This is the sixth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.
Name: Sandeep Dayal
Current position: Health science policy analyst, Office of Scientific Program and Policy Analysis, NIDDK
Location: Bethesda, MD
Time in current position: 1 year
Postdoc: Role of chromatin remodeling in class-switch recombination with Gary Felsenfeld and Marty Gellert at NIDDK
Day-to-day: We analyze the science that goes on at NIDDK and make it accessible to people, i.e. Congress as they decide on funding. We support the institute director. I write in lay language a lot. I work on things like meeting reports, admin reports, PowerPoints and briefing materials. I analyze data sometimes. I work a lot with the extramural staff and the communications office.
Almost everyone in the office has a Ph.D. and some postdoc experience. It’s necessary to have people with strong science backgrounds to quickly digest very technical material. It’s actually kind of intimidating! Everyone’s really smart.
Essential skills: The main skill that stands out is writing. You have to really love to write, and writing in lay language is not the same as what you write in the lab. That part was kind of new to me. You really have to understand the science inside and out to write for the public and maintain the accuracy. It’s a constant learning process.
It also takes a little bit of humility. You have to be okay with people editing your work. In the beginning, documents would come back all bloody red with tracked changes and I was like, “Oh, my God, I thought I was a good writer.” And lots of things I do don’t have my name on them. You have to be okay with people not knowing you wrote something.
Adjustments: In the lab, I was used to being pretty independent. The amount of interaction with other people in this job is just so much more: working in a group to discuss ideas, managing projects, delegating responsibilities, being diplomatic in how you handle things, being tactful and respectful of people’s time and effort. On the other side, you spend a lot of time sitting in your office and writing.
The scope of the science is completely different. In my postdoc, I worked on one region of the genome. I knew every single modification of that histone. In this kind of job, you never do anything in depth. It’s much broader. One day it’s X-ray crystallography of a drug interacting with a protein and the next it’s large-scale trials of whether vending machines affect childhood obesity rates. I love it, but it wouldn’t be for everyone.
Another difference is deadlines. I was told in the interview that I’d have to work within deadlines, but I guess I didn’t fully appreciate what that does for your work when you’re juggling three or four or five projects. You have to work quickly and budget your time carefully. You have to get things done to 80-90% of your satisfaction and then let them go.
Sometimes I do miss doing experiments and analyzing data. I miss the flexibility of lab life. On the other hand, I work 8:30 to 5:00 most days. There’s more structure. I don’t miss failed experiments or troubleshooting! The way I see it, every job has its mini-preps—the little jobs you don’t want to do. But if the fun stuff outweighs the boring stuff, you’re in a good place.
A path in hindsight: When I started my postdoc, probably like most people I was thinking about PI positions and academia. It didn’t take long to realize that maybe I don’t want to do this long-term. I was watching people smarter than me at the bench struggle. You have to really love it. There was something missing for me.
Since grad school, I’d been doing all these things outside the lab. I was president of my grad school student association and I started my own journal club. At the NIH I joined Felcom. It’s all stuff you’d call leadership. I talked to lots of people at the NIH, and what kept coming up was policy. I took a look back and saw that all the things I’d been doing were good preparation for a career in policy.
Network, network, network: Start with your friends. It sounds silly, but it’s true. They’re your immediate networking circle. Then expand on that. Go for coffee, send emails, make phone calls, go on “informational interviews.” I used the contacts I made at Felcom. I learned of this job because two people gave me the heads up. They knew I was looking, and they said I should apply. I got an industry offer through networking with people I knew in grad school.
If you have people who can put your resumé in front of the right eyes, it really helps. It won’t get you the job, but it’ll get your resumé looked at.
Take a chance: I almost didn’t apply for this job. I didn’t have direct policy experience. But people said apply, apply, so, okay. I sat down with the person whose job I would be filling—she was moving overseas—and tried to really understand it, to see if it was what I wanted to do. And it was. Then it was a matter of navigating the federal government hiring process. I got through the first screen, so my resumé was looked at. Then in the first interview I met everyone in the office and it was a great fit. There was a second interview with different people. For policy, personality really matters because there’s so much interaction between people. They offered me the job.
Making the choice: I applied to industry positions, too, which is like 180 degrees from policy. I think I would have liked industry, but this appealed to me more. An industry job I was offered in Connecticut paid a lot more, and I had to wrestle with that. But I really love D.C., and I had family reasons to stay.
Beyond the lab: Try to get extra skills under your belt outside the lab. Everyone’s really smart and good in the lab, and on paper, most of us look roughly the same when it comes to the science. Sometimes you’re lucky or creative and you have top-tier publications, but that’s not the case for everyone. You have to find other things to stand out. There’s things you can do to make yourself marketable beyond pipetting. It’s really good to have leadership skills. I would encourage anyone interested in policy to get involved in the community.
The right fit: I think this is where I’m going to lay my roots. I’ve gotten to know people in different ICs, and the cultures are different. I’m really pleased with my office. It’s fun to do policy at the NIH.
Sandeep can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.