View a 508-compliant PDF of this issue here: NICHD_Connection_2011_08.pdf

Melissa Cunningham

This month, The NICHD Connection interviewed Dr. Melissa Cunningham, NICHD former postdoctoral fellow and one of the career table participants at the Seventh Annual NICHD Fellows Retreat. We asked her a few questions about her career as a science officer:

Q: What is your current title, and what do you do? What's your typical day like?

A: Science Officer. I manage scientific grants awarded to researchers by the Department of Defense [DoD] through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program [CDMRP]. On a typical day, I spend most of my time managing my grant portfolio, checking up on awards that are having technical difficulties, responding to requests from PIs who need extensions for their awards or maybe are in the process of moving to a new institution and want to take their DoD award with them. I also spend a lot of time reviewing requests that come through our contracting office, providing my scientific opinion on contractual matters for the awards. I am involved in a lot of meetings related to the scientific program that I manage grants for, including Peer Review sessions, and I attend meetings for groups that focus on other missions for the CDMRP organization, such as Technology Development, Small Business Research awards, and tasks related to program evaluation.

Q: How did you find out about this job?

A: I found out about the job through a personal contact at NIH, who was in contact with another individual at CDMRP who used to be a postdoctoral fellow at NIH before becoming a Science Officer. Positions for our organization are also posted publicly on the web through a few different websites.

Q: Please describe the application/hiring process. Did it take a long time?

A: The application process was quite simple and straightforward. I simply sent in my resume with a cover letter that clearly explained why I wanted to be considered for the job, including some examples of why I would be an excellent fit for the job based on the job description. Once I was selected as a candidate, I went through an initial phone interview. The phone interview was followed by a face-to-face interview that asked some difficult, detailed questions. In general, they wanted to see if I could use my scientific skills and logic to come up with reasonable answers, indicating that I would be capable of making the right kinds of decisions to be successful at this type of job. The entire process moved very quickly. From the time I submitted my resume to when I had the job offer was about 3 months. It took another 3 months to go through the actual hiring process before I officially started my new job.

Q: Did you do anything in particular at the NICHD to prepare you for your career transition?

A: I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend 6 months doing a detail (internship) in a Program Office at NICHD, working with Health Science Administrators (NIH's equivalent to Grants Managers) to learn some of the things they do in their job. This not only gave me some real-world experience outside of the lab that I could incorporate into my resume and cover letter when I applied for the job, but also helped me figure out that this job was a good fit for me. Once I had officially accepted the position, I did not do anything else specific to prepare me for the actual transition.

Q: Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about entering this career field?

A: Always look for ways to get additional experience in the types of skills that will be most helpful to employers who would be considering you for these types of jobs. Check out job postings online that look like what you would be interested in applying for, and see what types of requirements they are looking for, then try to build your resume in those areas.

Q: What are some of the future career options for someone in your position?

A: There are not necessarily a lot of "vertical" movement/promotion options in my organization. Some Science Officers transition to become Program Managers, which while not necessarily a promotion, is a much more demanding position with more responsibility and thus considered the closest thing to a promotion. Otherwise, many Science Officers that are looking for the next step in their careers will typically pursue additional options outside of CDMRP, such as NIH. A few past Science Officers at CDMRP have moved on to become Program Directors for NIH's Extramural Programs.