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Transitioning from the Bench to a Career in Policy Consulting

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Eli Kane


This resource has been adapted from the webinar Transitioning from the Bench to a Career in Science Policy, which took place June 15, 2021. Watch the full recording on Neuronline.


Dr. Amy Hein is a Senior Director of Strategic Staffing at Ripple Effect.


Dr. Amy Hein

As you look at what options you have next, I just wanted to highlight the importance of science policy fellowships.

I did a PhD in neuroscience. I went to all the SfN conferences and presentations and I did the abstract submissions. During my postdoc, I realized I wanted that higher level perspective, but I also had practical reasons for thinking about next steps. I married into the military and realized very quickly that that was going to involve a lot of relocation.  It was unlikely to fit into an academic career or even a Federal Government career, both of which require you to be in a particular location. I started looking into what other options would be better suited to frequent relocation and allow for some more flexibility, so I did two different fellowships. You've heard about a couple already, including the Mirzayan fellowship with National Academies of Science. That was the first one, and it definitely gave me the bug for science policy. Then, after going back to my postdoc for a little while, I went into the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. If you haven't heard of that look it up. The Mirzayan fellowship is a three-month fellowship that gives you a quick dose and throws you in. The AAAS fellowship is a one- or two-year fellowship. There are a couple of different avenues to get into the AAAS fellowship through different professional societies, as well as the AAAS directly. In that fellowship, you usually get placed with a federal agency supporting it directly. That’s a valuable opportunity to get an in-depth and longer perspective of supporting the Federal Government. When I participated in the AAAS fellowship, I was at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) supporting Their Science Policy and Planning Office.

It was a great opportunity with great networking relationships, but I wanted to get back closer to the science. We keep talking about wanting the high level perspective, but I felt like that was too high and wanted to be closer to actually advising on science and back to some of my technical roots. The next two positions I had with the AAAS fellowship supported the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). Through these roles, I made the jump into government contracting.

We talked about how science policy has to do with funding and resources. Part of that is the oversight and management of federal programs and research programs, so I supported the government as a federal contractor on both of those subjects. I joined Ripple Effect for the second one. The other piece just to point out here is that I got both of those job opportunities through connections through the fellowships. I got hired to support DARPA because of a connection I made through my Mirzayan fellowship with an alumnus from that program, and I heard about Ripple Effect through a connection with the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. These examples illustrate the power of the networks and partnerships that I formed through the fellowship programs.

I’ve been with Ripple Effect for six years now and after being a science officer I moved over to more of the program management side of things. I have really enjoyed working with scientists. A lot of what I do is talk to people--whether it's the government or trying to hire new people--and telling them about sort of opportunities that exist in the policy consulting sphere. I find I really enjoy doing that.

In terms of the job goals for policy consulting and government contracting, they're very similar to the things you've already heard, so the second bullet there talks about some of the different support areas. It can be everything. It can be strategic planning, program administration, meeting facilitation, and program evaluation. It’s not specific to a particular content area; the content depends on what your consulting subject matter expertise is. The sky is really the limit there, and consulting will continue to be a way to bring in new expertise to the science policy arena.

The difference is the role in policy consulting (as opposed to federal/academic arenas) is to provide expert advice, deliverables or products, and general support services too. In the case of Ripple Effect, we have federal, private, and nonprofit clients. Obviously, the Federal Government is one of the biggest customers out there in the policy world because they have a lot of money. However, there are also opportunities to consult to private industry, pharmaceutical companies, nonprofits, professional societies, etc. There are a couple different avenues, and they each have different feels and flavors, but the main focus and real driver is this focus on customer service. In this case, we are supporting the mission of the client that we're working with. HHS has a particular mission. NIH has a particular mission. Whatever agency or company you're working with will have their own goals. Your role is to help support them and, of course, part of that is thinking about their needs and providing support they need.

I wanted to highlight a couple skills in particular. My colleagues have done a great job and there's a lot of similarity across the skills discussed in previous talks. Communication is absolutely a skill that needs to be underscored. The ability to talk about your own skills, particularly your transferable skills, and your research or past projects is vital when looking for jobs. Written communication skills are one of the most important things I look for in hiring.

Some different skills for the consulting world I want to highlight are entrepreneurship and partnership. Sometimes people say “Oh, I don't want to be in academia because I’m tired of writing grants. I don't want to have to be fighting for funding all the time.” If that’s the case, consulting might not be the best option for you. As a consultant, you're often either independent, working for yourself as a small business or with a small business, or you may be working with a large business. In any of those cases, you still need to get gigs, get jobs, get contracts, and get clients to pay for your services.

Therefore, part of it involves proposal writing, grant writing, or partnerships and networking with those potential clients. In addition, you need to be able to work with potential partners. People that you meet and talk with oftentimes may need skills that you and your organization don’t have, so we have to partner with another company. We might bring great skills in science policy or technical skills, but maybe we don't have some of the IT skills or some of the cyber skills or something else. For that reason, partnerships and networking are important.

Flexibility is another key area in terms of a skill you need to have to be able adapt to customers’ demands. Things change all the time and consultants need to be able to be responsive to that. There is also the value of flexibility in consulting for the consultant. I mentioned that I went into consulting partly because I knew I needed location flexibility. I've also been part-time twice in my career so far. I had different personal reasons that I wanted to work part time and that was accommodated. This type of flexibility is one of the benefits of consulting that is not always available in other career paths.

The last two bullets I have are about root cause analysis. I think that's something that we as scientists are often good at. We have to figure out what's wrong with our experiment, what went wrong, or what we need to do to fix something. That's often a very valuable skill in the consulting world. The government might come to you with a problem and say “Hey can you advise us here? Can you fix this?” Root cause analysis enables you to say “Yes, I can help you fix that, but it's not what you think it is. There's something else going on, something underlying that.” You can figure out how to address that root issue.

Then, of course, there's always conflict that comes up in any situation.  Particularly in science policy, we're often brought in to help manage stakeholders or bring diverse parties together. Those are some of the skills that are important in the policy consulting world. The job titles are probably very similar to ones that you've heard from others. Again, it's not that it's a different content area. The job titles are Policy Analysts or Program Managers in whatever field it might be in, and the specifics come from who our clients are.

I wanted to point out the fellowships and internships. Those are a great way to get into science policy. At Ripple Effect, we have positions called Future Employers, so we're always trying to bring in people who are interested in the company and in those types of roles—another example of networking. That's something that you can apply to if you're interested. Maybe you're not looking for something now, but in the longer term you are, and that opportunity can help to build out that network.  

We also have something called a Science and Health Policy Consulting Consortium (SHPC.) If you are interested in consulting but don’t know where to start, or don’t know what resources are available, you may want to check out SHPC. SHPC is a group of people who are like-minded and who are interested in the consulting world that we brought together to be able to share resources and lessons learned. SHPC also exists to make it known that we're interested and available if there's ever partnerships or opportunities that come up. Please look at both those if those are things that might be interesting to you.


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  • Amanda Kimball changed the title to Transitioning from the Bench to a Career in Policy Consulting

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