Aaas Policy Fellowship Application Essays

When considering the S&T Policy Fellowships, interested applicants always have a few common questions. We asked two alumni fellows, Melissa A. Kenney, 2010-12 Executive Branch Fellow at National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and Anish Goel, 2002-03 American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Congressional Fellow and 2003-05 Executive Branch Fellow, U.S. Department of State, to tell us what advice they would give to others when considering applying to the fellowships, what skill set they felt they brought to the program and the three most valuable skills they learned.

Melissa A. Kenney, 2010-12 Executive Branch Fellow at National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration
Environmental Decision Scientist, Research Faculty, University of Maryland, and Lead PI of USGCRP National Climate Assessment Indicators System

Anish Goel, 2002-03 American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Congressional Fellow, 2003-05 Executive Branch Fellow, U.S. Department of State
Director, Technology Policy and Geopolitical Affairs at The Boeing Company

Q1. I think I have a strong science background but am lacking policy experience. Can you provide advice on how I can gain more policy experience?

Melissa: One of the best ways to get policy experience is through a fellowship program like AAAS S&T. Many of the skills you gained completing your Ph.D. or in your professional work are the exact skills that you need to be successful in a science policy position.  But the best way to actually gain policy experience is to do it -- get a job that puts you at the interface of science and policy.

Anish: First, it is important to know that policy experience is not a requirement for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships. The main purpose of the fellowships is identify scientists and engineers who have a strong interest in policy matters and give them opportunities to work in policy arenas, thereby gaining valuable experience. The fellowships program is perhaps the best way to really gain quality policy experience.

Prior to applying, though, there are several ways to gain some initial experience to see if you are really interested in policy. One is to get involved with the professional organization of your field. These organizations are often involved in broader policy issues affecting research in your field and engaging appropriately will give you broad exposure to these issues. Another way is to volunteer with a local charity or organization focused on helping others. Such activities will expose you to a number of issues and policies affecting your community and give you valuable experience on the direct impact that policies can have on the individuals they affect.

The most important thing, however, is to choose something you are passionate about and get involved. If you are passionate, you not only benefit from the experience, but will also be able to demonstrate your commitment and interest in community and public affairs. This interest is what provides the foundation on which to build a successful fellowship.

Q2. What are the most valuable skills you felt you brought to the fellowship experience?

Anish: Critical thinking, analysis, and problem-solving - my technical skills were of secondary importance to the skills that allowed me analyze a given situation, consider different options and decisions, and then make a recommendation based on my own logic and reasoning abilities. Scientists and engineers excel at these types of skills, which come in extremely useful in working in public policy.

In addition, one of the most valuable skills I brought is flexibility – the ability (and willingness) to work on a wide variety of different issues and problems. Policy officers are confronted with many different types of issues on a daily basis, and the ability to switch between them and maintain a high quality of work is quite important. In this regard, it reinforces the value of critical thinking and problem-solving in any setting.

Melissa: I am a multidisciplinary scientist, so the fact that I speak multiple scientific languages and am extremely flexible with the way that I approach problems was a huge benefit.  Additionally, the critical thinking and analytic skills that you have as a scientist are unique in the policy world and are one of the reasons that you are an asset to your team.

Q3. What were the three most valuable experiences/skill set you gained from your fellowship experience?

Melissa: During my fellowship, I chose to work on a project that was really different than the environmental problems in which I had research expertise.  This was one of the best decisions I could have made because it required me to stretch and carve out a new niche for myself by learning new skills. In addition to the technical skills that I learned to work in a new field, I also learned how to network in a way that worked for me.  As a closet introvert, I figured out that meeting up with people for coffee, lunch, or dinner so that I could get to know them instead of working the cocktail parties was a way for me to get to know different folks in a setting that was more comfortable. The fellows in my agency also did group informational interviews with folks at our agency that we thought did really interesting work.  Because it was a group it allowed us to share the hosting responsibilities and develop a list of questions together for our conversations.

Anish: Learning to examine a situation or problem from all sides and perspectives involved, the ability to pick out the most salient and important pieces of information from a vast sea of information, and communicating to a broad and senior-level policy audience. When working in public policy, these three skills are of paramount important and cannot really be learned anywhere except on the job.

Q4. Is there anything you wish you had done differently or taken advantage of during your fellowship tenure?

Melissa: I can’t think of anything I would have done differently

Anish: I wish I had taken the time to take more advantage of all the resources offered to me during my time in the fellowship. The fellowships program organizes a vast treasure trove of lectures, discussions, training, and other opportunities to learn about a wide variety of issues and expand your base of knowledge. At times, I got so caught up in the work associated with my specific placement that my attendance at AAAS events tapered off. I think now that I could have learned and met so many more people if I had stayed a little more focused on the broader fellowship experience.

When applying to graduate schools, you will be required to submit a personal statement as part of your application packet. Writing a personal statement takes time because it requires taking a deep look at the things that make you special--who you are, your background, your experiences, your abilities--and how all of these relate to the field that you are pursuing. I recommend sitting down and thinking long and hard about these things. And while you are at it, you should also consider how graduate school fits into your broader career goals.

By your last year in college you will have gained experience in your field through internships, fellowships, and the like. Write about these and let the grad school admissions committee know of your specific accomplishments.

Other items to highlight include the following:

  • Research opportunities, programs, or classes you have completed relating to the field that has influenced you to continue to pursue a higher degree. (Be sure to describe precisely what role you had in such work.)

  • When and why you became interested in the field.

  • Any leadership or managerial skills that you have learned, and how they have contributed to your personal growth.

  • Any examples that show you possess effective communication, writing, and analytical skills (e.g., oral and/or poster presentations at national scientific meetings, research abstracts published in conference proceedings, articles published in peer reviewed journals).

  • The significant dramatic obstacles you have overcome to be where you are right now. (This is especially applicable to us minority students, who often have to work very hard to achieve such victories.)

  • Explanations of any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record.

  • References to conversations with, seminars given by, or books written by people in the field.

The first paragraph of your statement is the most important. Perhaps you can catch the reader?s attention by telling a story that distinguishes your individuality. Your statement should be strong and well written throughout. It?s not something you can create in a rush--to do it right will take lots of time and preparation.

You want to come across as an intelligent, mature student, who has great potential to contribute to the field. You also want your statement to be unique in order for it to stand out among the other applicants. Don?t mention subjects that are potentially controversial. And do not guess what the admissions committee is looking for and pander to that, because they will see right through such attempts. Also make sure the statement is the correct length--follow the school?s guidelines in this and in other stylistic matters.

Finally, remember that what you choose to write in your personal statement reflects the choices you make in your life. That you have chosen to tell the admissions committee certain things and not others will tell the committee a lot about what is important to you. Use your best judgment.

Recommended Reading

R. J. Stelzer, How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School (Peterson?s Guides, Princeton, New Jersey, ed 1, 1993).

University of California, San Diego, Career Services Center. http://career.ucsd.edu/studentsalumni/Perstmnt.htm (accessed July 2002).

Elizabeth R. Sanchez is a doctoral student in chemistry at Arizona State University. Her research efforts focus on the interactions of magnesium in biological ligands. She received a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Redlands in California. For further information, please send e-mail to Elizabeth at esanch@asu.edu.

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