PNAS: SM, Canadian Grant Officer

(This post is part of the new round of interviews of non-academic scientists, giving the responses of S.M., a Canadian government employee who would prefer not to be identified by name. The goal is to provide some additional information for science students thinking about their fiuture careers, describing options beyond the assumed default Ph.D.--post-doc--academic-job track.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I work for one of Canada's three federal granting agencies (one, two, three). We get money from the federal government which we give to university resesearchers (i.e. professors). We have several programs to which academics apply by writing targeted grant proposals. Some programs require that these applications include a non-academic (industrial) partner. I work in one of these programs, specifically one that tends more towards development rather than research.

2) What is your science background?

I have a B.Sc. in Microbiology from McGill University in Montreal (Department of Agriculture, Macdonald College campus) and an MBA from the University of Ottawa,

3) What led you to this job?

After my B.Sc. I was a research assistant in a government food lab (Agriculture Canada, Center for Food and Animal Research) for seven years but when they closed down, I was forced to make some decisions: Should I continue along the same career path and move to another city to continue being an RA, or should I change tracks? I decided at that point that I didn't particularly like the solitary nature of lab work and wanted more interaction with people. As a result I ended up spending the next seven years doing customer service/inside sales at two different companies (Fisher Scientific, a scientific supply company and JDS Uniphase, a local high-tech/telecom company).

In the latter five years I was doing my MBA part-time while working. Once I finished it, I started looking around for other opportunities and serendipitously found this current opportunity. It was tough to get into this organization and it took over a year of applying for different positions and a zillion interviews, but perseverance paid off.

4) What's your work environment like?

I work in a 20-storey downtown office tower, in a cubicle, in front of a computer. Ironiclly, it's no less solitary on most days, than the lab work was.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

My day-to-day tasks include: interacting with professors, university research grants officers and industry liaison officers. I explain the program to them, review draft applications and provide guidance to applicants and grant time extensions on project files. During the competition cycles I also read full applications and manage the peer review process. This involves setting up evaluation committees, finding and securing external reviewers, reading reviews, taking notes at the committee meetings, preparing feedback to applicants.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

Every day I read grant applications that deal with science. Few are directly in my field but all require an understanding of research, the university environment and the general language of science.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

The minimum entrance requirement for this position is a master's degree. Most of my colleagues have PhDs and years of research experience. Even many of the administrative assistants have bachelor degrees.

If someone was interested to work here, I would suggest that they complete a graduate science degree or an undergrad science degree with a business degree Useful experience would include work in a research environment, learning about the granting environment (e.g. grant writing, grant administration), and also familiarizing yourself with issues regarding technology and innovation, start-ups (SME's), knowledge transfer, creating value out of university research, etc.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

I think that my training in science has taught me to be observant, questioning and detail-oriented, traits that I find useful in all areas of my life.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Don't worry too much about trying to make the "right" decision. There are many, many opportunities for science grads and there is lots of work that doesn't involve the obvious lab work or teaching, if that's not your thing. Seek out and talk to others in areas that you think might interest you - people are always more than happy to talk about themselves.

Your career path is likely to change and take different directions over the years. The important thing is to be open to opportunities that present themselves and pursue them enthusiastically with an open mind.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

The pay range for my classification is $57.1K - $70.5K. A new hire might start at the low end or in the middle, depending on prior experience.

The salary goes up each year - contingent on a positive performance review, until you hit the range maximum, after which is increases only by the cost of living.

My level is considered by many managers to be an "intermediate" level and they expect that employees this group will soon apply for the next level up. Those that don't move up often make lateral moves into other groups to broaden their experience.

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I'm a Canadian in physics grad school in the US. Does this job (as practiced in Canada) require proficiency in both English and French?