Summary

The STPI Science Policy Fellowship gives recent bachelor’s graduates with U.S. citizenship the opportunity to work for 2 years on a variety of science and tech policy issues for the White House and federal agencies such as NASA. Fellows perform research and analysis on topics ranging from AI to biosecurity to U.S.-China competition. There can be highly impactful opportunities to work on national science and technology strategies and reports submitted to Congress. Fellows often go on to future work in government, think tank, or private sector science and technology policy.

This post is based on one author’s first-hand experience with the program, and we encourage EAs interested in US policy to apply if they think it might be a good fit. Applications open every year in September and close in January (e.g. applications for a 2023-2025 fellowship are open September 1, 2022 - January 13, 2023).

If you are interested in applying and want to talk to program alums or receive other kinds of support, you can fill out this brief survey.

The first part of the post outlines what it’s like being a STPI fellow, and the second reviews the application process and information helpful to prospective applicants.

Who is eligible?

Fellowship applicants must have completed their bachelor’s degree within two years of the fellowship start date. Graduates of higher degrees, such as master’s, are only eligible if they are within two years of their bachelor’s completion. Fellows must be U.S. citizens and will be subject to a background investigation in order to receive a security clearance.

The fellowship favors applicants with a demonstrated background in STEM. While a STEM degree is not a hard requirement, interviewers select for candidates with a clear interest in science policy and the communication skills necessary to translate scientific concepts into policy implications. If your CV demonstrates these interests and skills but you don’t have a STEM degree, you should still consider applying.

The STPI Science Policy Fellow Experience

Which government offices do you work for?

The Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI; pronounced “stippy”) is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) created by Congress to serve the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) with technical expertise, research, and analysis. STPI is one of three FFRDCs run by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA). The structure and function of IDA and STPI are similar to that of RAND, which also houses several FFRDCs.[1]

STPI fellows support the White House through projects and publications, including for the National Science and Technology Council and the National Space Council. STPI also supports Federal Advisory Committees, such as the Scientific Integrity Task Force and the National AI Research Resource Task Force.

In addition to the White House, STPI serves some federal agencies engaging in science and tech activities, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, and Energy, and NASA.

What type of work do you do?

The types and timelines of projects vary widely. Types of work that fellows are likely to encounter include:

  • Research: writing literature reviews, developing methods to quickly answer difficult questions, creating new datasets, and using research methods such as interviews with experts and coding text data.
  • Writing: writing reports, official minutes, and memos to sponsors.
  • Presenting: providing briefings to sponsors and sometimes also presenting work in public meetings.
  • Administrative: note taking for sponsor meetings, listening sessions, and interviews, and helping organize listening sessions or other related events for sponsors.
  • Technical: some projects will look for a fellow with knowledge of R for data analysis.
  • Analysis: analyzing Request for Information responses, and input from listening sessions.

Who are your coworkers?

STPI itself has around 40 staff members: one director, ~30 Research Staff Members (RSMs), a few Research Associates, and ~12 fellows. Most of the RSMs have a STEM PhD and many were introduced to science policy via the AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellowship. Some RSMs have PhDs, or a combination of different master’s degrees, in technology policy or social sciences. The Research Associates have, at most, a master’s degree.

STPI also has access to the larger staffs of the other FFRDCs managed by IDA, the Systems and Analyses Center and Center for Communications and Computing. These FFRDCs serve mainly Department of Defense (DOD) sponsors and are home to experts in cybersecurity, nuclear security, deterrence, and other national security topics. Sometimes there are cross-divisional projects that involve working with IDA’s other FFRDCs or interviewing experts across IDA. There are also opportunities for fellows to reach out to staff across IDA, attend working groups, and learn from their expertise.

What are the salary and benefits?

As of this year, fellows with a BA / BS earn $56,000 annually, paid bi-weekly. Fellows with a master’s receive around a $10,000 salary bump, around $66,000 annually.

Benefits include reimbursal of up to $2500 for relocation expenses; participation in the IDA group medical, dental, vision and life insurance; DC Metro SmartBenefits of up to $281 per month; retirement contributions at 11% of base salary 6 months after the start of employment (vests after two years); and 20 days PTO plus federal holidays off.

Can you stay in government afterward?

Yes, but given that most fellows are fresh out of their undergraduate degree, the most popular path is to go into graduate school. Examples of fellows who went directly into government after their fellowship include people who worked at OSTP and as a Science Assistant at NSF.

Graduate school pathways taken by past fellows include a PhD in areas such as human genomics or information science, law school, and master’s programs such as the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, Schwarzman Scholars, and Threat and Response Management at University of Chicago. Some fellows have gone into the private sector straight out of the fellowship, taking positions such as Platform Policy Manager at GitHub or working as a data engineer.

After the fellowship ends, there is sometimes the opportunity to stay on with STPI for a third year, working part- or full-time as an Adjunct Research Associate.

What are professional development opportunities?

The fellowship offers skills development in policy writing, data analysis, and presentation. Fellows gain a valuable credential and professional experience working across a range of federal agencies and with the White House. In addition, fellows develop a much deeper understanding of science policy, such as how the executive branch enacts significant policy changes.

IDA staff members provide fellows with career advice and support, including by helping with graduate school applications through letters of recommendations and advice on PhD funding. As a result of their work, fellows may create writing samples and publications that may be beneficial in future job applications.

Finally, obtaining a security clearance, as required by the fellowship, can also help with future policy jobs, especially those that require applicants to already have security clearances when they apply (of which there are many across the US national security enterprise).

Can I do work that is EA-relevant as a fellow?

Yes. STPI’s work touches a wide variety of areas of interest to EA, including AI, biosecurity, space, and advancement of science and technology innovation.

STPI supports a variety of Federal AI efforts and conducts studies such as analyzing Chinese government expenditures on AI R&D. Past biosecurity work includes creating developing metrics and a roadmap to implement the National Biodefense Strategy, and supporting a variety of federal pandemic preparedness and response efforts such as COVID-19 data sharing.

STPI conducts a significant amount of work on how to best spur scientific and technological innovation, a topic which underpins many different EA cause areas. This work includes analyzing federal technology transfer and processes for effective innovation and industrial policies. STPI also has a strong space portfolio, including work on planetary protection, a topic with long-term implications and an interesting biosafety component.

Since most of the projects do not have an explicit focus on long-term or existential risk, it is up to the fellow to figure out how to introduce those considerations to their work, where appropriate. Fellows can work with and learn from research managers within STPI and external collaborators with expertise in risk governance, biosecurity, and AI. The STPI office has a relatively academic atmosphere, where many staff members readily share their experience, provide extra reading material for interested fellows, and may try to pull the fellow onto projects of special interest to them.

What are potential downsides of the fellowship?

The fellowship has some potential downsides, which might mean it's not the best fit for some. For instance, many of the projects you might work on during the fellowship are not public. As such, it counts against the fellowship if you are driven by public recognition for your work, if speaking about your work freely feels important to you, and if a high output of visible work product is necessary for your next career step.

There is also limited choice in what projects you will work on. While research managers try to place fellows on projects fitting their interests, it is a fast-paced environment and you will likely work on many projects unrelated to your direct interests. There is also little support for individual research projects. If fellows do use personal time for research and the research is related to subject matters STPI works on, the research will have to pass a clearance process prior to publication.

The fellowship itself does not provide many opportunities for professional networking outside your workplace. There is some funding to support fellows going to conferences or professional events on personal initiative. Moreover, the fellowship only provides limited built-in mentorship. Fellows may succeed in seeking out mentorship from research managers on their own initiative, but this may be on personal time. (External to the program, being based in DC is helpful for making broader policy connections, which the DC EA community can also help with.)

In terms of professional advancement within STPI, one to two fellows per cohort might stay on as an Adjunct Research Associate. However, STPI generally only hires PhD holders for Research Manager positions, so there are few paths of advancement unless the fellow wants to work as a Research Associate.

Becoming a STPI Science Policy Fellow

How selective is the Science Policy Fellowship?

6-8 fellows are hired each year out of around 70-110 original applications. The hiring committee aims to create a diverse cohort across multiple dimensions: disciplines (e.g., biology, AI, physics, space, etc.), skills (e.g., data analysis, writing), universities (e.g., non-Ivy League), regions (representation from across the U.S.), gender, and race.

The committee is not necessarily looking for prestigious past accomplishments, rather a specific set of skills and interests relevant to science policy, and a background that will round out the fellowship cohort (see "What qualities does the Science Policy Fellowship look for?" below).

What does the application process involve?

The application has three stages:

  1. a written application due early January,
  2. a phone interview in early February, and
  3. a two-day in-person interview in mid-March.

Applicants receive the final decision at the end of March.

Written application

The application opens September of the preceding year and closes in January (e.g., applications for a 2023-2025 fellowship are open September 1, 2022 - January 13, 2023). In this first stage, candidates must submit:

  • Statement of purpose (1,000 words or less)
  • Writing sample (5,000 words or less)
  • Transcript (unofficial transcript is accepted)
  • Two letters of academic recommendations

See "What qualities does the Science Policy Fellowship look for?"below for skills and qualities to emphasize. Clear and concise writing is crucial, as well as demonstrated passion for science and tech policy. Reaching out to a current fellow may be a good way to learn more about the fellowship, and if the conversation goes well, there is a chance that that fellow will flag your written application for the reviewing Research Manager. About 70-110 candidates are expected to apply each year.

Phone interview

If selected, applications advance to the phone interview stage. During the first weeks of February, applicants will receive an email asking to schedule a 20-minute phone or Zoom interview to discuss the position in more detail. STPI Research Managers ask about the candidate’s background and provide an opportunity for candidates to ask questions.

Questions can include follow-ups on projects listed in the written application as well as standard interview questions. Preparing questions to ask the interviewers that demonstrate the applicant understands the structure, nature, and content of the STPI’s work would be helpful.

In-person interview

Around the end of February, around 16 selected candidates are invited to participate in a one-day, in-person interview. This interview takes place in Washington, D.C. around mid-March. The applicants will be asked to select one of two possible days for the interview. About 8 candidates will be invited to each interview day. The interview day is a marathon, testing cooperation, communication, technical skills, and ability to research, analyze, synthesize, and present science policy.

A representative schedule from a previous year looks like this:

  • From 9:30 AM - 12:30 PM, candidates have six 20-minute interviews with STPI staff. The interviews consist of:
    • Three candidate interviews with two different research managers per interview, involving a range of questions (e.g., problem solving strategies, past projects, technical experience, etc.);
    • One technical interview with a research manager of a similar STEM background;
    • One interview with both a research manager and a current fellow;
    • One interview with a representative from Human Resources, focusing on behavioral questions.
  • There are two 20-minute breaks in between the interviews in the morning. If the candidate spends the time in break rooms, as is recommended, there will likely be a current fellow there to chat. While breaks are not designed to be a part of the interview, behavior throughout all interactions that day matters. Candidates also then have a one-hour lunch with all the current fellows.
  • From around 1:30-5:00 PM, candidates participate in a group exercise. The candidates are posed a science and technology policy question, broken up into two groups, and each team is given 2 hours to research and develop a presentation answering the question. An example of a policy assignment:
    • Identify the priority future industry area for the U.S. (e.g., AI, 5G, Bio, Quantum, etc.) and explain why it is the priority area.
    • Answer what the U.S. government has done in recent years to advance U.S. science and technology leadership in this industry.
    • Provide recommendations on what more could be done within the federal government.
  • The teams usually have a relatively even distribution of subject matter expertise and background (e.g., if there are two candidates with bio backgrounds, they will be put on separate teams). At the end of two hours, each team presents to the entire STPI staff. The 15-minute presentation is followed by another 15 minutes of questions from STPI staff.
  • From 5:00 - 5:45 PM, the candidates close out their day with a group meeting with the STPI director, providing an opportunity to ask questions.

Accepted candidates receive an offer around the end of March.

What qualities does the Science Policy Fellowship look for?

STPI’s fellowship application page accurately states: “Innovative, analytical self-starters who are able to work well in teams are encouraged to apply.” Working in teams, ability to juggle multiple projects with different timelines and leads at once, and willingness to jump into unfamiliar science topics are key to fellows’ success. Some of the top skills sought out are: communicating science and technology concepts, research skills, and data analysis.

Qualities sought out:

  • Writing and communication ability, especially translating complex science and technology topics for a policy audience. For example, fellows regularly write reports, create slide decks, and present briefings.
  • General research skills including literature reviews, citation management, crafting an answerable research question, and creating a timeline to answer the research question.
  • Data analysis, while not required, is a highly desired skill, especially coding in R.
  • Ability to work with others. Most of the work as a fellow is team based, working closely with other fellows, multiple different Research Staff Members, Research Assistants, and sponsors.
  • Ability and willingness to dive into unfamiliar science and technology topics. While Research Staff Members may try to assign fellows to projects with a good fit for their area of interest or expertise, fellows often end up working on a variety of topics as dictated by timing and staffing needs.
  • Flexibility, time management, and communicating timelines. Fellows work on around 3-5 projects at any given time, each potentially with different research managers as leads. As such, fellows need to be able to work in parallel on multiple projects under tight deadlines — such as giving a best answer to a research question in 2-4 hours, pushing through an 80-page report in a month — while also moving forward on long 1-2 year research projects. To this end, fellows need to manage their time well as well as forecast and communicate their bandwidth to their research managers.

Conclusion

The STPI Science Policy Fellowship is a great opportunity for early-career bachelor’s or master’s graduates to learn about science policy and the executive branch. Fellows may have the opportunity to work on significant U.S. policy on AI, bio, and space. The fellows gain valuable policy career capital, including relevant skills, credentials, networks, and knowledge about a range of science and tech policy topics. Fellows learn on the job by working on different projects varying in duration, research methods, amount of administrative support involved, and government sponsor.

If you are interested in applying and want to talk to program alums or receive other kinds of support, you can fill out this brief survey.

Appendix: Helpful resources

Appendix 2: Other US policy fellowships

Are you looking for opportunities to pivot into or accelerate your policy career? If so, check out this database of EA-relevant US policy fellowships. It includes opportunities for people from various backgrounds (STEM, social sciences, etc.) and career levels (undergrad to mid-career). The database allows you to filter by cause area, degree requirements, location, and more.

If you are eligible for the STPI Fellowship, please also consider these fellowships:


  1. FFRDCs have a special relationship with sponsor government agencies. FFRDCs are independently run entities, created to serve core government needs that could not otherwise be fulfilled by a contractor. While FFRDCs are federally funded and exist to serve the needs of the sponsor government agencies, they are run independently and administered by a separate university, nonprofit, or firm. There are three types of FFRDCs: studies and analysis centers (e.g., STPI administered by IDA, Arroyo Center administered by RAND), research and development labs (e.g., Argonne National Laboratory administered by UChicago Argonne), and systems engineering and integration centers (e.g., National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence administered by MITRE Corporation). For more information: IDA’s description of FFRDCs is here, NSF’s full list and categorization of FFRDCs can be found here, and more on the history and structure of STPI can be found here, pp. 9-10. ↩︎

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