Today we are hosting a guest post by Dr. Tessel van der Laan. Tessel obtained her undergraduate degree in astronomy from the Kapteyn Institute in The Netherlands, before moving to the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, for her graduate degree. After obtaining her astrophysics PhD (with honors) in 2012, she moved to Grenoble, France, where she is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for radio astronomy (IRAM). Besides astronomy, her passions include history, politics, psychology, art, and good food.
Last weekend I sat down with two people that work in politics/policy. I discussed with them the possibilities that exist for astronomers in and around the political process. Our discussions focussed mostly on me, but many of the things they told me, are equally applicable to you. So, here goes.
Being a politician/policy maker is a very broad job description
Maybe when you think about 'going into politics', you figured that means becoming a politician and being voted into parliament to pass laws. In reality there are many jobs that can also be included as being 'political', without you ever ending up on the voting lists. First of all, political parties have many internal managerial/organizing/staff functions. Second, and most interesting for us, might also be scientific (party) bureaus which investigate proposed laws and policies for consequences and costs. Most political parties and institutions have them, so you can stay true to your political views.
Also, outside of the direct centers of politics, there are often national or international research institutes that are sometimes called upon to give policy advise. A position at such an institute could be seen as having a leg in both worlds, keep doing research on the one hand, giving policy advise on the other.
Be broad and up-to-date
To be considered interesting for any of those 'political' functions, you will unfortunately need more than your astrophysics knowledge. You will need a broad knowledge base that stretches for example over all natural science and technology, or international education and science policies, etc. This does not mean you have to know everything, but when asked a question you can't answer right away, you do have to know where or who to ask, fast. That means, staying up-to-date with the field and managing a professional network. The best way to start this, would be already before you start applying for these positions (i.e. now).
Market the company "Me"
To grow and keep a network of contacts in any field, some things are also expected of you. Both my contacts told me: to be interesting to hire for a political/policy position, you have to be able to offer something only you (as a person, as an astronomer/scientist) can deliver. That means, developing and maintaining the company "You". Start having a presence on political discussion forums with clear, thought-out comments to issues in your field (no swearing, name-calling or dark sarcasm). Further, get to know (about) the key players in the field you are interested in and see if you can contact them. If you do, phrase your communication with what YOU can do for them.
What can we do for them? My contacts were never natural scientists, so I explained what I do for a living at the moment (post-doc). These are the things they found most interesting; having an excellent grasp of doing research (being able to quickly assimilate data and distilling the relevant information from it), being able to work in an international group and being aware (through experience) of intercultural differences and similarities, and understanding and speaking multiple languages. Plus developing a broad knowledge-base, would make me/us very interesting, versatile candidates for most positions.
That's it for now, if I take further steps in this direction, I will let you know how it goes. And remember, there is a reason we still read Machiavelli 400 years later, politics are not for the faint-hearted or thin-skinned, but they are for passionate (young) people that want to belong to the movers and shakers of this world.