Examples of Non-Academic Career Paths

Nancy Forbes

M.A.s in Physics and Spanish, Independent Science Policy Consultant and Writer

By Meghan Anzelc

Ms. Nancy Forbes is not your typical physics graduate. She earned her first bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and then a master’s degree in Spanish. After finishing these degrees, Forbes worked for the automobile company Fiat in Italy and as a financial journalist for the Wall Street Transcript. She returned to school at 28 and was considering medicine as a second career before she “fell in love with physics.” Forbes had little background in physics and worked hard to obtain her bachelor’s degree before going on to graduate school in physics.

By her second year of graduate school, Forbes says that she was not only tired of school, but also was realizing that her goal of a tenure-track theoretical physics faculty position was distant. She was also concerned that a physics research career would be too narrow for her, since she felt she had a broad range of skills including writing and knowledge of foreign languages.

“In addition,” she says, “I had little [academic] support, didn’t do well on my qualifiers (having little of the requisite background),” and felt the environment was unbalanced and even harsh towards women. “Maybe if I had found a supportive advisor, and a good experimental research group, it would have been different. However, I persisted in wanting to do theory, and so I was isolated, probably depressed, and down about my future—and felt I had better prospects outside of physics. That said, I think I also left part of my heart in the physics world when I left.”

Forbes took a one-year appointment at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) after leaving graduate school. “It gave me a year to think things over, while still remaining in the physics environment,” she says. “Coincidently, the experiment I was working on was a BNL/Yale experiment in nuclear physics, and my colleagues talked me into writing Allan Bromley, a Yale nuclear physicist, then Bush senior’s Science Advisor in DC, about my career plans. Bromley was great, a super mentor. He invited me to Washington DC, told me even though I lacked a PhD I had excellent [communication] skills and that Washington needed more scientists who could write.” In addition to her conversations with Dr. Bromley, Forbes also met Dr. Harvey Brooks (then of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government). “Brooks was a physicist turned science policy expert, and he also helped me get into the [science policy] field,” she says.

How did Forbes decide that science policy was the right career choice for her? “I had a strong writing and literature background and liked people,” she says. Both Dr. Bromley and Dr. Brooks convinced her of the vitality of writing and publishing. She says it was “the importance of the issues and the chance to help inject sound science into public policy through clear and accurate writing” that attracted her to the field.

Forbes networked and did informational interviews to prepare for her career change. She traveled to Washington, D.C. several times to interview people she had met and read a lot about the field. Her humanities background was helpful, she says, “as I already knew how to write well.” Forbes says the transition was somewhat difficult, including learning how to tailor a resume to her field. “My first resume was way too detailed; a friend of mine in the business environment helped me a lot to tailor my first resume,” she says. In hindsight, her transition to a science policy career was gradual; she acknowledges that applying for an AAAS policy fellowship might have been a more direct route.

Forbes’ networking helped her land her first job. Bromley, she says, “helped connect me with people here in DC. I got my first job at ICF Kaiser by conducting an information interview with a physicist on their staff, and a few months later, he contacted me about an opening they had and I got the job.” Her job at ICF Kaiser, Inc. involved doing risk assessments for the Department of Transportation on transportation of spent nuclear fuel and work for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office. Forbes has also worked on technology assessments for the EPA over a two-year period, served as a consultant for the American Institute of Physics and the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) for a year, and provided scientific, technical and systems engineering support for organizations such as the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) over a five-year period. She also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency as a senior analyst for three years, receiving the CIA Exceptional Performance Award, and was in charge of the Emerging Threats Program as a senior researcher for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for over a year.

In the beginning of 2006, Forbes left DHS and started working as an independent consultant. Her clients now include the National Academy of Sciences and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s National Coordination Office for Networking and IT Research. She has written one book and is working on a second, as well as several articles. While Forbes has worked with a number of different agencies in different capacities, she says, “the common thread through all my jobs has been to help provide the government with sound science information as the basis for policy, through good research and clear, accurate analysis and writing.”

What is the outlook for science policy careers? Forbes says, “I see the government continuing to outsource more, so there’ll be more opportunities in S&T policy in the private sector—in policy, military and even intelligence arenas. In addition, as technology increasingly affects the way we live and communicate, the economy, global health, even how we wage war, it will be ever more important to provide the government with good S&T advising ... based, of course, on an ability to ‘translate’ the results of sound science to the lay person and government policymaker.”

Forbes’ advice for students interested in a non-traditional career is to, “network, network, network.” For those interested in her field she recommends the AAAS Science Policy Fellowships and internship opportunities at the National Academies. As for what she would have done differently, Forbes says, “I would have steered towards a PhD in public policy at a good school like Harvard or MIT. As it was, after being in school for so long, I preferred learning on the job to going back to school. However, here in DC, having a PhD in the science policy world can be a ticket to many jobs. I didn’t have that ticket so I had to work harder,” she says. Having only a Master’s matters less, she says, “as I now have a solid publications list (30+ pubs in IEEE magazines and in the now defunct AIP’s The Industrial Physicist), a book on biologically-inspired computing with another about 19th century British physics on the way, and lots of good contacts.” She adds, “Be curious, keep your eyes open, think about where you want to head career-wise. Learn good communication skills, especially writing. Most importantly, talk to people working in those fields to see if you think you’d like working in that area.”

Forbes offers some additional advice for women in science. She has been a member of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) since graduate school and says, “I’ve always found a lot of support there.” She adds, “I would look into things like the APS Forum on Physics and Society, and join organizations like AWIS and Women in International Security (WIIS) based at Georgetown University.” Women’s issues are important to her she says, “because coming from a not-very-women-friendly physics department, I needed the support and encouragement. And it seems even since then, I’ve ended up in male-dominated fields, so having organizations like AWIS has been a real help to me. And I like mentoring as well—giving back, so to speak.”