Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Project for Non-Academic Scientists - my "interview"

Over at Uncertain Principles, Physics professor Chad Orzel has set out to take ideas and suggestions from Mooney & Kirschenbaum’s Unscientific America and turn them into action. He’s posting a series of interviews on his blog from people with science training and experience who are not working as academic scientists, appropriately titled the Project for Non-Academic Scientists (PNAS). He notes:

I plan to post a series of short interviews with people who have science degrees, but are not working in academia. The idea here is to provide information on career options for scientists and science majors beyond the "go to grad school, do a post-doc, get a faculty position" track that is too often assumed to be the default.

Regular readers – all three of them – will no doubt understand that this is my kind of blog action. They will also understand, because of my status as a federal employee who must blog semi-anonymously because agency blogging policy hasn’t actually been developed yet, that I can’t answer by openly identifying myself. So I’ve answered Chad’s questions below. Hopefully someone will find my answers useful, particularly in light of my quest to define what a scientist actually is.

1) What is your non-academic job?

I’m the National Program Coordinator for Protected Species at my Federal Agency. This means I work to bring together a whole host of offices, labs, programs, and people to conserve and recover marine species that are listed under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

2) What is your science background?

B.S. Marine Science – Biology Concentration
M.S. Oceanography and Coastal Science (with an unofficial fisheries emphasis)

3) What led you to this job?

Honestly – my kids. I’m a divorced dad, and I was living in Seattle prior to this job. That meant a lot of cross country flights to spend time with them, and not a lot of parenting. Now, I’m an hour away by plane or 7 hours by car.
In my last job, with another federal agency, I was doing salmon habitat restoration, Dungeness crab fishery enhancement, and environmental monitoring and compliance for large federal civil works and military construction projects that impacted marine and anadromous species. There, I got a lot of training in planning, project management, and regulatory writing, and so when this job opened up in D.C. I applied, and was accepted.

Prior to that I had done coastal and marine habitat restoration and scallop and clam fisheries population science in Florida. So while I was doing much more science then, I was still working for an agency (and then an NGO and a Florida county). I’ve never been an academic scientist.

4) What's your work environment like?

Physically, I sit in a corner cubicle in a modernish building in a suburb of Washington, D.C. But, being in a cubicle, in the corner, means I have north facing windows, and a 13 story view of the adjacent area. So I don’t feel as closed in or cut off as some of my colleagues. I do get to travel 5 or 6 times a year, mostly to national agency meetings, but occasionally to scientific meetings (Like Coastal Zone or American Fisheries Society).

5) What do you do in a typical day?

There are email inquiries from other offices to answer; budget and performance metric graphs, slides, and documents to write and update; briefings to prepare, give or attend, scientific papers to read; Congressional correspondence to answer, ocean science and policy factsheets to draft; and meetings on everything from the use of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles in fisheries research to ocean fertilization, to (literally) how many additional marine biologists will we need in 2012 to conduct stock assessments for marine turtles and whales/cetaceans in the western pacific Ocean. I also write the very rare, but fulfilling tech memo and grey literature paper on scientific issues.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

As a National Program coordinator, I have 4 main duties:

· Identify key areas where our Program has emerging needs, particularly where our science is not aligned with an issue or natural phenomena;

· Develop and champion (to the Agency, Executive Department, White House, and Congress) new initiatives to meet these emerging challenges and opportunities. I do this by writing strategic planning and budget documents based on a constantly evolving dialogue with scientists and resource managers all over the country.

· Implement and track performance measures that allow the Program to judge its success in meeting its federal statutory mandates, and that describe success in achieving conservation and recovery goals. We use these data to both guide our requests to Congress, and to flesh out emerging needs and trends.

· Serve as a representative for our labs and office nation wide, providing briefings and other outreach on a wide variety of marine species, management strategies, and scientific approaches.

I would be largely unsuccessful in these duties if I did not have an extensive science background in oceanography and related issues. Because most listed or protected species are in that boat (!) due to complex and long-term threats, a lack of scientific knowledge would hinder my understanding of what is needed to restore them to their rightful ecological place, and minimize, if not eliminate, my ability to advocate for those species and the people working on their issues.

Lack of a science background would also hinder my ability to analyze the program from a budget and performance perspective. Trend analysis, for instance, can provide significant insight into a Program’s effectiveness, but only if you are collecting the right data, and only if you do the analysis in the right way. While some other disciplines teach methods for doing this (accounting, for instance) I find a more “traditional” scientific approach to be very robust.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how should they go about it?

First, you need a bachelor’s in a natural science. A Marine science or marine biology degree is ok, but even though I went the route of early specialization, I did so at a small liberal arts college, so I still got a fairly generalist education. While you are working on your B.S., take a couple of economic theory courses – it will really help you see why the world around the scientific enterprise works as differently as it does. I would also take a class in writing (preferably a non-fiction, non-science one); I’d take a modern history or political science course. The broader your undergraduate education – and the more willing you are to thus think outside the “science box” – the more effective you can be in a job like mine.

At the graduate level, either a degree in marine biology, oceanography, or marine policy is essential, though if you go the policy route I’d still take a heavy science load. I’d add another writing course, something on new media (if your university doesn’t have it check the local community college) and maybe a basic web design class as well. Learn all you can about spreadsheets and databases, and make it a routine habit to use such products – they come in handy.

While you are working out your thesis or dissertation, see if you can get an internship or committee member from the federal agency you want to work with. They can be tremendously helpful, and many of our scientists hold adjunct faculty appointments.

Finish your graduate degree before applying for federal jobs. At the moment I have half a dozen federal colleagues trying to balance their dissertation writing with full time employment, and it’s not pretty.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

Science teaches you how to approach challenges, how to break them down into their elements, and how to test different solutions. Science also teaches you how to frame your responses, and how to remain skeptical of your own work (much less the work of others) so that you produce the best answer you can to the question you are being asked.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan their careers?

Don’t be afraid to decide –early on – that you aren’t going to go the academic career route. Explore all the choices with labels that are remotely close to your degree program. Spend some time working with university career counselors to get a feel for what type of work really suites you.

And don’t be afraid to remind your university colleagues that you are still a scientist and you still contribute to the discipline even if you aren’t in a university setting anymore. The knowledge, as a friend recently reminded me, doesn’t leave your head when you leave the university.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

Depends on the agency, and it varies across the country. Folks with PhD.’s, and several years’ federal service can make $100K in the DC area, but you aren’t living in a low-cost city either. Since I started working in the field in 1994, I’ve gone from $18K to over $90K. Federal agencies tend to pay more; state and county agencies less.


Thomas Joseph said...

I don't think Chad has to post your personal info. Just say you have to go incognito because you're under deep cover. :P

jg said...

Thanks for sharing this view of your work. I want to quibble with the part where you referred to your three regular readers. Assuming you weren't counting me, I'd like to think you have at least four.


Steve H said...

As someone just finishing his master's while employed full time and the father of two kids...its doable, I just wouldn't do it again.

To add to your post, federal agencies have multiple programs to meet their goals of a sustainable workforce through fellowships and internships that have guaranteed employment, and I would encourage students to try this route to federal employment. Granted, I went through the application process for two of these programs, and was a finalist for one (and I suppose I still am even though I haven't heard anything for 7 months).

Otherwise, the openings for Natural Resource Specialists can be few and far between.

Philip H. said...

JG - Ok, you are now promoted to Fourth Place Regular Reader! Advancement to Thrid Place Regular Reader will require . . . ah heck, I'm just glad someone reads this.

Steve - you're probably still a finalist. Our agency has several such fellowships, and it takes as much as 10 months to complete the review and selection process from the time applications close until the time selectees are notified. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) keeps telling us that's too long, but some bureaucratic imparatives (like slow HR) are harder to clean up then others. Hang ing there.