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6 Rewarding Careers In Research Policy, Funding & Government

An indomitable spirit is a rare quality, but not among PhDs. Perseverance is a prerequisite that comes standard with every doctorate. 

It seems like there’s no shortage of things that can stand in the way when you’re pursuing a terminal degree. Yet I’ve only met a handful of PhDs who weren’t cut out for the hardships of academia.

They made it past the gauntlet of frustrating academic advisors, endless hours in the lab, and year upon year of compounding stress.

But there are some things that arise that you simply can’t prepare yourself to push through.

Sometimes life happens. PhDs are prepared to carry on against forces under their own control. They’re willing to go without sleep, without money, without time, and without a life.

But it’s harder to carry on when big changes you couldn’t possibly anticipate create a roadblock.

A death in the family. Welcoming a new baby. Celebrating a marriage. Grieving after divorce.

Unforeseen and unavoidable challenges can and do strike at the worst of times – even when you’re this close to graduating. 

That’s exactly what happened to a good friend of mine, Ford, four days before he was scheduled to defend his thesis. 

Ford lost someone close to him – a family member – very unexpectedly and suddenly.

He took time to make arrangements and deal with their unexpected passing.

In his grief, he was asking tough questions about why this family member didn’t get the help they needed. His search for answers pointed him to a bottleneck in the healthcare system that kept his family member from getting much-needed treatment. 

He had wanted to pursue tenure before he took time off for bereavement. There was no question about it – Ford had always wanted to be and was inevitably going to become a professor.

But not anymore. 

The Bridge Between Research And Public Service In Industry

It took a life-derailing experience to show my friend Ford that he could use his skills to make sure no other family suffered a needless loss. 

Before then, he’d never had a reason to think about the role that policies play in healthcare. 

And he didn’t know that there are specialists who connect the world of academic disciplines and public policy. 

That’s what attracted him to the career he’s in now – a Policy Analyst at Kaiser Permanente. He wanted to help legislators make the best decisions possible for the most amount of people – something he was uniquely qualified to do as an immunologist.

Like Ford, you might never have given any thought to a degree in government or the non-profit sector. But you can use the expertise and knowledge you’ve gained as a PhD to improve lives and outcomes on a local and global scale. 

There’s nothing quite like a career in policy, funding or government. Positions in this industry sit right at the intersection of science and humanity; research and results; problem and solution.

If you’ve ever thought to yourself that you wish there was something you could do to help a cause you care about, a career in policy, funding or government is it.

There are three types of organizations that are perfect for PhDs hoping to make a life-changing impact on others’ lives: an NGO, an IGO, and a government agency.

1. NGO

Non-governmental organizations (or NGOs) are organizations that work closely with governments and institutions. While they may sometimes receive funding from outside organizations, the vast majority of NGOs are non-profit, independent organizations. 

2. IGO

An intergovernmental organization (IGO) is an organization created by a treaty that involves two or more states or nations working to tackle issues of common interest.

3. Governmental Agency

A government agency is a permanent and sometimes semi-permanent organization within a national or state government. These agencies are responsible for oversight or administration of a specific sector, field, or area of study. 

Looking For Government, NGO, Or IGO Careers? Here Are 6…

Working with any of these agencies offers the benefit of knowing you are directly and positively impacting others. You’ll get a chance to do work you can feel good about, and that’s not to be discounted.

But there are other benefits to working in research policy, funding, and government roles. Pay can be very competitive for some roles.

Nonprofits want to attract top talent in order to meet their ambitious goals. Robust benefits are a perk that organizations for the greater good are known for, although salaries can run the gamut. 

Because results and not necessarily profits are the bottom line of focal and political advocacy roles, creativity and problem-solving are prized commodities. Teams are often small, which means your ideas are valuable and will likely be acted on, not brushed aside or simply heard and shelved.

Also, if variety is important to you, you’ll appreciate the varied responsibilities that a role at any of these agencies often entails. Those who work in agencies like these are always learning new skills, leveraging resources they haven’t tried and adding to their list of transferable as well as technical skills.

Here are six popular careers for PhDs in government agencies, nongovernment organizations and intergovernmental agencies.

1. Policy Officer

A Policy Officer role is a good fit for PhDs from any discipline who wants to be a catalyst for change. 

Policy Officers are needed anywhere important decisions are made. It’s their job to gather, assess, advise on and implement policies effectively. Some other names for this role include Public Policy Advisor or Science Public Policy Advisory. 

Regardless of what they’re called, the position involves working with interagency departments, outside organizations, legislators and other stakeholders. Primary responsibilities include research, reporting and advising on problems and their solutions.

PhDs from any discipline are eligible to become Policy Officers. An in-depth knowledge of a particular topic, such as your area of PhD study, is a valuable asset to government agencies and bureaus.  PhDs wanting to become Policy Officers should look for roles that are a match for their subject matter expertise. 

A Policy Officer’s duties involve conducting research and performing analyses. They then advise based on their findings and expertise. The work involves a lot of negotiating, explaining, and communicating with people who don’t have in-depth subject matter knowledge.

Policy Officers must also keep up with continuously changing regulations. It’s their job to ensure everyone involved in decisionmaking is made aware of these changes.

A few examples of organizations that hire policy advisors include the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), and the European Commission

PhDs who are interested in applying for a role as a Policy Officer should emphasize their area of subject matter expertise in their resume. It’s also a good idea to highlight interpersonal, communication, and problem-solving skills. To give yourself a competitive edge as an applicant, consider completing a fellowship or public policy training program.

2. Grants Facilitator

If you ever worked to secure funding then you already have the experience you need to succeed as a Grants Facilitator.

Grant Facilitators work with academic faculty members to develop successful grant submissions. It’s their job to search for and identify suitable funding opportunities for their organization. They communicate about these opportunities with researchers, government officials, and members of research ethics review boards. 

But that’s just one part of what a Grants Facilitator does. They also conduct grant writing workshops and training programs to help researchers create competitive applications. They check applications to ensure all the necessary documents are in place as well (e.g., IRB approval, consortium, etc.).

You can find Grants Facilitator roles at universities that have robust research programs. Just a few examples include the University of Delaware (which invented the touchscreen through funding from the CIA in the ‘90s), Cornell University (where seat belts were first proposed and developed), and John Hopkins University (which is credited as being the first research university in the United States).

Some of the transferable skills that you’ll want to highlight on your resume for this role include grant writing, communication, collaboration, attention to detail and time management.

3. Science Ethicist

There are three disciplines of Science Ethicists: Clinical Ethics, Research Ethics, and Bioethics. 

Clinical Ethicists review medical research and clinical trial-related proposals for ethical conduct. It is their goal to protect the rights of test subjects. They may also be called upon for court hearings involving ethical conflicts. 

Those in Research Ethics act as members of Institutional Review Boards or Institutional Animal Care & Use Committees. It falls to them to review academic research proposals and ensure they meet proper ethical guidelines of research. An example of this might be safeguarding the rights of animal subjects used for biomedical research. 

Those in Bioethics provide advice on policies related to research, medicine, agriculture, and several other fields where technology may have significant social and economic consequences.

STEM PhDs who can blend their scientific knowledge with an appreciation for ethics should consider a career in Science Ethics. This career can be very engaging if you enjoy keeping abreast of social issues, new technological developments, and policy changes. It can also be satisfying for those who want to influence the social and ethical outcomes of scientific advancements.

Science Ethicists can work in a variety of settings depending on their career focus. Typically, Clinical Ethicists are based in hospitals or other major medical facilities. Research Ethicists work at universities and research institutes, and Bioethicists work in government agencies or at healthcare companies. 

Scientific knowledge, leadership, integrity, and critical thinking are critical characteristics for those desiring to work in this field.

4. Public Program / Agency Officer

PhDs who want to serve the public may enjoy a role as a Public Program or Agency Officer. PhDs from every discipline and background are qualified for these positions, you will excel in a role that leverages your subject matter expertise.

The functions you’ll perform in this position can vary greatly, but the overall goal is to make sure the activities of a public organization or program align with its mission. 

To achieve their goals, Public Program and Agency Officers perform a wide variety of tasks. You’ll oversee development, seek grants and proposals, and manage projects and budgets. You’ll also form relationships with other organizations and generate reports to provide information on their organization’s operations.

Along with subject matter expertise, PhDs should highlight their excellent communication skills, collaboration experience, project management experience and analytical as well as strategic thinking skills on their resumes.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), World Trade Organization (WTO), African Development Bank (ADB), and Disability Rights Fund (DRF) are all examples of public organizations where a Public Program Officer might work.

5. International Development Professionals

International Development Professional is an umbrella term that actually encompasses many different roles.

Some of more popular careers for PhDs include:

  • International Development Consultants
  • International Development Advisors
  • Lobbyist
  • Diplomat
  • Political Analyst
  • International Lawyer
  • Intelligence Specialists

The one thing all these roles have in common is that they all work together to create a safer and healthier world. Their goal is to implement social change and drive progress on a global scale. They can do so within one of a wide variety of roles. 

There are also many areas to which international development professionals can contribute. Some of those include policy development and analysis, communication, sponsorship, and international relations. 

PhDs who possess a deep understanding of cultural nuances, history, and languages are competitive candidates for International Development roles. 

This position is a good fit for PhDs who want to have a social impact and aren’t concerned about earning a high salary. The role may require overseas travel, and advancing to a mid- or upper-level role often requires a significant amount of time in a lower-level role. 

International organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and national governments are the main types of organizations that employ international development professionals. A few examples include the United Nations (UN), Oxfam, World Bank, and the US Agency for International Development

To transition, PhDs will need organization skills, interpersonal skills, and strong ethics in addition to knowledge of the people group or groups with which they want to work.

6. Program / Project Manager

Program and Project Managers make sure government programs and projects are effective, sustainably designed, and can produce results. 

These programs and projects may have a wide variety of aims. A few examples of goals that program and project managers may work toward include developing strategies for funding research and procuring medical devices during emergencies. 

The daily duties of these professionals are similar: coordinate activities, devise a strategy, manage the budget and resources, address any problems that arise, and monitor progress. The difference between the two roles is in terms of scope. While Project Managers focus on just one project, Program Managers coordinate the series of projects that make up their program.

PhDs who enjoy overseeing people and resources to meet goals in the most effective way may b a good fit for a Program or Project Manager role. A major advantage of roles like these is that they offer the satisfaction of doing work that serves the public.

There are positions in Program or Project Management at all levels of government as well as in intergovernmental organizations. The National Park Service, Federal Communications Commission, and World Health Organization (WHO) are a few examples of departments and organizations that employ program and project managers. 

Time management, strategic thinking, analytical thinking, interpersonal skills, and business acumen are the key skills PhDs targeting these careers should showcase.

Concluding Remarks

There’s a lot of overlap between the skills you used in academia to the ones that a career in government, NGOs and IGOs require. There are also some important differences. Much like a career in industry, jobs in research policy, funding and government place an emphasis on driving results and data accountability. As a professional in any of these roles, PhDs will get a chance to use their niche skills to do impactful work that they can feel good about while remaining connected to the public. 

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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