AAAS Fellowship: Finalist Week

By: Mara Olenick

You made it pass the first round of interviews for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellowship and snagged a spot at finalist week, what now? Finalist week spans five intense days in DC, interviewing at offices throughout the executive branch agencies like the NIH, NSF, DOD, DOE, State Dept., USAID, White House OSTP, etc. On top of interviews there are networking lunches and happy hours, to connect with current and alum AAAS S&T Fellows, as well as the other finalists. It is a whirlwind of a week! Here is a blurb on my recent experience with finalist week and some tips I learned along the way.

After receiving the email that I would progress to the next round of interviews (once I stopped jumping up and down from joy), I got down to preparing. For finalists’ week, they send general suggestions like updating your resume and bringing business clothes. During this time, I went to career services for advice on my resume (shout out to my girl, Dianne Hull) and to print business cards.

ProTIP: GO TO CAREER SERVICES! The staff can help with resumes/CVs and hold mock interviews with you. Plus, they are super nice!

About a week before they send the placement descriptions, which list the available positions. And in my experience, this building suspense can be directly correlated to increasing anxiety! The Friday before finalists’ week, AAAS notifies you of your pre-selected interviews. They say not to worry about how many you are pre-selected for because you have the opportunity to set up more interviews once the week starts. Of course, this means that I assumed I would have no pre-selected interviews because, you know, imposter syndrome (it’s real guys!). On that Friday, I woke up to a whole list of interviews (more jumping up and down for joy)! Once you get your list of interviews, you can do research (#WeAreScientists) on the offices that you will be interviewing with and make a list of other offices that you want to request interviews from.

ProTip: Draft emails to the offices you will be requesting interviews with BEFORE you leave for DC. I did not do this but heard about it from another finalist and thought it was genius!

Once you get to DC, then the fun (and stress) really starts! Monday kicks off with orientation. AAAS staff go over general information and expectations about the week, security clearances and have current fellows discuss the different agencies and offices. This is also the first meeting with your fellow finalists, so it’s kind of like the first day of school, where no one knows each other and there is a lot of ‘Hi my name is…’. Getting to know the other finalists was a great part of the week. Everyone is at a different stage in their career, from a variety of backgrounds and different goals for their fellowship. Great conversations were easy to find.

Around 3pm on Monday, the finalists are released into the wild, aka to start interviews and set up additional interviews. I had an interview right after orientation at the NIH, so I was worried about logistics like public transportation. Luckily, I made it there early and had a great first interview. The people in the office were welcoming and kind. Since one of the interviewers was a previous fellow, she understood the process and the experience I would have over the next five days. Throughout that week, I had many interviews with previous fellows and it was great to learn about their career paths post-AAAS fellowship.

Interviews were a mixed bag, as far as format. Some were more classic interview style, i.e. the interviewer asking questions and probing your background/fit for the position. Other interviews (about 70% of mine) were more conversational, i.e. let’s chat about our backgrounds and see where that takes us. While each style has benefits, it was sometimes difficult to flip flop between them, especially the first few days. But part way through the week, you are so honed in on your talking points for either situation that you feel like an interviewing pro. By the end of the week, you will want a second crack at the first few offices you interviewed at because you realized you forgot to mention a specific skill or that you missed an opportunity to ask a pressing question. Hindsight is always 20/20.

PRO TIP: Plan your travel the night before you know where each interview is and how to get there. Sometimes there is very little time between and having a planned route is a lifesaver.

Along with a packed schedule of interviews, there were happy hours and networking lunches with current fellows. Due to my schedule, I didn’t make any of the lunches. But I did go to some happy hours. For the finalist, these happy hours gave more time to chat up the current fellows and other finalists. If you were lucky, you could also get a snack and hydrate! The current fellows were useful for providing tips about the interview week and placement process, as well as giving insider knowledge on different offices and agencies.

PRO TIP: Bring a water bottle and snacks because mealtime is somewhat limited and you will be running all over the DC metro area.

During my five days in DC, I had 11 interviews, in six agencies (State dept., DOD, DOE, NIST, NIH and NSF), went to Bethesda twice and Virginia three times, went to four happy hours and met countless cool people doing science policy! There were some high points (Indian food at the NIH cafeteria after an awesome interview) and some low points (realizing I had made some typos in a thank-you email to an office I really liked), but it was worth the roller coaster ride.

PRO TIP: DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT write thank you emails on your phone between interviews unless you proof read them very carefully before sending. The sense of self-loathing you will feel over the smallest typo will send you to a dark, dark place and you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life. Trust me on this one. 

Once you get home from finalist week, hopefully you get some follow up emails from thank-you notes and you can start assessing your ranking of offices. This is how placement works: You have a week to make a ranking of the offices you would like to work at and the offices make a ranking of the people they would like to hire. Then AAAS takes this information and you hope and pray that you have matched somewhere. After the rankings are in, it can take anywhere from a week to several weeks to hear back. In some cases, you might have to do some more interviews before being matched.

PRO TIP: Reach out to the offices you are most interested in during the ranking process. It helps to get a better idea of which one is the top pick for you and gives you more time to make a good impression on the office.

I will be starting at the NIH in August as a AAAS S&T fellow and I am very excited! I will miss Penn greatly but am ready to start my new adventure into science policy. If anyone has any questions or wants advice, or just a person to chat with, about science policy fellowships, feel free to reach out!