student life

So You Got a STEM Degree: How to Start a Career in Law & Policy

One way to get a job with your science degree? Inform legal and political decisions in government, industrial, or academic organizations.

This post was first published at the Thomas Edison State University Blog. TESU is the Leader in Online Education and my alma mater. You can check out the original here!


As any student with a diploma in hand, you may be thinking: Now what? For the STEM student, we’ve explored a variety of career choices, beginning with academia, but that decision could also include a career in law and policy. But what might that career trajectory look like?

Law and policy is an application of your STEM degree that will move you out of the wet lab and into data, reading, writing and legal applications. So what is an important skill for this field? You will need the ability to take high volumes of scientific data and distill it into a format accessible to the non-technical reader (perhaps your local politician).

Some of the roles and necessary skills of a scientist who works in law and policy could include such case studies as:

  1. fishery biology (one of my online undergraduate courses);
  2. policy and funding development in the White House, as presented at a graduate seminar I attended;
  3. environmental toxicology, a graduate course I took; and/or
  4. law and policy for industry, as explained by my colleagues, friends and co-workers.

An online class: fishery biology.

My first introduction to law and policy in STEM was in an online course I took in fishery biology. In this course, we looked at populations of aquatic organisms – specifically, organisms fished for human consumption. As a result, we studied not only the ecology of these populations and how they respond to their environment, but also their social and economic context.

Assigned reading included treaties between countries that shared fisheries. If a species spawns in one nation’s streams, but spend their lives along another nation’s coastlines, who has a right to fish them? What kinds of rules should each nation follow to protect its own habitat? Each nation has a vested interest in the environmental protection and fishing rights of the other.

In another example, we looked at sustainable fishing policies and how they can potentially clash with indigenous practices. Enforcing sustainability laws on indigenous peoples would be disrespectful, and traditional fishing practices are often earth-friendly or, at least, they aren’t conducted at commercial scales. Thus, social concerns often lead to legal exceptions for certain cultures.

In fishery biology, one must balance environmental, but also economic needs; there are people whose livelihood depends on fishing, so scientists must ensure their needs are accounted for. We need policies today that will protect the economic and environmental well-being of tomorrow.

Grad school: STEM to inform politics.

While working on my graduate degree, my school hosted a talk by Mary Maxon, a scientist who served as the assistant director for Biological Research at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (she now works for the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory). She offered another glimpse into the life of a scientist working in law and policy – this time, in a highly fast-paced and demanding environment.

What did her job entail?

  • Research the latest data on high-impact topics like climate change, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, etc.
  • Communicate this research to a lay audience to inform policy and funding decisions
  • On some nights, she’d receive a stack of 20-plus scientific papers and be required to have a report ready the next morning summarizing them
  • Develop the National Bioeconomy Blueprint addressing the bioeconomy’s potential for addressing economic and societal needs

I also took a class at this same college that dealt with environmental toxicology. Our case study? Mercury pollution, and our required reading included research papers covering topics like genetic mechanisms of mercury uptake, epidemiology-like studies of the effects of prenatal exposure on neural development and economic reviews translating mercury’s effects on brain function into tax dollars. We started with genetics and biochemistry, and we ended with the economic effects of policy changes for industries that release waste polluted with mercury.

As a field, then, law and policy requires both broad technical knowledge of interdisciplinary fields as well as specific, detailed knowledge of the science, methods and data analysis so that you can critically analyze the studies you are reading. Then, you are required to synthesize all of this multilevel information into a report that makes sense to a non-scientist.

Industry’s law and policy scientists.

The kind of work done by Maxon helps direct the development of new laws and policies; another aspect of the field deals with laws after they’ve been made. While chatting with a scientist at the Contra Costa Water District, I heard a little about a law and policy job that requires anticipating changes in the environment based off of policy changes going on in Washington, D.C. How can we respond accordingly to protect human and environmental health?

There are also legal departments at tech industries. At my own job, I’ve talked with scientists who moved from wet lab work and into law and policy (often, having a PhD helps this transition, though graduate school is not required). In one case, a conversation over a scientist’s well-organized lab notebook resulted in a connection that helped her transition to the legal department – she reports that the field favors those who can present advanced scientific material clearly and succinctly.

In industry, your job might entail providing legal advice, researching legal requirements for using patented protocols and technology, and writing patents for discoveries made by researchers at your company.

Conclusions.

Law and policy is a field that emphasizes good communication skills, expansive knowledge of science and law, and the ability to consider economics, sociology, culture and ethics to scientific discovery.

Since law and policy focuses so much on reading, synthesizing information from multiple sources and distilling data into legal reports, the online class format is an awesome fit for students interested in this STEM career path. Taking online classes is tough and requires a lot of self-direction, motivation and, often, fast-paced learning – play that up in your interviews. Your nontraditional education sets you apart from the crowd and contributes to a unique skillset.

A last bit of advice I have received from scientists in law and policy: It is easier to transition from STEM into law than from law into STEM. Moving from law and policy into STEM might require you to go back to school, but if you move from STEM into law and policy, it is easier to pick up the legal skills on the job and build on your STEM degree’s soft skills and scientific literacy.

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