by Kristie Garza
Debra Cooper, Ph.D.
Year of Graduation: 2013
Advisor(s): David Weinshenker & Leonard Howell
Dissertation Title: Pharmacologic Dopamine β-Hydroxylase Inhibition: Effect On Cocaine-Induced Behavior and Neurochemistry
Current Position and Position Description:
Principal Consultant with the California State Senate Committee on Appropriations. Our office analyzes the fiscal impact of all bills that come through the CA State Senate. The basis of our analyses is “if this bill were to become a law, how much would it cost the state?” I am one of 7 consultants that produce these analyses. At the moment, I’m doing less “science policy” and more just general policy, though I intend to transition back into science policy eventually.
Why did you choose to leave academia?
I chose not to stay in academia initially because I didn’t enjoy grant writing. The less facetious answer is that I realized, through doing Brain Awareness Week and similar presentations, that I really enjoyed talking about science to non-scientists, and I wanted a career doing that. Once I made that realization, I started to look into either science communication or science policy as a career path.
What is one thing you have learned since graduation?
Networking isn’t a dirty word. People often make networking out to be this onerous task that’s a necessary evil. What I’ve learned is that successful networking is simply just building and fostering genuine relationships. The people who know you the best are the ones who are the most likely to recommend you to the next person or the next position.
What kind of skills did you learn in graduate school that were transferrable to transfer to your new job?
Most of what we do and learn in grad school can be transferred elsewhere. The most important skill in my job is communication (improved through posters presentations, talks, and papers). Other useful transferrable skills include being effective in fast paced environments (reaching deadlines), problem solving (adapting after negative/unexpected results), working well within a team (collaborations between and within labs), flexibility and adaptability (juggling experiments), being open-minded and willing to learn (every scientist naturally).
Describe something that graduate school did not prepare you for.
In graduate school, we’re expected to do a deep dive into previous research when doing literature searches. We go through as much relevant research as we can, weighing the merits, and only when we feel like we’ve done a thorough analysis do we make a conclusion. My current job works at a much faster pace and doesn’t accommodate the time for such a deep dive. I have to make judgment calls based on a much smaller set of data than my ‘scientist self’ is fully comfortable with. Being able to rapidly pull small subsets of information and form quick conclusions is definitely a skill that I’ve developed after grad school.
What is a piece of advice you would offer graduate students?
If you are even moderately interested in non-academic careers, start researching options today. Most professional society meetings have break-out sessions that highlight non-academic careers (I’m certain SfN and ASPET, the meetings I participated in the most, have them). I did the coursework for the Certificate in Translational Research while I was at Emory, which exposed me to people working in and around science at different levels. I never missed an opportunity to attend the non-academic careers symposia that GDBBS held. Attending these events alone isn’t enough though. It’s important to follow up with people that you meet at these events and really get any insight you can from them to try to figure out what career could work for you.
Any final words of wisdom?
Get involved in science policy even if that’s not something that you want to make a career out of. Legislation is always being created that affects scientists and that uses science to affect change in other ways. Who better to advocate on behalf of science than the people that do the scientific research? Getting involved can be anything from writing a letter to an elected official, going to a “Hill Day” and talking to congressional staffers, or actively pursuing a career in science policy. On top of that, not everything happens at the federal level – don’t forget state, city, and county policy. Having Atlanta as the state capitol of Georgia makes it that much easier to get involved right in your backyard.
Can students in our program contact you regarding career advice? Yes
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