A Scientist in Politics, Part 4: Leaving academia but not science

By Sheeva Azma

This blog is part four of A Scientist in Politics,” a seven-part series about how I got into political campaigns and science policy as a scientist.

Skip to part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

“These days, I’m not completely separate from the academic science world – I just have a different relationship with it now.” @SheevaAzma

These days, I am a science writer and communicator, merging my interests in science, writing, and policy. I started out explaining science to the general public via blogs and social media content, but now I do it all. Just check out Fancy Comma’s vast service offerings. I even craft political communications and helped win two US Senate races in 2022.

As of writing, I’m nearing my tenth year in this space, but I spent the ten years before that in science. Keep reading to learn about my beginnings as a science writer. While I no longer pursue science research as my main job, I will always be a scientist at heart.

One fateful day in, I think, 2013, my advisor asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to have a career in science policy. In being transparent about my career goals, I had gone against my colleagues’ advice to lie and say I wanted to become a principal investigator at a top tier institution. I didn’t need a PhD to do science policy, my advisor suggested, and my PhD was already taking way too long. I was a PhD candidate in my almost sixth year with no “real” data. My earlier project was limited by an extremely small sample size, which is a no-go for MRI studies, which can be very noisy and therefore need many subjects for good statistical power. Though I was confident I could analyze the new project’s data quickly, I could not convince my thesis committee of the same.

In retrospect, it was a great thing to know what I wanted to do with my life, but the fact that I had to leave my graduate program was difficult. I had been an overachiever all my life, graduating from the most prestigious science and technology university in the world. Now that I had fell short of my PhD goals, I felt like a failure. It didn’t help that almost everyone else I knew in my program was getting their PhD soon or had already graduated. 

sheeva at the montreal olympic stadium
Me at the Montreal Olympic Park in Quebec, Canada, contemplating the weirdness of life. Doesn’t it kind of look like I am walking around in Star Wars? That’s how my grad school experience felt toward the end, LOL.

After years and years of excelling in school, it was tough to accept that I was no longer cut out for academia. What’s more, I needed a job. I needed the money, and plus, I had heard that if you have long periods of unemployment on your resume, that is a red flag for employers. So, I immediately went home and signed up to do freelance writing on a site called Elance which is now Upwork. I had no idea what I could write about, but I had won some awards in high school and thought I could make some money on the side while I applied to federal jobs. 

On the job search front, I got an interview in a diversity and equity office at the National Science Foundation. My job at the NSF diversity office would basically be to comb through spreadsheets. I already did that as a research assistant, and even took my spreadsheets home on weekends back then. So, I did not want to do that again.

I felt incredibly out of place at the NSF, not to mention a bit awestruck. I had only visited the NSF offices a couple of times before, and didn’t they support my PBS programming growing up?

Maybe it’s needless to say that I didn’t get any of the full-time jobs for which I applied, but I scored small wins as a freelance science writer, landing a piece in the Motley Fool. I got paid around $100 for my article, which was not nearly a sustainable salary to live in DC. I was freelancing to make ends meet as much as possible while collecting unemployment. Eventually living in DC became too expensive and I moved back to Oklahoma to live with my parents while I figured my life out.

Sometime in college at MIT, I went to a book sale and picked up a book called “The Politics of Pure Science.” I read it in 2014 when I had moved back to Oklahoma from Washington, DC. It was about the struggle scientists faced when trying to get funding for basic research. That’s the kind of research that is done just to understand natural phenomena better. Basic research differs from another type of research called ‘translational’ research which can be used to directly help people. 

An example of basic research would be cyclotron research which seeks to understand subatomic particles and their behavior better. An example of translational research is the development of a novel cancer drug that can be used to treat patients. In reality, basic research is just as important as translational research, but it’s hard to convince policymakers of that, as Daniel Greenberg wrote in his book, The Politics of Pure Science. I consider it a must read for anyone interested in science policy, though it is out of print now.

I really wanted to work in politics, but I had exhausted all the usual channels, like through graduate school or dedicated political outreach programs for students. It was time to figure out how to make my dreams happen (if they were even possible) independently of academia.

As of writing this in late 2022, it’s been almost ten whole years since I left academic science, but I haven’t left science or policy. If anything, I’ve had the time to pursue my interests independently. I’m currently working on a review of PTSD research in the past ten years since I left the academic science world. I plan to write up and submit my other grad school project, studying adolescent decision-making, as well. I’m on my own timeline now, and I’m my own boss.

These days, I’m not completely separate from the academic science world – I just have a different relationship with it now. After spending a decade picking up skills you absolutely cannot learn in academic science, I now have tons of ideas about ways to improve undergraduate and graduate science programs to support the needs of our world. I also lecture to students around the world about SciComm and science policy.

This post is part four of a seven-part series called “A Scientist in Politics.” Read the other parts:
Part 1: Growing up Democrat in a red state
Part 2: Political organizing as a break from MIT
Part 3: A science PhD student in Washington, DC
Part 4: Leaving academia but not science

Part 5: Running the political gamut and working in Congress!
Part 6: Why can’t I stay away from politics?
Part 7: The 2022 midterm elections


6 thoughts on “A Scientist in Politics, Part 4: Leaving academia but not science

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