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Ask what you can do for your country: a career as a scientist in the federal government

Christine Maric-Bilkan,National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Division of Cardiovascular Sciences, Vascular biology and Hypertension branch, Bethesda, MD, USA

Dr. Christine Maric-Bilkan is a Program Officer in the Vascular Biology and Hypertension Branch, Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute/National Institutes of Health. Dr. Maric-Bilkan received both her PhD from the University of Melbourne, Australia in the field of renal physiology. Following post-doctoral training at the University College London, UK, she joined Georgetown University Medical Center in 2001 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, after which she was appointed to Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 2008. During her academic career, Dr. Maric-Bilkan’s research focused on the pathophysiology of diabetic end-organ complications, renal in particular. Dr. Maric-Bilkan has been an active member of the APS, having served as the chair of the Awards Committee and steering committee for the Water and Electrolyte section



Science beyond academia

As a few on this forum have already pointed out, a PhD degree, at least until recently, prepared you primarily (and often only) for a career in academic research (1, 2). Very few could boast of knowing what else there may be out there for someone with a PhD in biomedical sciences. I will be the first to admit that a career in academic science seemed appealing to me at the time and I did not even think to look at alternatives: it was what I was training for after all, right? Knowing what I know now, I may not have done any differently given a second chance in terms of beginning in academic research, but I most certainly would have explored other options before making educated decisions about my lifelong career path.

After completing my PhD and postdoctoral training, I was encouraged to apply for research funding and was lucky enough to receive a grant the very first time I submitted (off to a great start)! As faculty positions are very hard to come by in Australia (and thus becoming “independent” becomes all that much harder), I moved to the USA. I was very fortunate to have been surrounded by very supportive colleagues and mentors. As a result of this, I quickly learned the rules of the “game” and started to establish myself as an “independent” research scientist in an academic setting. Sounds like a success story, so why would I think about an alternative career?

I actually learned to think laterally when it comes to choosing a career path through training graduate students and postdocs. While on the surface it seemed that most of them had similar aspirations of remaining in academic research, a few were courageous enough to say: I am not sure I want to lead an independent lab, am I a “failure”? Firstly, I salute those who take the time to think about what it is that they really want to do and secondly, by no means should one consider oneself unsuccessful for not taking the beaten path. I feel the failure of most PhD programs to provide some guidance and education on alternative careers has made it challenging for individuals to build a successful career in fields they had no or very little training in. Thus, succeeding in an alternative career path, to my mind, may be considered an even more challenging quest. I would not want however to put blame only on academic programs for their shortcomings (many are actually improving), there are many other key players and stakeholders who should pay attention to preparing PhDs for alternative careers, but this is another story altogether. My goal is to stress that, if you haven’t already thought about exploring your career options, please do so, even if you do end up in academia (it is still a very good life for many!). This is becoming increasingly more important not just in terms of finding a fulfilling job and career, but especially in light of recent reports documenting fewer secure academic positions for the number of PhDs being trained (3).

Before I offer any further thoughts and advice, let me go back to finishing my personal story on how and why I chose an alternative career path, as it may help some of you. After 16 years of academic research, 12 years of leading an independent laboratory, many grant applications (some successful and some not) and manuscripts, I became a health science administrator (HSA, more about what this position actually is below). Why did I give up my academic job? As many of you may be currently experiencing, it was becoming increasingly harder to secure grant funding, even though I was well funded at the time and quite enjoyed writing grant applications. However, I sensed that the type of research that was actually getting funded wasn’t the kind I was interested in doing. I liked the bigger picture and enjoyed identifying significant scientific problems and gaps, but didn’t necessarily want to study them personally. So can one still be involved with looking for scientific questions that need to be answered and grant applications without having to do all the experiments? The answer is yes….that is exactly what a health scientist administrator (HSA), Program Officer (PO) to be more precise, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) does.

Transitioning from academia into government

Transitions are never easy, especially when the change is so dramatic, or is it? People’s reaction to learning that you are becoming an HSA is quite interesting: really? You want to sit at your desk all day long reading manuscripts and grant applications, following trends in science? Well, when you think about it, how much different is that from being in academia? I remember spending a significant amount of time on administration, including grant application, manuscript writing and reviewing etc. at the Associate Professor level. But, there are differences, and the biggest one that you have to face is that you are no longer a principal investigator (PI). You are no longer directing your own research, but rather a public “servant”, who is there to help PIs in their endeavors. At first, you may feel as if you have lost something or someone, a big void. You miss the excitement of getting new data and designing new studies to try and answer those questions that the study you just completed opened. But, the feeling does go away…with the first phone call of PIs calling to express their frustration with the summary statement they just received on their grant review!

For the position of a PO (and I suspect this is also the case with other HSA positions at the NIH), there were a number of things that made the transition from academia to administration easier. Having had previous experience in grant writing and understanding the trials and tribulations that go with it most definitely helped (and possibly got me the job in the first place). The scientific portfolio that I was administering was directly related to the field of research I was in during my academic career. As such, I was already familiar with the research of about 75% of the grants in my portfolio. This not only helped make the transition seamless for me, but I also feel that the PIs of the grants I was administering felt more conformable speaking to me and asking for help because they knew me. Ultimately, transitions really are personal, so a positive outlook may make a big difference!

What can I do as a scientist in government?

As a PO at the NIH, your responsibilities can generally be divided into interactions with the extramural grantee community and providing scientific expertise related to the mission of the Institute (in my case, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)(4). Interactions with the extramural grantee community include advising PIs (especially new and early stage investigators) on current funding opportunities and how to actually apply for grants (if you are overwhelmed by the sheer number and type of grants you can apply for, POs can guide you). They can also help you determine whether your proposed research topics fits within their portfolio and what Institute may be the best fit. Once your grant gets reviewed, the PO will also help you interpret those dreaded reviewers comments and advise on the next steps. Once your grant gets funded, your PO will remain your main point of contact through the duration of your funding period. They will monitor research progress and provide advice on any changes you may need to make to the aims proposed in your original grant application and, basically, help you manage your grant. I would like to use this opportunity to strongly encourage all of you intending to apply for NIH funding to establish a working relationship with your POs, they really can and like to help!

When not liaising with the extramural grantee community and administering scientific portfolios of grants and contracts, POs may be developing and writing requests for applications and program announcements, organizing workshops on topics of unmet scientific need and generally, keeping up with the trends in science. On occasion, we also provide scientific expertise in answering inquiries from the public, professional societies/organizations and the U.S. Congress.

In addition to POs, there are numerous other administrative positions for scientists with PhDs at the NIH. You may be familiar with Scientific Review Officers, or SROs, whose main responsibility is to ensure that the scientific review group (aka, study section) identifies the most meritorious science for funding (5). If you happen to have an MD, you may also qualify for a position of a Medical Officer, who typically oversees large clinical trials (PhDs may also be involved with monitoring clinical trials).

Working for the federal government as a scientist is often incorrectly equated to being an administrator. If sitting at a desk for most of your time is not your cup of tea, there are many positions within the federal government, the NIH in particular, where you can still be part of, if not lead your own research lab! The NIH is not only the world’s largest funding agency, but also the largest biomedical research agency on the planet (6). I would have to say though that positions of tenured staff scientists or head of laboratories at the NIH are not so easily obtainable, mainly because there are very few (each year the NIH recruits around 30 tenured and tenure-track positions (7)), but nonetheless, these opportunities do exist for PhDs in biomedical sciences.

While this article mainly focuses on careers within the NIH, there are many other government agencies, at both the federal and state level, with career opportunities for PhDs in biomedical sciences. The few that first come to mind are: National Science Foundation (http://www.nsf.gov), The Center for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov), US Food and Drug Administration (http://www.fda.gov), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (https://www.nasa.gov) Department of Defense (http://www.defense.gov), etc. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I refer any of you potentially interested in these positions to the section on “How to apply for a federal job” below for further information.

Working for the federal government: pros and cons

One of the main advantages of working for the federal government is the relative job security, which is especially relevant in the fiscally challenging times we are facing these days. Compared with jobs in academia, positions within the federal government are accompanied by less pressure to obtain funding and grants. As such, scientists in government labs tend to have more flexibility and freedom to do their research unrestricted by other academic commitments (e.g. teaching). Because of resources available, opportunities for collaborations and interactions between research groups are plentiful. Jobs in the federal government come with federal benefits, including health insurance, retirement and vacation. There are also moral incentives to working for the federal government: the work you do impacts the health of every American and even the lives of people around the world!

Some of the benefits of working for the federal government are also weaknesses. For example, while scientists in the federal government have more protected time to do research as they don’t have to teach or write grants, their research may have to undergo several levels of review within the agency (a procedure that is quite cumbersome). For HSAs, while you are free to write manuscripts, they also undergo several layers of review within the agency before you are permitted to submit for publication. The many rules and regulations about everything you do at the federal government make many activities (e.g. travel and conference attendance) either prohibitive or very difficult. However, as a grant reviewer would typically conclude: the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, thus the enthusiasm for working for the federal government as a scientist remains high!

How to apply for a federal job

Did you know that the US government is the largest single employer in the USA, employing over 1.6 million full-time, permanent positions? Not all of these jobs are appropriate for PhDs in biomedical scientists of course, but the point being, that you are likely to come across many different kind of positions that you may not have known exist. Your first and most extensive source of information on currently available jobs within the federal government is www.USAJobs.gov. This website is essentially a database of nearly all federal jobs, searchable by keyword, location, income level, and other parameters. The USAJobs website is also the exclusive portal for applying for those federal jobs. You may also find useful information on highly rated places to work within the federal government at http://bestplacestowork.org and information on federal benefits and salaries as well as the demographics of the federal work force at www.opm.gov.

Disclosures

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institutes of Health or the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

References

  1. Stow L. Mentoring for Diverse Careers: A Mentee Perspective. Physiologist. 2015;58(2):99-100.
  2. Fortepiani ML. Transitioning from the Bench to the Classroom, an Education-Intensive Career. Physiologist. 2016;59(1):1, 3-7.
  3. Gould J. How to build a better PhD. Nature. 2015;528(7580):22-5.
  4. Nakamura RK. The Role of the Program Officer at NIHProgram NIH.
    http://www.jst.go.jp/po_seminar/h16semi/pdf/semi2/pre/no_10.pdf.
  5. Center for Scientific Review N. Role-Of-The-SRO----A-Quick-Overview
    http://public.csr.nih.gov/ReviewerResources/MeetingOverview/Pages/ROLE-OF-THE-SRO----A-QUICK-OVERVIEW.aspx.
  6. About the National Institutes of Health. https://www.nih.gov/about-nih.
  7. Faculty-Level Scientific Careers. http://irp.nih.gov/careers/faculty-level-scientific-careers.

 


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Comments:

Thank you Dr. Maric-Bilkan for a wonderful mentoring forum on career opportunities for scientist in the federal government! As a PhD that recently made the transition from academia to government I believe this is an important topic to discuss. As a graduate student I was unaware of the opportunities available to me in the government until a friend already working at NIH recommended I look at a particular position. I would encourage all graduate students and post-docs to explore their options, and talk to individuals in every area (academia, government, private sector) before deciding on a position.

Laura A. A. Gilliam, Ph.D.
Research Health Scientist
Cincinnati VA Medical Center


Questions:

What skills would we need to teach students to better prepare them for a job in a government lab as compared to a traditional tenure-track position?

Karen Sweazea, PhD
Associate Professor
School of Nutrition and Health Promotion
School of Life Sciences
Arizona State University


Response:

I don’t think that any special or additional skills to work in a government vs. academic lab are necessary. My thoughts on where academic training programs need to do better are more related to preparing trainees for careers other than working in an academic lab, teaching them non-traditional skills (e.g. management) that would allow them to potentially enter in a wide variety of professions.

Christine Maric-Bilkan, Ph.D.
Program Officer, NIH/NHLBI


Nice article on alternative career paths for scientists in the federal government. I agree that those of us who are several years removed from graduate school have had to learn on the fly on how to “think laterally” when it comes to alternative career paths. Today’s graduate students have the opportunity to experience competency-based curriculums/education programs, and, in combination with an Individual Development Plan, to tailor their educational needs to their career goals and aspirations.

Regarding your transition to a PO, do you need both (a) grant writing/grant reviewing and (b) familiarity in a research area to have a chance at landing these types of jobs? Which skill set did you have to work/ improve on the most in your transition?

Joseph Yuan, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
University of North Texas Health Sciences Center


Response:

Getting a PO position is becoming competitive and in a competitive market, every skill counts. It would be difficult to say if either both or even either are absolutely necessary to get the position. There are POs that have never been in academia and never had to write or review a grant. There are also POs that have backgrounds in completely different research areas to what they are involved with now. So certainly, it is possible to get these positions without having all of those skills, I just think it helps with getting with the transition. The thing that I had to (and still do) work on most is communication, diplomacy, negotiation and team work.

Christine Maric-Bilkan, Ph.D.
Program Officer, NIH/NHLBI



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