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Christine Torborg

Our former fellow follow-up this month highlights a career in science policy with Dr. Christine Torborg. If you missed her advice at the fellows retreat science policy career table, you need not worry! The NICHD Connection interviewed this former NICHD fellow to learn the ins and outs of being a science policy analyst:

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

A: My title is Health Science Policy Analyst in the Office of Science Policy and Planning at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Essentially, my job is to gather, interpret and disseminate information. A large fraction of my time is spent analyzing various aspects of the NINDS portfolio and activities. These analyses help the institute evaluate current programs and plan for the future.

The second major component of my job is to monitor legislation and congressional activities relevant to the institute, and respond to requests from Congress. A significant proportion of my time is also spent interacting with extramural program staff, making sure that I stay current on their activities and recent scientific advances, and keeping staff informed about what is happening on the policy side. I also provide planning, evaluation, and analysis support wherever it is needed. Most of my time is spent reading, writing, working with databases and spreadsheets, emailing, and organizing/attending meetings. I still stay up-to-date on the science, but it is a much broader view of science than when I was in the lab.

Q: At the annual retreat Q&A Tables, you mentioned that you did two details (internships) to prepare for a job in science policy. How do you find out about the details, and what were they like?

A: When I decided that I didn't want to stay in research science, several people, including my advisor, suggested that I might do details as a way of getting experience to put on a resume and seeing if I liked the jobs. Once I was done doing experiments for my final paper, my advisor agreed to support me while I did details in offices on campus. From there, I had a friend from grad school who worked in the NINDS policy office, and she said that I should talk to her boss because someone was leaving the office and they would have a position open soon. I spent 3 months in the policy office. While there, I interacted with the program staff* in extramural. Through that interaction, I was able to do a second detail as an analyst with program staff.

I applied for and was offered a full-time job in the policy office (which is where I am now). The details were definitely the key to getting this job. Even though I ended up not staying in the program staff, I am very glad I did the detail. I work with program staff a lot, and having been there, I know more about what they do. Also, I made a lot of connections while working there, which definitely helps in my current job.

Q: When did you realize that you wanted to go into policy?

A: I never had some grand plan to go into policy. Five years ago, I didn't even know jobs like this existed. Once I decided not to do research, I just kept my eyes open for opportunities. This opportunity in the policy office became available, and I am very happy that I grabbed it.

Q: How did you find out about this job?

A: Because I had a friend in the office, I knew that the job would be opening up several months prior to the job posting. This was a large part of the reason that I sought a detail in this particular office. I knew that the detail could potentially lead to a permanent job.

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

A: After the job was posted on USA jobs, I had about 2 weeks to submit my resume, transcripts, and respond to KSAs (specific questions that they asked about my experience). It took another month or so to find out about an interview. I first interviewed with the entire office, all five of them sitting around a table taking turns asking me questions for an hour. Although intimidating, since I knew them already, it wasn't too bad. Then I came back for a second interview day. This time I had several different 30-minute interviews, one with the institute director, one with the deputy director, another with the extramural director, and finally, I had a lunch interview with the head of the policy office. It was another week or two later before I finally was offered a position. This whole process took about 2.5 months. I officially started about a month later.

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

A: As a scientist, I focused on the science and assumed everything else would happen from there. In this career path, I realize how truly important networking and relationships are. The best way to find out about opportunities is through talking to people, and it never hurts to have someone who can vouch for your skills and be an advocate for you.

* Editor's notes: Program staff includes scientists who are involved in directing extramural research programs. They oversee the scientific component of extramural grants, make recommendations about what to fund, interact with PIs, help PIs navigate the grant process, write Funding Opportunity Announcements for different initiatives, develop workshops, and coordinate research efforts.

A detail is a short-term rotation, either part-time or full-time, in an area of NIH (most often) outside of the lab, governed by a formal Memorandum of Understanding. It includes the learning objectives for the detail. NICHD arranges such rotations on an individual basis, through the Office of Education.