Reflections on my Congressional Fellowship

31. August 2012

Laura K. Povlich

The year that I’ve spent as the 2011-2012 Materials Research Society and Optical Society Congressional Science and Engineering fellow has been incredible. Not only did I work in a Congress member’s office, but for the last four months I filled the role of the health adviser. It’s difficult to believe that just a little over a year ago I was defending my Ph.D. in engineering, and now I’m advising a member of Congress on actions related to Medicare, Medicaid and other health policy topics.

I applied for the MRS/OSA fellowship because I was interested in exploring an alternative career path. At the time I wasn’t really sure what this meant, but I knew that I wanted to see what I could do with my Ph.D. besides lab research. I was hoping that the fellowship would give me the opportunity to experience a science policy career and decide whether it was for me. In the process, I’ve realized that there are so many science policy job options—in  Congress, government agencies, non-profits or think-tanks, industry, and academia—that  there is no single definition of a policy career path.

Although the countless choices might seem overwhelming, I heard a useful piece of advice at a fellowship career seminar. One of the speakers explained that those interested in science policy shouldn’t try to aspire to a certain position or title, but instead aim to do the work that they find most gratifying.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not often how we think of setting up a career. Coming from an academic background, I had always aspired to the most prestigious title—professor. But now, I think of my career in terms of the impact that I want to have and the topics that I find fascinating. While this may not help me develop an end goal for my career, reaching a set target no longer seems so important.

As for where my career is going next, my fellowship in Congress has made me to realize that I don’t currently have a desire to work in politics. However, I would like to continue dealing with health policy issues. I also miss interacting more closely with scientific topics and other scientists, although not necessarily in an academic context. Therefore, I’ve accepted an AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellowship at the National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center. I plan to use this position to guide policies and research that improve global health outcomes.

I am eternally grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to explore different science policy options through the MRS/OSA fellowship. It allowed me to jump into a congressional position that I would never have been hired for otherwise, and revealed just how valuable scientists can be in the policy world. I hope that other scientists who are interested in exploring non-traditional jobs apply for the fellowship and discover their own science policy career paths.

Laura K. Povlich (lpovlich@gmail.com) earned her Ph.D. in macromolecular science and engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2011. Her passion for health policy developed in graduate school and also while serving as the 2011-2012 MRS/OSA Congressional Fellow in Rep. Sander Levin’s office. Laura is now the 2012-2013 AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow at the NIH Fogarty International Center.

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