Using STPF Professional Development Funds: Part 1, General Strategies
As a holistic professional development experience, the AAAS Science & Technology Fellowship (STPF) program is more than just a window into federal policymaking processes. In addition to an annual stipend, fellows receive travel and training funds to use toward activities for continued or new intellectual achievement and professional growth. Most often and depending on how each fellow is hired, fellows do not need to use paid time off to pursue these activities -- a flexibility that allows them to explore the intersection of science and policy in a way that works for them.
Fellows whose stipends are administered by AAAS receive a professional training allowance starting between $3-6,000. The funds may be used only for fellowship-related travel and for professional training (e.g., attending scientific conferences that pertain to the fellowship). All travel and training must be pre-approved by the host office and AAAS.
Fellows who are hired and paid directly by host offices engage in travel and training as provided by their office/agency. Travel and training funds vary by agency and range widely. This funding can go toward a wide variety of specialized training, formal education, or advanced professional learning that may otherwise be financially infeasible. This latitude can be stimulating, but it can also be daunting! Part one of this two-part blog series provides general strategies for new or future fellows to identify ways to spend their earmarked funding. Part two provides some fellow testimonials to further guide your professional development path and increase your prospects for a successful career.
Strategy 1: Ask your mentor.
At the beginning of your fellowship, you are assigned a mentor or supervisor in your host office whose role is to provide you with guidance, advice, and support throughout your program. Mentors are seasoned experts with institutional knowledge, and you will work closely with them during your fellowship. They should be your first-line resource to identify skills and experiences that can help you navigate your new role.
Ask your mentor to help you find conferences, certificate programs, or specific skill-building courses relevant to your new office assignment or your unique career aspirations. Consider having these conversations as early as the interview process or at the outset of your fellowship when you are developing your personalized Fellowship Impact Plan (FIP). All travel and training funds need to be pre-approved by your mentor and aligned with your FIP, so engaging with them early in the process can help set expectations and save critical time.
Strategy 2: Use the fellow network.
One of the best aspects about being a fellow is the direct access to AAAS’ expansive STPF alumni network, which currently boasts over 4000 fellows from 50 years of bringing scientists and engineers to Washington. Consider using the searchable database to seek out and engage with fellows and alumni who share your background, interests, or host agency. Identify a handful of fellows and ask them for a 30-minute phone call or coffee chat to understand how they spent their travel and training funds. These conversations can provide you with valuable first-hand insights into a variety of opportunities that may be worthwhile or not worth the time nor the money. Pro-tip: Broaden your search even further by ending each conversation with a request for a recommendation of a new person (or a few new people) to connect with next!
Strategy 3: Identify your skill gaps.
By nature, fellows are skilled scientists and engineers who bring deep knowledge and analytical skills to the federal government. But jumping into any new job can shed light on previously unidentified areas of weakness. You may realize that you lack the knowledge or expertise to perform certain job duties. That is perfectly okay! A big part of this fellowship is learning, so it is normal to be a novice in many aspects of your new role.
Recall that you weren’t an expert in your doctoral area of study when you started your dissertation--no one was born knowing exactly how to run Western Blots, write Python code, or use a confocal microscope. You learned the skills necessary to make original contributions to your scientific field, and you grew in the process. Similarly, the first few months of your policy fellowship may be confusing and disorienting. Remember that you possess the innate capacity to learn and the ability to solve complex problems.
Consider using your fellowship to identify any skills you’d like to develop or sharpen, and use your supplemental travel and training funds to improve them. Embracing vulnerability early will only help you succeed faster. If you don’t know what you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask those around you for constructive criticism. Use this time to develop the skills you need and hope to utilize in your post-fellowship life. Just be mindful about your time and intentional about your priorities, as your budget and fellowship duration are finite.
Strategy 4: Get creative!
Maybe there is a language you want to learn, a negotiation tactic you want to master, or a humanitarian mission you want to support. Maybe there’s a career coach who peaks your interest, a certificate program you have your eye on, or a conference you would love to attend. Travel and training funds can be used for just that! They are intended to help you thrive and grow, so consider using them for a variety of classes, coaches, books, and temporary duty assignments.
However you decide to spend them, the STPF travel and training funds are available to help you thrive. By having an early game-plan, you can optimize your spending to reap their benefits both during and beyond your fellowship year. Many fellows have used their supplemental funds to accelerate their career stages at various intersections of science and policy. Check out part two of this blog series to read some fellows stories and gain additional strategic insights for your own journey. Happy spending!