From PhD to Policy

PhD to Policy Image2.png

By Crystal D. Grant,  Genetics and Molecular Biology, ‘14

Edited by Amielle Moreno, Neuroscience '12

2018 has been a prosperous year for federal funding of science research, with spending expected to see its largest increase in more than a decade.1 It has also been great for Emory Science Advocacy Network (EScAN), a graduate student organization with an aim of communicating and advocating for the importance of scientific research funding. EScAN endeavored to educate students on the role of the federal government in funding science research by hosting several events encouraging advocacy by graduate students.

Graduate students are increasingly expressing interest in careers outside of academia, and Emory has responded to this interest accordingly with seminars and panels organized by the Pathways Beyond the Professorate program. One of these alternative careers is science policy, in which PhDs can use their science degree to inform policy decisions and interact with policy-makers. There hadn’t yet been an alumni event with this career path as its focus, so EScAN organized such an event.

In April, EScAN welcomed back to campus three GDBBS alumni, now working in policy and advocacy, for a panel event: Debra Cooper (NS ’13), Chelsey Chandler Ruppersburg (BCDB ’14), and Chuck Wright (GMB ’13). On a sunny Friday afternoon, fifty PhD students and postdocs were in attendance, filling the seats and forcing others to stand to hear the alumni speak about their transition to new careers and the programs that helped them make their career transition. Current students tentatively raised their hands to ask the alumni questions and the panel concluded with a catered reception in which students were able to speak with the alumni directly (and exchange business cards).

Chelsey talked about her invaluable experiences while still at Emory. She mentioned ‘getting bitten by the political bug’ during her time in EScAN while on a Hill Day visit to Washington, DC. She remarked, “I came back with this focus of wanting to move into that arena when I graduated.” Chelsey was also a part of Emory’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program and attributes its internship requirement to her pursuing a post-graduate position as a lobbyist. She credited this internship with Emory’s Government Affairs Department with helping her get her job in Senator Johnny Isakson’s office after defending. She remarked on the importance of expanding your network while still in graduate school, “You need to build up a group of people who get your story, why you’re transitioning, and doing an internship can really help build out that network.”

EScAN hosted three alumni in a panel event. From left to right: VP of Outreach Erin King, VP of Finance Erics Landis, VP of Current Affairs Rachel Pearcy, Debra Cooper, Chuck Wright, Chelsey Chandler Ruppersburg, VP of Communications Alyssa Scott, and President Crystal Grant.

EScAN hosted three alumni in a panel event. From left to right: VP of Outreach Erin King, VP of Finance Erics Landis, VP of Current Affairs Rachel Pearcy, Debra Cooper, Chuck Wright, Chelsey Chandler Ruppersburg, VP of Communications Alyssa Scott, and President Crystal Grant.

Debra spoke to students about her experience in the ASPET Washington Fellows Program during her postdoc, which allowed her to attend a Hill Day. She later received the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, saying she appreciated that science policy allowed her to put her passion for science communication to use. 

Chuck is currently an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. Echoing Chelsey’s point on the importance of growing one’s network, he advised current students on the benefits of reaching out to alumni currently working in fields of interest for informational interviews. He also warned students that imposter syndrome may make them doubtful of their career prospects after graduate school. He admitted he too suffers from it and applied to his fellowship not expecting an acceptance. Chuck remarked, “You might not feel like you’re an expert in anything…but you are all experts in contemporary issues in biomedical research… so highlight that.” He quipped that the most hostile audience he’s ever had to deal with was his thesis committee—"so it does get easier” once students join the work force.

The panelists all agreed on the utility of the skills they learned in their PhD, even outside of a traditional academic setting, accrediting their graduate training with increased abilities (relative to non-PhDs) in: writing succinct analyses of texts, researching and becoming an expert in a new topic, clearly communicating complex topics, data analysis, problem solving, and giving clear presentations to a variety of audiences including superiors. Chuck advised students that, though they may not think it, they have experience in project management through completing multiple projects at once in graduate school. Chelsey remarked that PhD students and postdoctoral fellows should find intentional ways to make it clear what skills come with the PhD.

This year marks the 5th time EScAN has held this event!

This year marks the 5th time EScAN has held this event!

Continuing the annual tradition, in March EScAN also hosted its 5th Annual Letter Writing Campaign. The Letter Writing Campaign aims to urge members of Congress to continue to provide funding for basic and biomedical research by writing letters and postcards to Georgia’s senators and representatives.  Emory students, faculty and staff sent more than 100 handwritten letters and postcards to members of Congress while enjoying King of Pops (and taking care not to drip on any postcards). This event will hopefully foster connections between students and their representatives in the federal government that will persist after they’ve left Emory. Alyssa commented, “I know I would feel a deeper connection with my constituents if I were receiving unique handwritten letters.” These handwritten letters come as a change from previous years in which participants had the option to simply sign form letters. Alyssa remarked on this change, “It sort of forces you to take a few minutes out of your day and really think about why it’s important to continue funding science with the public’s tax dollars. We hoped that some people would walk away from that with the motivation to continue to advocate for science.”

EScAN will hold a final event for the 2017-2018 academic year in May; the purpose of this event is to educate current students on how they can receive funding to travel to Washington DC to attend a Hill Day. It appears the several of our current students and alumni caught the science policy bug from attending a Hill Day—we’re hoping this and other events will get more students bitten.