So you want to be a (science) policy wonk?

You don’t have to work for free.

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House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC.

Over at policy blog The Duck of Minerva, Kate Kidder, a doctoral candidate in security studies, has offered some advice to aspiring policy wonks. Washington, DC is all about personal connections, and to build them, Kidder says, you will need an internship – probably an unpaid internship. As in many fields, long hours and menial labor are expected.

The intellectuals at Crooked Timber thought her advice was probably good, but emblematic of an industry that expects aspiring young people to work full time for free for 6 months to a year while wearing $300 shoes.

ESA policy analyst Terence Houston confirms that interning for free is the norm on the Hill. (He put in his dues working election campaigns as an undergraduate). He agrees that going above-and-beyond expectations is the way to get noticed, though he doesn’t necessarily recommend volunteering to wash coffee cups. Interns that stood out for him turned up to help with managing events or contacting constituents, or generally shone at tasks they were asked to do.

Past ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winners stood out from other applicants by talking to their community about politically hot topics in ecology (one student met with local hunting groups to talk about wolves), organizing events on their campuses, or helping out with local campaigns or policy initiatives. They talk about some of their experiences with Terence on the Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast.

If you are interested in applying your scientific experience to policy-making in the United States, he says, whether as a grad student or established scientist, you should spend some time volunteering locally to gain some experience and resume cred.

Butyou need not work full-time for free. There are internships that will pay you. Explore these opportunities (most require a one-year commitment):

Fellowships for post-docs and established scientists:

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science Science & Technology Policy Fellowship aimed at post-docs and scientists & engineers established in their careers (including master’s degree holders with several years of professional experience), the program places fellows in five area of national government. A 2014-15 pilot program will place two fellows with the Federal Judicial Court of Washington, D.C.
    *Application Deadline: Nov. 1, 2013. (starts Sept. 2014)
  • American Geophysical Union Congressional Science Fellowship sends post-docs and scientists & engineers established in their careers to work in the US legislature as part of the AAAS Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship Program.
    *Application Deadline: Feb. 1, 2013. (starts Sept. 2014)
  • White House Fellowship Selected individuals typically spend a year working as a full-time, paid Fellow to senior White House Staff, Cabinet Secretaries and other top-ranking government officials. Applicants must have completed their undergraduate education and be working in their chosen professions.
    *Application Deadline: Jan. 15, 2014 (starts late Aug. 2014)
  • Jefferson Science Fellowship, administered by the National Academies, places tenured or similarly ranked academics from U.S. universities at the U.S. Department of State or USAID as science advisors on foreign policy issues.
    *Application Deadline: Jan. 13, 2014 (starts mid-Aug. 2014)
  • California Science and Technology Policy Fellowships place professional scientists and engineers in the California State Legislature for one-year appointments.
    *2014-2015 application period begins Dec. 1, 2013

Fellowships for Graduate Students:

ESA 2013 Graduate Policy Awardees

2013 ESA Graduate Policy Award winners. Want to dip your toe in policy waters? ESA brings students to Washington for two days of training and visits to congressional offices. Stay tuned to this space: the application period for 2014 will open later this fall.


  • NOAA & State Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowships places graduate students in one-year paid fellowships with “hosts” in the legislative and executive branch of government located in the Washington, D.C. area.
    *Application Deadline: late March, 2014
  • California State Sea Grant Fellowship program matches highly motivated and qualified graduate students and recent graduates with “hosts” in state or federal agencies in California for a 12-month paid fellowship.
    *Application Deadline: Sept. 26, 2013. (starts Dec. 2013)
  • Oregon Sea Grant Natural Resource Policy Fellowship will place one graduate student fellow in an Oregon state agency for one year.
    *Application Deadline: TBD. (starts Jan. 2014)
  • Washington State Marc Hershman Marine Policy Fellowship places four graduate students or recent graduates for one year with host offices in Olympia, Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, working on ocean and coastal science and management issues.
    *Application Deadline: Late Apr., 2014. (starts Oct. 2014)
  • Great Lakes Commission-Sea Grant Fellowship housed at the Great Lakes Commission offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, assigns grad and professional students responsibilities in the area of science/policy research, analysis and interjurisdictional coordination.
    *Application Deadline: Feb., 2014. (starts June 2014)
  • NAS Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program brings graduate students to Washington for 12 weeks in the National Academies of Sciences policy shop.
    *Application Deadline: summer, 2014. (starts Jan. 2014)


Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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