“The AAAS STPF is the largest & most prestigious science policy fellowship in the nation, and it’s an excellent opportunity to work in government.”
– Georgia Lagoudas, former Comm Lab Fellow and MIT ‘17
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) is a highly regarded, 1- to 2-year science policy fellowship geared towards introducing scientists & engineers with graduate training to policy work in government.
“AAAS places more than 250 fellows each year across all branches of federal government to learn first-hand about policymaking and use their knowledge and skills to address today’s most pressing societal challenges.” -AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships homepage 2022
The STPF application is open every year from June through November. This article focuses on applying Comm Lab principles to the Applicant Statement portion of the application, but there are several other components to a STPF application:
First round (the application phase)
- Background (Resumes/CVs): For assistance, see BE, ChemE, CEE, EECS, ME, & NSE articles.
- References: For assistance, see BE article.
- Letters for AAAS STPF are different from letters for other academic or industry roles. Coach your letter writers so they speak to more than just your technical competence.
- Interests, Skills, and Statements
- Applicant Statement – this article
- Professional Bio: For assistance, see BE, ChemE, EECS, & MechE articles.
- Extracurricular Activities: For assistance, see an example at the bottom of this article
- Add depth to key experiences in your Applicant Statement, even if there is some overlap with your Extracurricular Activities, or describe additional activities you want to showcase.
Second round (the policy memo + interview phase)
- Interviews: For assistance, see BE article
- Policy memos: For assistance, see BE, Broad, ChemE, EECS, & NSE articles.
There are two primary Fellowship Areas: Legislative Branch Fellows and Executive Branch Fellows. The fellowships are sponsored by the central AAAS body or by over 20 different partner societies (e.g. American Chemical Society, American Society of Mechanical Engineers). AAAS sponsors ~150 first-year Executive Fellows each year. By contrast, of the ~30 annual Congressional Fellows in the Legislative branch, 2 are sponsored by AAAS and the rest by partner societies. STPF applications through the partner societies may have additional application requirements atop the core components listed above. When preparing your application, the structure and contents should first and foremost respond to the instructions on the AAAS (or partner society) website.
Criteria for Success
A successful AAAS STPF Applicant Statement…
- Supports your full application package by providing meaning and significance to your experiences and credentials. (Identify your purpose)
- Demonstrates your understanding of the AAAS STPF program goals and purpose. (Analyze your Audience + Skill 4: Network)
- Responds explicitly to the items on the AAAS scoring rubric. (Skill 1: Echo Language)
- Provides concrete evidence statements with added reasoning that support your claim of competency. (Skill 2: Claim-Evidence-Reasoning)
- Communicates your technical, policy, and communication competency throughout. (Skill 3: Clear Communication)
- Articulates what you would learn from the fellowship. (Skill 4: Network)
A structure diagram is provided below to help you gauge how prominently to feature different components of the STPF Applicant Statement and key points to touch upon.
A Structure Diagram can help guide the layout of your Applicant Statement to ensure you address application criteria. Sizes of sections are approximate.
The rest of this article walks you through preparatory steps (i.e., identifying your purpose for applying, analyzing your application audience) and skills (i.e., echoing, claim-evidence-reasoning, communication, networking) to build an Applicant Statement addressing the key facets of this Structure Diagram.
Identify your purpose
Given that the word “fellowship” appears in the title, you may be tempted to reuse a personal statement you have written in the past for graduate school or the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships Program (NSF GRFP). Such personal statements are traditionally chronologically structured; however, your AAAS STPF essay needn’t be so, and its purpose is different. Treat this essay as a job interview on paper: go in knowing the main points you want to communicate about your potential contributions to the organization, and communicate them with evidence that supports your assertions.
The purpose of your Statement is to persuade your readers that you are qualified, that you match the program criteria, and that you are excited to learn during the fellowship. Do this by expanding on, and adding narrative to, items you have listed elsewhere in your application (CV or activities statement) to argue why you are a good candidate for the position. Your exact approach is up to you.
Your purpose is also affected by the type(s) of fellowship you are applying for, since legislative branch and executive branch fellowships are different positions. Tailor your application to reflect how your experiences, future goals, and understanding of the position align with each desired placement. Demonstrate a baseline understanding of how your targeted branch functions and where fellows are placed in each.
For example: be careful about suggesting you would like to work on policies as an executive branch fellow that actually require legislation to change; or, if you are interested in a Congressional placement, clarify why you would prefer a congressional committee over a lawmaker’s office.
Analyze your audience
Applications are typically initially reviewed by previous AAAS fellows, or by members of the partner societies. Reviewers follow the rubric provided by AAAS, with partner societies potentially having slightly different emphases for different sections. Ensure that your application materials collectively address all of the areas of the rubric.
Reviewers have significant experience both with policy and with the STPF program. They are also busy and reading many applications. Give your reviewers something concise and unique to remember you by, such as an intriguing story “hook” or your “personal brand.” Be genuine and enthusiastic about science policy: would the reviewer be excited to have you as a peer or mentee on their team? Are you as interested in science policy as they are?
Different partner societies will have subtle differences in who they want to represent their brand in the capital. Some may want a specialist with deep technical experience to showcase the importance of your discipline to policy makers; other societies may emphasize communication skills, regardless of how closely matched your technical expertise is to the society. To understand what a given society emphasizes, it may be useful to explore the roles and placements of previous fellows.
1. Echo Existing Language
Use the language of the application call in your essays. The AAAS STPF rubric is a good place to start pulling keywords from. Echoing (also called mirroring or parroting) will make it easier for reviewers to identify the meaning you want them to take away from your experiences. They shouldn’t be left guessing (was it about leadership? Communication? Or maybe your motivation?).
Echoing language used in policymaking also shows that you are an informed political citizen. You’re not expected to sound like a seasoned DC policy wonk, but do your best to discuss your expertise using language common to policymaking rather than journal articles. For example, presenting your Ph.D. work as informing “data-driven decision making” emphasizes policy in a way that “qualitative and quantitative analysis” may not.
|“Ability to translate and apply theoretical concepts into practice to solve problems.”
|“For my dissertation, I designed, implemented, and evaluated a system for coaching children’s literacy learning remotely. To date, [#] children in [State #1] and [State #2] have used our remote literacy coaching system, …. The outcomes of this four-year project were not only academic publications, but also a series of guidelines for designing technology-assisted coaching systems. These systems are more relevant than ever amidst the COVID-19 pandemic…”
|“Skill/potential to organize, build consensus, lead projects and people toward positive outcomes.”
“Ability to convey scientific knowledge in broader, non-scientific contexts.”
|“Throughout my dissertation work, I gained experience managing teams with both technical and non-technical team members. For four years, I planned and led the technical development of our [educational] coaching systems, working alongside seven student and staff developers on multipart software systems, and coordinating with colleagues from non-technical fields such as child development and program evaluation. I have learned to explain thorny technical issues in an accessible manner—a vital skill to help our team make collective decisions. Working on a team with people from different professions and learning about diverse topics are some of my favorite parts of my research experience.”
|“Ability to identify personal strengths and areas for growth and development.”
|“Seeking to improve my own communication skills in the policy arena, I completed a course at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government addressing communication ….”
|“Clarity of objectives for applying to the fellowship, and how the fellowship experience will be used in the future.”
|“Beyond the fellowship, I plan to shift my career toward public service—possibly into technology policy. The STPF will facilitate that by connecting me with a wide world of relevant people and organizations. It will help me better understand the landscape of roles, particularly in government, that could make good use of my background.”
2. Apply Claim-Evidence-Reasoning Structure
Throughout your essay, you should be making the case that you are the best candidate for the job of AAAS fellow. The Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) structure for paragraphs can be a useful tool to achieve this.
The claim: Clearly state what you are trying to argue in a section in concise terms. This is usually some variant of “I will be good at X as a AAAS STPF” or “I am skilled in Y.” Where possible, use terminology from the application rubric so that reviewers can easily connect your statements to evaluation criteria.
The evidence: Provide concrete examples that “show, don’t tell” the truth of your claim. Avoid lengthy narrative; focus instead on extracting the key takeaways from each example that are relevant to the claim at hand.
Your reasoning: Connect the claim & evidence you have presented to the skills that will make you an excellent AAAS fellow.
The Claim-Evidence-Reasoning format can be adjusted to meet your narrative flow.
3. Demonstrate Clear Communication
A major theme of successful applications is demonstrated ability to communicate to non-scientists on technical topics (not just on policy). Since the application stage is the gateway to the policy memo, you need to not just acknowledge that such communication is important, but to show a track record of doing it well. This includes two components:
- Communicate clearly within your statement. Make the main points and evaluation criteria very clear for busy readers.
- Discuss your previous experience in science communication.
Annotated example of strong communication.
As you write, also keep in mind the following tips from former fellows:
- avoid overly technical explanations of your research,
- sound genuine and avoid cliches, and
- convey confidence but not arrogance.
Have both technical and non-technical readers parse your application to help you catch any blind spots in your writing.
4. Network with Current and Previous Fellows
AAAS fellows come from all walks of life. To successfully connect your background to the work you may do as a fellow, you should have a solid understanding of the opportunities that the fellowship can (and can’t) provide and what the day-to-day life of a fellow entails. Reach out to current or former fellows to learn from their experiences – most will respond generously, even to a “cold” email! All of the fellows interviewed for this article cited the support and perspective they gained from fellows before them as the single most important resource they drew upon in the application process. Networking can be particularly useful in understanding how to “mirror” the language common to policymaking, as discussed above. Furthermore, connecting with current or former fellows can help you articulate what you would learn as a AAAS Fellow, a key aspect of a successful application.
Remember that you can turn to a Comm Lab Fellow, your roommate, a parent, or a friend in the Science Policy Initiative for support and feedback as you prepare your application. Spelling and grammar are outside of the scope of Communication Lab coaching; however, you will want to make sure your Statement is free of errors. If you want additional support on this, consider making an appointment with the MIT Writing and Communication Center.
Many thanks to Kate Stoll, William Boag, Rebecca Black, Jesse Dunietz, Lucy Hu, Georgia Lagoudas, Juliana Nazare, and Max Olender for sharing valuable feedback and fielding questions about the application process.