Ph.D. Physics, Commissioner, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
By Meghan Anzelc
Gregory Jaczko started thinking about non-traditional careers while in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. While working on his physics PhD, Jaczko worked with the graduate employee’s union. This, he says, gave him a “feel for public policy work.” Looking into alternative career paths, Jaczko found that his skill set as a physicist could be applied to policy work, where, he says, “people with these kinds of skills are really needed.”
Since Jaczko has always been involved in politics on the side, when he heard about the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowships (sponsored by the American Institute of Physics), he says he was intrigued “that I could try [public policy] out on a professional level.” He also discovered that, “it really was important to have a science background and it reinforced in my mind [the idea of] having scientists working in policy positions,” he says, adding that, “my other political experiences helped me, to understand what my own interests were, that in the long-term I was looking for something other than a research career; certainly those experiences were helpful getting the fellowship, and if nothing else, I had a broader experience in graduate school.”
When applying for the fellowship, Jaczko says he emphasized his extra-curricular activities. “I did some work with student government organizations, and I was a member of a faculty and student committee responsible for administering some of the student healthcare programs at the university. It gave me a good background – the real training I got was with the AAAS fellowship, where I learned the policy process,” he says, adding that the fellowship “gives people the way to have a significant impact.” During this time, Jaczko also held an adjunct professorship at Georgetown with Francis Slakey in the APS Washington Office.
He was awarded an AAAS fellowship, working with Rep. Edward Markley as a Congressional Science Fellow. The goal of the fellowship, he says, is to “give people with a science background the training they need [to work on the Hill].” He adds, “The fellowship was really designed for people like me, who didn’t have the kinds of experience to get the job like I got on the Hill. The fellowship really gave me the opportunity.” The fellowship, he says, “was a new experience. One of the reasons I enjoyed it was learning about a different part of our society, the political process. I very much enjoyed it. I have never lost the things I learned in grad school, the critical thinking skills…have given me an advantage in what I do. It certainly was a change. It’s a very fast-paced environment and the hours go by quickly. The work schedule tends to be more erratic – some days are very busy and some days not so busy, but often you are doing something new every day. The mentality in grad school was of learning something specific, but less information on wide variety of subjects.”
In his transition from academia to public policy, Jaczko says he didn’t have any negative experiences. “My advisor was really supportive of me,” he says, adding, “certainly people were interested in me continuing on in academia, but people were supportive of the choices I wanted to make.” The AAAS fellowship was the key to making that transition successfully. He says, “I think I had a unique enough background to get the fellowship and from there I picked things up as I went along. Not having the fellowship, I think it would have been much harder to get on the Hill and learn everything I needed to know.”
The fellowship also opened doors for him, he says, allowing him to get his first professional job. When applying for jobs on the Hill, he says, “That was when I really emphasized the fellowship experience, and my work with the legislative process.” In his first job, Jaczko advised members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on nuclear policy and other scientific matters. He next worked for Senator Harry Reid, serving as his science policy advisor and then as his appropriations director. Jaczko now serves as one of the Commissioners for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a position he has held since the beginning of 2005.
The Commission, he says, is “a five-member body that regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other uses of nuclear materials in the US. [It] sets policy for how materials are regulated, reviews licenses, and administers and has final authority over licensing activities.” It is not uncommon for Commissioners to have come from the Hill, he says. In fact, “three…commissioners are past congressional staffers,” and that “often the source of candidates for this particular commission has been senate staff or people who worked in the nuclear navy program or academia.”
Working with the Commission, “the responsibilities are somewhat broad,” says Jaczko. It is a group effort, he says, “collectively we make decisions on how to regulate nuclear materials in this country, and we do this by a voting process.” He says that a typical day “involves a lot of voting, done in a paper format.” He says that this “drives most of the work”, making it a large portion of what he does. “In general,” he says, “there are lots of meetings, learning about the policy issues facing the Commission, and working through those issues – a lot of those do involve technical kinds of issues, [which are] really enjoyable – I get to draw on my critical thinking skills.” In fact, he says, “one of the reasons I was able to get this position is because I have a technical background and this Commission deals with a lot of technical issues.”
When asked about what makes his job satisfying, Jaczko says, “I certainly enjoy being able to be involved in decisions that have a real impact on peoples lives. I think it’s important to have people with scientific backgrounds involved in those decisions – so many issues the US is facing today have a technical part to them, where it is critical to make sound technical decisions.” It’s hard to find anything negative about his job, he says, “I enjoy my job very much…the only negative is that I don’t get to do the science I used to do – I try to keep up with what’s going on in the science community. But that’s challenging to do.” He adds that “work responsibilities keep me pretty busy and I have some travel responsibilities, but I’m fortunate in that the position I have gives me tremendous freedom to determine my own schedule and traveling.”
For those considering non-traditional careers, Jaczko says, “I think the advice I would give is don’t be afraid to really emphasize the things that your science background has given you…this idea of learning critical thinking. Scientists do it naturally, and that skill set is extremely valuable no matter what you go into – this is what makes scientists unique. People should never be shy about emphasizing the things they know and have learned through [their] scientific training.”
Jaczko is a big proponent of the AAAS fellowship program. He says, “If someone is interested in working in government, the AAAS program is outstanding – it gives you a lead forward in terms of experiences, and it makes you eligible for jobs you would never have eligibility for otherwise.” One of the biggest benefits for the Hill, he says, “is because the program pays your salary, so that’s the way it gives people a foot in the door.” He adds, “I worked on things that were very complicate legislative issues and I was able to be in the middle of those debates and discussions, and that would have never happened without the fellowship program.”
The program, he says, is “certainly useful for people who don’t necessarily want to have a government career but want a better understanding of how the political process works, which I think can only be beneficial for getting grants and research dollars to pursue their research interests.” In general he says, about one-third of the fellows stay in government, a third return to academia, and the rest go on to other things. “[It] is an excellent way to move into other areas beyond academia – you can use it to move into industry or other areas; it’s a great stepping-stone,” he says.
The NRC, Jaczko says, “is a great place to work and for people who may not want to continue in a research field, people can work on a lot of technical issues in a fast-paced work environment. That’s true in a lot of government agencies – the intellectual challenge of the work as well as the broader sense of giving back to society.” For the NRC, the job market is looking good. “We’re hiring people right now, and there is potential for new nuclear power plants in this country – it’s a great opportunity for people with technical and science backgrounds. In the government, there are many agencies and departments who are looking for people with technical and science backgrounds. We have strong opportunities for those with these backgrounds, and we’re always looking for talented and energetic people who want to experience public service.”
Jaczko says that he wouldn’t do anything differently. He says, “I am pretty fortunate to be where I am, to enjoy what I do and have done – I have had good experiences all the way through.”