Bridging Politics and Science: A Career Interview in Science Policy

By Stephanie Baringer

It is no secret that academia jobs are hard to come by and secure, but that is not the only thing stopping grad students from pursing the lab life. Trainees are more aware than ever of the many ‘alternative’ careers available, and they are realizing that transferable skills from their Ph.D.  enable them to follow their interests.

Based on the feedback from our spring competition, I thought it would be of interest and benefit to start a Career Column! Periodically, I will interview professionals with a Ph.D. in careers outside of academia to help expose trainees to career paths they might not have known about otherwise. I hope this column either informs you of additional careers available or even helps you find the right fit for you. If you have any suggestions for future interviews, please let me know!

Below is my interview with Dr. Estevan Santana, a Senior Manager in State Government Affairs focusing on state public policy issues at Genentech. He welcomes students to reach out via LinkedIn who are interested in science policy.


Dr. Estevan Santana, Senior Manager in State Government Affairs

Disclaimer: The views and opinions presented are his own and do not reflect those of his current or past employers.

Can you please tell me about your career path?

I did my undergrad studies at The Ohio State University (OSU). After graduating I took time off and worked in a transgenic mouse lab doing molecular biology to create mutant mice for other researchers to use in their studies. I knew I wasn’t ready for grad school at that point. Then I went to graduate school, again at OSU, for my Ph.D. in a biomedical sciences umbrella program with a specialization in microbiology. About halfway through, I realized becoming a research scientist was not for me. I didn’t like writing grants, but I loved lab meetings and getting the chance to talk about science. Basically, I realized I liked talking about science, not doing it. With these interests in mind, I started to look into science policy and political jobs. I applied to and received a fellowship with California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) in the California state legislature, where I worked in an elected official’s office. I really loved it and it changed my whole career path. After staying on as employee for another year, my boss was on her way to term out; a potential downside of working for those in office.

I next did another science and technology policy fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Through this fellowship I was placed at the NIH in the Office of Science Policy. After working there for about a year and a half I realized the executive branch had too much bureaucracy for me, coupled with the fact that I wanted to go back to my political roots. So, my next position was as a Director of Science and Regulatory Advocacy at PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical and Research Manufacturers of America; a trade association, meaning a non-profit that represents a group of companies with similar interests. There, I worked on regulatory issues, interfacing primarily with the FDA while acting on behalf of PhRMA members’ interests to make the drug development process more streamlined, efficient, and predictable.  Because my focus was on drug development (e.g., animal studies and human clinical trials) every issue or change I advocated for at the FDA was based in scientific methodologies and arguments using data to support my request for changes to the regulatory process. Over time, I began to miss working on legislative issues and working with the legislative branch, so I made one final transition to return to focusing on state government-related work.  In my current position at Genentech, I focus on understanding how developing state policy issues may impact our business operations.

What made you leave academia? Did you always know that wasn’t the right path for you?

I knew I wanted to leave academia during grad school. Like I said before, I discovered I liked talking about science and not so much doing science. My tipping point came when a professor was giving talk and it was clear he lived and breathed science. He said the highs have to be high enough to get you through the lows. I realized that wasn’t the case for me. When I started grad school though, I did want to stay at the bench. I was drawn to the way my previous boss at the mouse transgenic lab tackled problems, and I admired his ability to reason and think. I love science, and was, well still am, fascinated by microbiology. There was also a bit of peer pressure to stay in academia. When you go to grad school, people tell you the only thing to be is a scientist and stay at the bench. But what they don’t tell you is that through obtaining your Ph.D. you gain so many transferable skills, like methodical thought processes, excellent evidence evaluation, and analytical skills, that will benefit you in many other jobs.

What are your main responsibilities?

First, I should preface this with job titles mean nothing. Do not assume someone’s duties based on their title. I am a senior manager, but I do not manage anyone. I interact with external third parties, such as government officials, patient advocacy organization, and other companies, to stay on top of the latest news and learn what is happening in the policy space. Internally, I connect with the business side of the company, dealing with pre- and post-market commercial issues (i.e., before and after FDA approval respectively). I learn of a new policy proposal or potential change, take it internally to discuss the impacts to the business, then develop our company position based on those conversations, and then relay that information to our lobbyists on the ground across the country. During these internal conversations, I have to understand if the proposed state policies will have a positive or negative impact on the company and most importantly, if they align with our company mission, providing safe and effective innovative therapies to patients faster and at a lower cost.

What kind of salary can one in this position expect?

The salary varies depending on which sector you work for. Non-profits probably pay the least, and high profit industries like pharmaceutical industry pays the most, around $120,000 starting. In federal government, most PhDs directly out of grad school start out at a GS12 or 13 ($70,000 today), but you get more benefits. In pharma, there is a lot of salary growth potential and many opportunities for advancement; a Vice President can make up to $400,000.

What do you like most/least about your job?

I most like that it is fast paced and spontaneous. The work keeps me on my toes and I rarely get bored with having too similar of days. On the other side, working in politics can have drawbacks. The stereotype of a lobbyist is there for a reason, and while the lobbyists I work with are not like that, some of them out there are and it can be unpleasant to see that side.

What traits or skills do you think are most beneficial for this career?

The most important thing is relationship building. People have to trust and like you. With that comes emotional intelligence. Things like being able to read a room can be really important. If your audience disengages, you need to change your style of communication. Next, I would say is being able to communicate complex topics very simply. When working in science policy, you communicate with a lot of nonscientists. Additionally, you will do so many elevator pitches. You need to be able to tell someone in a very short amount of time ‘what is the point?’ and ‘why should they care?’. Next, you need to understand peoples’ motivations for doing things, more emotional intelligence. Last, is humility. Like I said, some circles you will interact with will have few Ph.Ds., and people can feel intimidated. You have to be able diffuse that.

What kind of advancement opportunities does your position have?

Moving up the ladder is fairly linear and varies from company to company. Cross training builds your advancement potential. Promotions may not always be quick, but you are provided a lot of growth opportunities that can help move into higher positions.

How do most people get into this field? What are common entry-level jobs?

It can be hard to get into this field because bench scientists don’t have as many connections to science policy, and connections are where it is at. It is often about who you know. I cannot emphasize this next point enough. If you want a job away from bench, get away from the bench as soon as possible! Find ways to build on skills you need. Do internships, fellowships, volunteer on political campaigns, conduct informational interviews, or shadow people to gain that type of experience. Build those relationships! You have to hustle a bit to get where you need if you don’t go the fellowship route like I did. It’s harder, but definitely possible.

Any last bit of advice for people considering this position?

Well one thing is, you don’t need a post doc to be successful. Being a master at flow cytometry will not help you get a policy job; it is more important that you can explain what flow is. Also, don’t expect to change the world immediately. In early positions, you are there to learn and make a difference one day. Science policy is a marathon, not a sprint. Make connections outside of the lab that can speak about your character and soft skills rather than only having references that can talk about your lab skills. Lastly, be creative, courageous, and inquisitive.

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