Climbing Down The Tower

Musings on leaving academia for the real world

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

AAAS Fellowships

Everyone I've talked to in D.C. about moving from academia to policy/non-profit stuff had one program in mind: the AAAS Science & Technology Fellowships. The link for this program is here:
and the deadline for applications is December 20, 2006. Be aware that these one-year fellowships wouldn't start until next September, 2007, so you have to be able to plan ahead. For example, when the deadline happened last year, my plans had not come together enough for me to apply. Of course, if you're a soon-to-be-PhD on the post-doc track, you're already starting to apply for next year anyway and you should definitely look at this as an interesting option.

I will confess that when I first heard about the AAAS Fellowships, I was a little non-plussed. Their online description makes the job sound a little like being a soulless bureaucrat, and I wondered if my job would mainly involve explaining science to politicians who either weren't interested or were actively hostile to the results and conclusions. However, the people I've talked to about this program (including two former Fellows) would say that having a AAAS Fellowship on your resume automatically gives you a ton of credibility in the policy world. You're no longer 'just' a scientist -- you're a scientist who knows how the system works, how it can be made to work better, and how it can be changed.

On a more practical level, the Fellowships are essentially entry level positions for people with Ph.D.s and other advanced degrees. They're looking for people with exactly your background. One former fellow I talked to said that a successful application has 3 parts:
  1. Strong Science Cred: That you have a Ph.D. (or other advanced degree) with a good list of publications and strong academic references. In other words, just what you would need in a post-doc application: proof that you're a quality scientist.
  2. A realization that there is a world beyond science: Some evidence of an interest in politics, policy, activism, volunteering, or whatever -- some proof that you're interested and engaged with the world beyond the lab.
  3. A plan: Some idea of what you would want to do in the world of science policy if you could do anything. My understanding is that this isn't a specific proposal (and they won't be asking you to implement it), but just as an example of your interests and thoughtfulness about these issues.
And, lest you think this is an unattainable position, there is a list of all past fellows on the AAAS website, and in recent years they've selected over 100 people per year (although I'm sure it's still really competitive). Anyway, there's lots more to be said on this, and more info on the website, but I just wanted to pass along a recommendation given many times over to me: AAAS is cool - check it out.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Restoring Scientific Integrity Sign-On

Calling all scientists -- you should sign this statement. It's a petition organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists to protest political interference in scientific policy-making by the Bush administration. They started it about two years ago with lots of publicity and a raft of Nobel laureates and other bigwigs signing on, but it's still going strong and we're nearing 10,000 signatories. I'm pretty sure you won't win a prize if you're the 10,000th person, but your name will be there right alongside all those famous profs. And reaching this milestone will hopefully drum up more support for the idea that quality science is really, really important and shouldn't be tampered with for political gain.

And in case you were wondering, grad students can and should sign the petition -- a "scientist" is anyone working on real scientific research. Even if you don't quite have the Ph.D. yet, it's a good time to stand up and be counted.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Non-Academic Alternatives

The Adventures in Ethics and Science blog has a really good post on Alternatives to Faculty Jobs. Several folks have weighed in with their stories of life and work after grad school. It's interesting reading, and a good reminder that even though most Ph.D.'s don't end up becoming professors, we mostly end up doing cool stuff anyway.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bubbles In The Rain

A quick everyday-science aside: The other day, I was hanging out with my 22-month old niece, watching her blow soap bubbles. A light rain was falling and had moistened all the plant leaves so that the bubbles could come to rest on the leaves without popping. Soon the nearby plants had grown a crop of irridescent fruit. As the rain fell on the bubbles they diluted the soap solution but managed not to destroy or burst the bubbles. In fact, the soapy, irridescent part of the solution sank to the underside of the bubble leaving the top of the sphere mainly a water bubble. The nifty part is that the watery top of the bubble was almost invisible, while the soapy bottom looked the same as usual. Overall it gave the appearance of a colorful glass sphere with the top broken off, and as more rain fell, more of the bubble seemed to disintegrate from the top downward, right before our eyes.

Isn't science cool?

Monday, September 18, 2006


I got a job last week and I'm starting work this Wednesday!

This means, sadly, that I won't be interning with Student Pugwash, although I will still continue to write this blog. Actually, I had thought that CDTT would end up being something of a chronicle of my job search. Everyone says it takes 3 months to find a job in DC, no matter what your qualifications are, so that would have given me 3 months of quality content: the thrill of the chase, networking, application writing, considering options, the agony of a few rejection letters and eventual triumph. Great story arc, eh?

Still, I can't say I'm disappointed with finding a job right away, even though it makes for less exciting reality TV. Quite the contrary, the position looks really awesome: I'll be a Researcher/Analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, working on the issue of Scientific Integrity. I'm really excited to find a position that combines my scientific background with advocating for a better world. And UCS is a great organization so if you're not familiar with them, check out their website -- -- they do some really essential work.

So the blog may change a bit, but I'll still try to put up some job search tips and post interesting job opportunities for people coming out of the academic world. And I swear that I'll start posting at a more rapid clip now that the job search and interview craziness is over.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The New New Deja Vu

Yesterday morning, as I was ascending the long escalator out of the Metro station and into Dupont Circle (a hip-and-trendy neighborhood here in D.C. with lots of restaurants and non-profits), I was struck with a peculiar sense of deja vu. Something about the angle of the sun and the not-quite-cool, not-quite-warm feel of the air reminded me very strongly of the end of summer and the first day of school. It was also a sensation of newness, usually associated with new books, new classes, new subjects, but this September, for the first time in 24 years I won't be student.

And actually, it's rather shocking to put it that way. 24 years! Sheesh.

Sure, I've had time away from the classroom: almost a year off between college and grad school, a three-month break during my second year, and the past seven months working as a post-doc. But it always seemed that come September, like some migratory geek, I'd be enrolled in something or other. Of course, now I'm looking for a real job, so there's still a lot of newness to be had. Some might say 'too much' newness.

One month ago, my wife and I were frantically packing up our apartment in Chicago, preparing for the big move. We did the drive in one day: 14 hours, 800 miles and seven states later we (and all our stuff) were in Northern Virginia. We only stuck around in Virginia long enough for a family wedding before it was off to California for a few weeks of vacationing with my family, back-packing, friend-visiting and yet more wedding-attending. Now we're back in VA trying to unpack and handle all the little administrative projects that need taking care of, like getting dental insurance and re-registering the car. Psychologically, I'm pretty travelled-out and ready to be settled somewhere, although part of me still thinks I'll be returning to Chicago.

Oh yeah, I've been job-interviewing also. I had an interview on Tuesday for a job I'm really psyched about (more about that later) and another interview a few weeks ago. It's really gratifying to get responses back from resumes sent off into the ether, but now I'm on pins-and-needles waiting to hear if I got it. Wish me luck...

Which brings me back to the Dupont Circle Metro escalator, where I was headed for my new internship. The awesome folks at Student Pugwash have kindly offered me an internship for the fall -- they're also the ones who put me up to this blog thing, and they have a fabulous new blog of their own, check it out here. The internship is unpaid (as these things typically are) but also a tremendous opportunity to meet people who know about science and policy in the DC area, as well as helping out with a great group dedicated to ethical science education.

So that brings us up to the 'now', with more coming soon...

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The First Step...

Welcome to Climbing Down the Tower, a blog for anyone who has ever wondered what they want to do with their life. Specifically, I'll be blogging about my transition from academic science research into the non-profit and policy world of Washington, D.C.

I recently completed my Ph.D. in astrophysics. As a student, I studied exploding stars in distant galaxies known as gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), both to understand how they work and also to use them as a tool for measuring the universe itself. I'm happy to report that studying astronomy as a research subject hasn't quenched my internal little-kid's delight at looking up at the night sky or reading about the rings of Saturn and wondering what it would be like to travel there. I still think stars and planets and galaxies are just plain awesome. I also really enjoyed my time in grad school, but I realized during the course of my studies that pure scientific research was not my only love and that a life in academia was just not for me. For one thing, I believe we all have a responsibility to make the world a better place, and while academic study is often a crucial part of that struggle, I long for something more down to earth.

So after six years of science, I have just moved to Washington, D.C. and am looking for a path into the non-profit world. This blog will hopefully be a chronicle of that journey as well as a space to write and think about some of the following questions:
  • So what can you do with a Ph.D. anyway? Is there life after grad school?
  • What are the ways in which science can help make this a better world? How do we avoid making it worse? What would socially responsible science look like?
  • What is the best way to get a job doing something different than my school training?
  • Advice on grad school, post-docs, teaching, research and other stuff like that.
  • Plus any random thoughts that happen to float through my brain...

My hope is that people will find this blog helpful and interesting and will chime in with comments and testimonials (so don't be shy!). I'm hoping to recruit a few guest bloggers to give different perspectives on some of these topics, and maybe I'll add a few bells and whistles once we're up and running. Comments and recommendations are always welcome.