Within just four years of finishing her PhD in biophysics, Jessica Tuchman Mathews was Director of Global Issues for President Carter’s National Security Council.1 In her first year in the role she helped put together a nuclear non-proliferation pact among 15 countries including the US and the Soviet Union.
Later in her career, Jessica served as Deputy to the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, wrote a weekly column for the Washington Post, and most recently served as President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an influential Washington-based foreign policy think tank.
What launched such an successful career? In our conversation with Jessica, she argued it was the AAAS Science & Technology (S&T) Policy Fellowship. Jessica was selected as one of their inaugural fellows in 1973.
In this article2 we argue that for eligible people interested in our top recommended problem areas and S&T policy careers the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship is a valuable springboard that could rapidly advance your career as it did for Jessica.
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At 80,000 Hours, we think the AAAS Policy Fellowship is one of the best routes into the US Government for people with a STEM or social science PhD, or an engineering masters and three years of industry experience.
Policy fellows work within the US Government for one year in policy-related roles relevant to science and technology. Nearly 300 fellows are accepted each year, and almost all of them take assignments within the executive branch, for example in the Departments of Defense and State or within the intelligence community. A small handful of fellows work in congress or within the judiciary.3
AAAS policy fellows have a good reputation in government. The fellowship has been running for over 40 years, and attracts high-caliber scientists and engineers interested in policy. Applicants come from a range of backgrounds, including early- to late-career researchers, but also people who have left research to work in industry or the not-for-profit sector. Government offices are often keen to hire AAAS Policy Fellows because of the expertise they bring to government. Jessica Tuchman Mathews described how in her day it was “a wonderful calling card”, a sentiment that was echoed by others we spoke with.
This makes the Fellowship among the best routes we’ve found into US Government S&T policy careers.
We think that these careers offer a substantial opportunity to contribute to policy-making on a range of issues from artificial intelligence (AI) to biosecurity, and from ending factory farming to ending extreme poverty.
We are particularly excited about people with advanced degrees in subjects relevant to machine learning entering government. The way AI is handled by governments is likely to shape this technology’s development, which in turn could impact humanity’s long-term trajectory. We outline our views on why we think AI public policy careers are particularly impactful in this article.
Fellows receive a stipend of $80,000 to $105,000 as well as other support including health insurance, a travel stipend and a year-long professional development programme.
For more information about the fellowship, read AAAS’s FAQ.
In the following sections, we’ll go into more detail about the fellowship’s eligibility requirements and its pros and cons.
To be eligible for the AAAS policy fellowship, you must be a US citizen with a PhD in a STEM or social or behavioural science subject. Engineers with an engineering masters degree and a minimum of three years of industry experience are also eligible.
We asked AAAS whether people with CS masters would be eligible. A spokesperson for AAAS said people with at least three years of industry experience and a computer science masters from an engineering school with may be eligible, and encouraged them to apply. They also explained that all final eligibility determinations are up to the reviewers.
If you have several years experience in the technology sector, then you should also consider the TechCongress Fellowship.
The Fellowship seems to offer a significant boost in career capital in just one year, especially for those who want to focus on issues relevant to global catastrophic risks. This section outlines some of the reasons why.
During your AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship, it is usually possible to serve in more senior roles in government than you might have otherwise been offered. This is in large part because of the fellowship’s prestige within government, which is probably helped by its competitive application process and the positive reputation of past fellows.
The AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship boasts a 3000-person alumni network. Some of the most impressive mid-career policymakers we know at 80,000 Hours were once AAAS S&T Policy Fellows. Having a network within government that spans departments is also valuable for helping get things done.
The fellowship has an impressive placement record. The fellowship FAQ gives some statistics:
“In the year immediately following their fellowship, approximately 40-50% of fellows continue working in the policy realm (not necessarily in federal government); 20-25% return to the sector in which they worked previously; and 20-25% use the experience as a stepping stone to a new opportunity.”
Compared with most other US Government fellowships, the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship is more relevant to those attempting to improve the long-term future because of its focus on science and technology policy.
If there is a reasonably large chance that you will want to return to academia after the policy fellowship, then spending a year in government may make that harder. In general, once you leave academia, it can be difficult to return.
A similar argument may apply if you are thinking of returning to non-academic research after the fellowship. In this case it will probably be better to do research-related work instead of this fellowship.
After the year of the fellowship, you do not have a job in government by default. You will need to use the network that you develop over the course of the year to find a position in your second year. On occasion it is possible, however, to extend the fellowship to a second year at the mutual agreement of the host office, AAAS, and yourself.
You do not have complete control over which part of government you end up working in. Placements are allocated by agreement between AAAS, the host departments/agencies, and applicants. You do not know which office you will be placed with until the end of the process.
The application process for the fellowship is somewhat involved. In addition to the usual references and online application, you will be required to write a policy memo and present it in a video interview. Near the end of the process there are also in-person interviews in DC with potential placement offices.
The application process is also relatively competitive, though AAAS do not release information on the fraction of applicants that are accepted.
If you’re a US citizen with a science PhD or an engineering masters4, we think certain areas of S&T policy are among your highest impact career paths. The AAAS Fellowship is one of the best ways to launch a career in US S&T policy and we strongly encourage you to consider applying. The annual deadline is November 1st.
We are particularly interested to meet with potential applicants with PhDs or CS masters who are interested in working in one of our priority paths such as AI policy. If you fit this description, please get in touch below and we may be able to make introductions, help advise on how to apply, and provide career guidance.
- ‘40 years of impact’, a video by AAAS interviewing fellows from previous decades.
- ‘AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship FAQ’, which answers many common questions about the fellowship
- ‘Effective altruism in government’, a talk by Jason Matheny on government careers aiming at social impact
- 80,000 Hours’ AI policy careers guide describes how to move into AI public policy careers
Notes and references
- Jessica started her career as a AAAS congressional fellow for Congressman Mo Udall. Mo Udall sought the Democratic nomination in 1976, and Jessica started writing policy position papers for him. Jessica went on to play a key policy role in his campaign. When Jimmy Carter won the nomination, Jessica was one of the three key people who Mo Udall recommended strongly to Carter. Carter hired all three of Udall’s recommendations to his campaign. Jessica went on to serve in Carter’s national security council when he was elected President.↩
- A copy of this article was sent to AAAS for review and comment before it was published. This does not mean that AAAS agrees with or endorses everything written here.↩
- Formally fellowships on the hill and in the judiciary are not sponsored by AAAS, but rather are sponsored by its partner societies.↩
- AAAS is not confident that CS masters will be eligible. In addition, the masters will need to have been awarded by an engineering school, and you also need to have at least three years of industry experience. See this section for more details.↩