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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices
A Physicsist Rewrites Her Story and Finds a Career in PolicyBy:
Anna Quider, Director of Federal Relations, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb
I was halfway through my astronomy PhD at the University of Cambridge, and I was confused—not by my research, which was going well, but by my waning desire to do research.
I thought I’d work hard and become a professor. I had dreams of becoming the first woman in decades to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. I thought that’s just what all physicists should want to do. So what was wrong with me?
To jump to the punch line: nothing. I was just starting a different journey to becoming one of the thousands of physicists each year who pursue career opportunities other than academic research. Now I am the director of federal relations for Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb. I am the bridge connecting students and faculty at NIU to government officials in Washington, DC, and I have the privilege of advocating every day for education, research, economic investment, the arts, innovation, and many other topics that are important to my university community and our nation.
If I could hop in Dr. Who’s time machine, the TARDIS, and visit my undergraduate self, I think she would stare in disbelief at her future self. As an undergrad, I didn’t even know that careers like mine exist!
Ask the hard questions
So how did I get here? The ancient Greeks got it right with the aphorism “Know thyself.” To get a sense for what my life could be like as a researcher, I read biographies of academic physicists. Then I branched out to politicians, social activists, artists, and others outside of science.
I began to ask myself hard questions. What did I want the story of my life to say? What did I genuinely enjoy doing? What was I actually good at? Then came the realization that changed my life: I wanted my life story to read more like that of Hillary Clinton than that of Marie Curie. Then came the guilt (I’ll let everyone down! I’m abandoning science!), the fear (What am I going to do with my life now?!), and the relief (I can have a fulfilling career without writing computer code for the next 40 years!).
You don’t have to read a dozen biographies to see the possibilities. There are tools to help you along the process of self-reflection and career exploration, such as the Careers Toolbox for Undergraduate Physics Students (http://www.spsnational.org/careerstoolbox/). Find out about people whose careers you admire or people you hear about in the news. Read their Wikipedia pages or websites, and don’t be shy about asking them for an informational interview.
By turning the lens on myself, I realized a number of things. My favorite thing to do is public speaking. Learning is critical to my happiness, but discovery is not. I am not a talented computer programmer. I am a “people person” who thrives on working with others. I enjoy leadership positions. I am very good at networking and building relationships. I prefer working on multiple projects at once. I enjoy teaching.
Expand your horizons
Physicists regularly place at the top of employability surveys. The question is not whether you can get a job, but how to get a job you will be happy doing. The world is much bigger than you think, and physicists are working pretty much everywhere. Start expanding your horizons by going to talks in other departments and volunteering.
Interested in policy, specifically? Follow FYI from the American Institute of Physics (read a story from its primary author, Richard Jones, on p. 16). Check out the American Physical Society’s Forum on Physics and Society and follow the meetings of the Public Outreach and Public Affairs Committees. Do the things a political science student does: help out with a political campaign, run for student government, or join discussion groups on current events. Firsthand experience looks great on a resume and should help you figure out if you want to pursue a career in policy. Even if you decide that your interests lie elsewhere, the experience will make you a better citizen and more effective advocate for things you care about (such as science research and education).
While in graduate school I began attending events at the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy, a then–newly established organization linking Cambridge scientific expertise with UK policy makers. I vividly recall when one member of Parliament spoke about a colleague who believed that since one in ten unvaccinated children was expected to fall ill to a certain ailment, scientists should just find and vaccinate that one child likely to fall ill. Misconceptions like this put in stark relief the need for scientists to work with policy makers. They also make the case for a robust basic education in science and mathematics.
I learned firsthand about small-scale policy making after I was elected to my graduate student council and to Cambridge’s Faculty Board of Physics and Chemistry. Working to create and enact policies that affected the lives of over a thousand students was at times daunting yet always rewarding. I also honed my communication skills by volunteering for public lectures, school visits, and the Cambridge astronomy podcast.
Fellowships and internships can be a great way to explore using your physics training in creative ways. Check out the SPS internships, especially the AIP Mather Public Policy Internships. Corporations, nonprofits, and even lobbying firms also offer summer internships—think outside of the box!
Upon earning my PhD, I was incredibly fortunate to receive the 2011 Congressional Science Policy Fellowship from the American Physical Society. I had a fabulous year working for Representative Russ Carnahan on issues ranging from education to telecommunications. From 2012–2014 I was a Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the US Department of State supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The experience of managing a science and technology program operating in 54 countries and helping people realize their potential was equal parts fulfilling and inspiring.
Opportunities exist at the intersection of your values, interests, skills, and education level. Working in policy has united my passion for science and learning with my love of communicating. I see myself as a physicist and an educator who oversees an unorthodox classroom.
There aren’t right or wrong choices for how to use your physics training, just choices that will be better fits for you. During a job interview in graduate school I was asked where I saw my career going in 20 years. I said, “I don’t know . . . but I know I will be happy.” I did not get the job, but I stand by my answer.
My career so far hasn’t followed a linear trajectory with an a priori endpoint; it has been an organically evolving adventure driven by curiosity, passion, and personal growth, mixed with a bit of chance. I wish you well on your own journey!
- AIP Career Pathways Project at www.spsnational.org/cup/careerpathways/
- National Science Policy Group at http://natscipolgroup.org
- Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/pga/policyfellows
- American Physical Societyís Congressional Policy Fellowships at www.aps.org/policy/fellowships/congressional.cfm
- Science and Technology Policy Institute's Policy Fellowship Program at www.ida.org/STPI/STPIResearchStaff/FellowshipProgram.aspx
- American Physical Society Forum on Physics and Society at www.aps.org/units/fps/