ann taught me how to hold my first pipette when I was a Guest Student at WHOI in the summer of 2006 after my freshman year of college. I convinced her to take me back as a Summer Fellow in 2008 and then as a PhD student in 2009!
I’ve taken a path less-traveled since receiving my PhD from the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in 2013, and I wanted to take this opportunity to talk a little bit more about how I ended up where I did and give some advice to those of you who might be interested in using your PhD for a career outside of academia. I often get the same questions when I have mentorship conversations with students interested in science policy, so I thought I’d compile some of my answers here to share more broadly. I hope they’re helpful!
Let’s get this out in the open early – not going into academia does not mean you are “jumping ship” or “quitting science”. There is a broad spectrum of ways to engage in science – from the generation of research (either in or out of academia) to its synthesis/translation. In many ways, the synthesis of scientific information is currently a much greater need and can have much greater impact than will focusing on a small sliver of the world via the research projects that most scientists do. So if you are feeling self-conscious about having a feeling that academia isn’t for you, fear not! Your passion, drive, and rigorous understanding of scientific research will be a tremendous asset to society if you can assist in contextualizing the application of recent findings to the pressing issues we face.
Where am I now?
I am the Senior Program Manager of the Planetary Health Alliance, a consortium of over 70 dedicated universities, NGOs, government entities, research institutes, and other partners around the world committed to advancing planetary health (an emerging field that investigates the linkages between global environmental change and human health). In my role I manage 3 full-time staff and oversee the strategic visioning, external relations, and program operations for PHA. The PHA aims to forge collaboration across a broad array of scientific disciplines, as well as with decision-makers, movement builders, and local communities, to build a rigorous evidence base for informing policy solutions aimed at optimizing both human health and environmental stewardship objectives. Our staff works to support the growth of the planetary health field by:
- Connecting the global planetary health community via an Annual Meeting and virtual forums;
- Facilitating the training of the next generation of scientists through publicly accessible educational resources and a postdoctoral fellowship;
- Communicating planetary health science for education and policy applications; and
- Applying planetary health science directly to inform policy and practice.
Before joining PHA, I was a Policy Analyst in the Policy and Constituent Affairs Division of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. As a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, I was the primary advisor to the National Ocean Service (NOS) Director and the lead NOS program coordinator for science and policy issues pertaining to the Arctic, National Ocean Policy, and marine planning. I served as the Special Assistant to NOAA’s Senior Arctic Advisor and as the program coordinator of NOAA’s Arctic Team, supporting internal team functions and engagement with external partners, including the White House. I also served as a Georgetown Science in the Public Interest Fellow in the Public Affairs Office of the Ecological Society of America.
How can one get into science policy?
First off, what do you mean by “science policy”? There are so many different flavors! This could mean working for federal or local science agencies, either in a research role where research is often much more targeted to inform management decisions or even in a government policy office, which often function to manage, communicate, and translate these research findings to external audiences. This could mean working for a legislative office, serving as a “Science expert” that handles a portfolio of science issues for a federal, state, or local politician. To me, this could even mean staying in academia and building research projects that are focused on questions co-developed with local governing bodies and resource managers to inform pertinent local and regional management decisions. The sky is the limit! So do your homework and think about what elements you’re excited about when you say “science policy”. And test the waters – the best way to have a sense of what elements are compelling to you is to do a short stint of exploration of the various ways to do “policy”.
How do I test the waters in science policy?
My biggest recommendation to anyone I talk to about exploring a path in science policy is to encourage their participation in a short term science fellowship. There are a plethora of ones out there, ranging from a short 5 weeks to even 2 years in length. Fellowships provide a safety net to explore a career path without deviating too far from an academic track if you haven’t quite made up your mind yet. I did two fellowships – one at the Public Affairs Office of the Ecological Society of America while I was in undergrad and one at NOAA’s National Ocean Service once I graduated with my PhD. My first fellowship was an important way to boost my resume and “science policy” credentials as I wouldn’t otherwise have much time in college or grad school to give to science policy engagements. For me, it was also important to do a fellowship after my PhD even though I was sure I didn’t want to go back to academia – it allowed me to build job experience and skills that most employers seek in new hires.
How is program management related to your interests in policy?
I loved my time working at NOAA – it is a place filled with smart, civil servants dedicated to better understanding and protecting our oceans, our planet’s lifeblood. As a Fellow I had the unique opportunity to engage with some of NOAA’s top leaders and observed a trend among those I admired most: they were exceptional program managers. Meaning that they understood how to set up and execute effective programs towards a set of defined objectives and understood how to manage their staff well in a way that minimized conflict and brought out their best work and personal growth. I also noted that government agencies are essentially a compilation of programs that (ideally) are managed in a synergistic way. After my Fellowship, I decided that in my next phase of professional development I wanted to push myself to further grow my own skills as a program manager.
So why did you get a PhD and how has it helped you in your current role?
I guess I was an odd PhD student from the beginning – I was very up front with my potential advisors even before I started a graduate program that I was ultimately interested in getting into “science policy” and not taking a traditional academic path. To me, having training as a PhD student was essential to have the credibility and training in the language and process of research science for any science “translation” or “policy” or “management” position that I was interested in exploring down the line. Although the PhD kept me pretty preoccupied, I spent a lot of time in college and as much time as I could in graduate school taking additional communications training and seeking opportunities for science policy workshops and seminars, with the goal of beefing up my CV for a science policy fellowship.
Finishing a PhD requires strong project management skills – we are forced through a process of strategic planning (even if we don’t know what that means at the time), designing research objectives and associated methodology to disentangle a broader hypothesis while understanding that iteration is always a part of the process. As graduate students, some of us even get lucky enough to have smart understudies on which to practice our management skills. Getting a PhD most of all gave me the confidence that I had the skills to “figure it out” when presented with a new problem or project that I had never done before. Having the inner confidence and skills in doing background research to build an operational plan to tackle a new project were all “project/program management” skills that I had to employ as a PhD student. So now when I am approached with a new task, I feel confident that I can look at examples of how others have done it in the past, modify and improve based on our own unique set of circumstances, and be patient with iteration as we operationalize a new project or program. I feel like I am using many of the same day-to-day skills that I employed as a PhD student now for a different application in my current role.
Thanks for listening! If you have other questions or reflections, I’d love to hear them – my email is Amalia_almada@g.harvard.edu