J-Term Class Focuses on Science Policy Careers for STEM Ph.D.s

Mahlet Mesfin teaching in front of a class

Mahlet Mesfin, deputy director at the Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS, was a guest lecturer in the J-term class on science policy. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Most graduate students working toward doctoral degrees in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – plan to work in academia or industry. But increasingly, STEM graduates are seeking, and finding, careers in science policy.

This week, the University of Virginia is offering a January term course in science policy specifically for Ph.D. candidates in the STEM fields. The course is sort of a “boot camp” for student scientists and engineers interested in fellowships and careers in such areas as health policy and environmental policy, and even diplomacy.

Guest lecturers include policy leaders and experts with such organizations as the American Federation of Scientists, the U.S. Department of State, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and others. Some of the guest lecturers are UVA Ph.D. graduates or have an affiliation with the University.

Kerry Bolger teaching in front of class

Guest lecturer Kerry Bolger, a program analyst with the U.S. Department of State.

“Our goal is to familiarize our graduate students with science policy as a career field and to introduce them to leaders who are directing and informing policy decisions related to the sciences and society,” said Joel Baumgart, the course’s instructor and the senior research program officer with UVA’s Office of the Vice President for Research. “We also are presenting the possibility for fellowship opportunities in this important and growing field.”

The idea is to look at ways an advanced degree in a STEM field can translate to meaningful service careers outside of the actual practice of science and engineering – a notion that aligns well with UVA President Jim Ryan’s “community” and “service” themes for the University broadly.

“Scientists who go into service tend to bring an idealism and optimism to their work, with intent to serve the greater good,” Baumgart said.

According to a report on graduate education issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, fewer than 40 percent of STEM Ph.D. holders are employed in academia. The majority work in industry, government or in a range of other organizations.

Baumgart and others at the University, including Phillip Trella, associate vice provost and director of the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, are eager to develop STEM experts who can translate what they know in their specific fields to the public realm for the betterment of society. They also are working to make UVA a national hub for science policy training.

Baumgart, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UVA, was a Science and Technology Policy Fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a National Academies Mirzayan Fellow after graduate school.

“Fellowship opportunities are so important for students who are interested in public policy careers,” he said. “In the sciences and engineering, students must become very focused on their research. But public policy involves great breadth and teamwork, and practitioners must be nimble because issues can change by the day. This course is designed to give some exposure to that world and provides a networking opportunity for fellowships and possible future jobs.”

Baumgart’s course is an outgrowth of a Science Policy Initiative begun last year by engineering Ph.D. candidates Michaela Rikard and Courtney Hill, who themselves are considering careers or roles in science policy. The collaborators last year won a $100,000 grant from Schmidt Futures to kick-start the initiative and to strengthen a national network of student organizations devoted to science policy.

They have since held community outreach events for Ph.D. students interested in science policy careers and efforts to increase awareness and understanding of science research affecting policy decisions.

“We need scientists and engineers who can evaluate policies involving science, such as in climate research, drug development and other areas, and provide substantive information to policy leaders in government, industry and with non-governmental organizations,” Rikard said. “We’re helping students learn that there are clear paths to meaningful careers affecting society broadly.”

With the new J-term course, students get to do that with practitioners in the field, some of whom received their graduate education at UVA.

“There is a great spirit of collegiality in this class and among this group,” Baumgart said.

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