Panelists share details of application and life as a policy fellow

Speakers at the science and technology policy fellowship panel

Korie Grayson, Emily Laurilliard, Martin Liu and Chris Schaffer

Participants in fields reaching from plant biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, human centered design, mechanical and aerospace engineering and more engaged with current and past science and technology policy fellows through informal discussion, questions, and answers.

An information session to promote awareness of the variety of career possibilities in policy and inform on the timelines of the Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) process helped connect doctoral students and postdocs with the resources and networks to increase success.

Is a career at the intersection of science and policy for you?

Those interested in having a greater impact with their education and training, who are passionate about policy, and want to use their strong scientific training to have outward reaching input on societal problems are excellent candidates.

Many wondered about the areas of policies that align with their doctoral or postdoctoral research, and how to learn about the types and placements of science policy fellows at the federal, state, and local level in the different branches of government and government agencies. The panelists shared detailed examples of their varying day-to-day activities and responsibilities, as well as how they are mentored and given increased responsibility over time. Placements differ tremendously between federal agencies with different missions (like the NSF, DOE, DOH, Dept. of State, or NIH), and legislative or executive branches at the federal or state level. Accordingly, day-to-day operations vary widely as well, from running funding programs, meeting with constituents, careful writing based on deep research in a committee placement, or rapidly responding to congressional inquiries. Eligibility also varies, with US citizenship or permanent residence required for most federal agency placements, and some legislative placements funded by scientific societies simply requiring permission to work.

How would you set yourself apart as a potential candidate?

Underscoring that all the applicants will have a Master’s or PhD degree, and all are accomplished in their research, panelists stressed that what will set you apart are the activities you undertake outside that work. Volunteering (e.g. getting the next generation excited about science), putting on conferences, authoring policy briefs (e.g. published in the Journal of Science Policy & Governance), leading policy organizations (e.g. Advancing Science and Policy), and advocating for a new fellowship at the state level are all activities that were cited as instrumental to a successful application.

Although the application process is quite competitive (fewer than 1/3 are offered executive level placements; single digit percentages in the legislative branch) all panelists were glad they applied. Many had taken advantage of courses like BME 4440 taught by Chris Schaffer, COMM 5660 by Bruce Lewenstein, panels and experiential offerings through Careers Beyond Academia; and all had taken advantage of the expertise of current and past STPF recipients for a critical eye on their cover letter and position papers.

Selected applicants are top scientists with publications, presentation experience, and the ability to speak to smart people about how to address issues of concern to various audiences. They are not trying to “exit” science, but rather seek outward impact, and are master storytellers, especially to summarize results and synthesize information to uphold a recommendation. They will have practiced writing a policy memo, are prepared to speak lucidly on a publication where they might have been third author several years ago, can field 6 questions back to back on topics as different as the current AI landscape, plant based foods, or their view on X, Y, or Z, and can defend a viewpoint amid potentially aggressive interruptions (the latter being more common in congressional interviews than for executive branch). Applicants in the running should also not be surprised if asked about their political affiliation, who they voted for or their stance on current issues, and will have practiced upholding their opinions. A favorite was shared by Chris Schaffer: “Would you work to prevent an opposing voice from getting to the floor?”

All in all, the dissertation defense prepares PhD students well for answering questions on why you did things a certain way, and many skills are transferrable to a policy level.

What is the application timeline?

The application process for a science and technology policy fellowship is long, but it is never too early to grow your skills and network of professionals and alumni who can help guide you. Throughout your PhD you can be accumulating experience to see if science policy is for you, through experiences as exemplified by the speakers. If you decide to apply, advice was to start the process over the late summer and finalize in early fall to ensure adequate time for feedback on the resume, cover letter and to get three meaningful recommendation letters that will support your successful application.

Applications typically open in June/July
Apply by October/November (CV/resume, personal statement, professional interests, recommendations)
Must graduate by December-get advisor to sign off (note: many mid-career professionals also apply)
February/March selection

  • 1h first interview, maybe with three people at the agency to establish why you are interested, alignment with your professional goals and leading to an invitation to write a policy brief on a current topic; there will be interest in your data/quantitative skills, your ability to work on teams, running groups or meetings, and work you have done outside of your thesis.
  • 2nd round: three separate 1h interviews with senate, assembly, and executive representatives to determine interests, experience and broad skills

April visit: 1 week filled with 5 intense interviews per day to identify placement (much like the mutual matchmaking process of finding an advisor for your PhD), which could include a policy simulation, defending the policy memo you have written, and lots of questions

Start fellowship August
Training in September
Pairing in October

Tap into your STPF alumni network

A ready list of mentors below as well as many more can be found at the Careers Beyond Academia LibGuide. The LibGuide includes more information on various policy fellowships, newsfeeds to stay abreast of recent policy issues, many suggestions to get exposure to see if policy is for you, courses at Cornell, and public policy databases you can access while at Cornell.

Korie Grayson PhD’20 MS’17 is a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation’s Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships Directorate established by the 2022 Chips & Science Act. Monitors performance and develops strategies for Experiential Learning for the Emerging and Novel Technologies program, an $18.8 million investment to 27 teams, to support experiential learning opportunities for individuals interested in emerging tech fields.

Emily Laurilliard PhD Candidate (Aug ’24 expected) in biomedical engineering, is the New York State coalition lead for the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) Science on the Ballot Initiative, President and Co-Founder of the New York State Science and Technology (NYSST) Policy Network to advocate for a state policy fellowship, President of Advancing Science and Policy and recent recipient of a NYS STPF placed in the Executive Branch.

Martin Liu PhD’22 is a AAAS STPF fellow placed at the National Science Foundation, within the Directorate for Biological Sciences. He leads a new prize competition at NSF; works on CASA-Bio, an interagency R&D coordination activity to roadmap innovation for the bio-economy; and participates in the NobleReach Emerge pilot to accelerate biotechnology innovation from lab to market. At Cornell, he researched hemp seed protein under the advisement of Dr. Alireza Abbaspourrad in the Department of Food Science.

Chris Schaffer is Professor at Cornell in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering and former AAAS Congressional Science Policy Fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives in Rep. Edward Markey’s office (MA).

Susi Varvayanis is Executive Director of Careers Beyond Academia in the Graduate School, supporting exploration and experience in all careers where PhD skills are needed, and is passionate about empowering students and postdocs for their future success.

In addition to the speakers above,

Joseph Long PhD’22 a biomedically trained Congressional Science & Technology Policy Fellow sponsored by the Biophysical Society and AAAS, works in Sen. Chris Coons’ (DE) office supporting legislative efforts in economic policy. While at Cornell he served as President of Cornell Advancing Science And Policy, and as Associate Editor of the Journal of Science Policy & Governance (JSPG).