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Fellows in a Presidential Transition

Fellows who have just begun their DC stints no doubt have sensed the collective holding of breath, biting of nails, and restlessness that surfaces each election season. Soon the 45th President will take office, alongside a whole new Congress. Pundits are discussing from every angle the implications of the election for the nation and the globe.

What are the implications closer to home? How does the transition of power affect fellows who are working in federal agencies or on Capitol Hill?

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Richard Ames

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The Washington metro. | Richard Ames

Mark Goodman (1992-93 Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Institute of Physics), Victoria Gunderson (2012-13 Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Chemical Society and 2013-15 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of State), and Russell Moy (1999-2000 Executive Branch Fellow at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and 2000-2001 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of Commerce) have some perspective on this question. They are among the alumni fellows who have experienced a transition, and each one faced unexpected opportunities and challenges as a result.

For Goodman, who served as AIP’s congressional fellow from 1992-93, the placement process was very much a strategic one. With an eye to working for the Member of Congress in line to chair a subcommittee on energy efficiency and renewable energy, Goodman gravitated to the office of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND). Then the curveball: A spot opened up to helm the Finance Committee, and Conrad took it. Lucky for Goodman, energy issues continued to be important to the senator, but he also recalls getting to work on unexpected topics such as President Clinton’s inaugural budget plan. Now Goodman is a senior scientist at the State Department.

“Transition is a time to identify what people are trying to accomplish and how you can help them,” he said.

Gunderson also thought strategically when she sought a placement at the start of her fellowship, sponsored by ACS, in 2012. She hoped to work on energy issues and found a good match in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). She started in his personal office, but in early 2013, Wyden became chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Gunderson subsequently moved to the committee staff.

“It was a unique opportunity,” she said. “Spending time in a personal office and in a committee was very helpful.” Gunderson later served as an executive branch fellow in the State Department and now works as an international trade specialist in the Commerce Department.

For Moy, the transition opened up a new avenue he hadn’t considered. “I was sure I’d work in the Commerce Department,” he recalled. Instead, during a fellowship event, he learned of a need in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “I became Executive Director of PCAST,” he said, referring to the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. The position afforded him the chance to work on a wide range of issues and join international delegations to countries such as South Africa.

Moy has one main takeaway message for fellows readying for a transition: “It’s your chance to make an impression. Do good work. Try to have a substantive work product that people recognize is yours, and become the ‘go-to’ person.”

“Raise your hand and get involved,” advised Gunderson. “There’s a series of unknowns and you just have to embrace that. Go with the flow and be open to working on things that you didn’t necessarily picture yourself working on.”

All three alumni fellows emphasized that comfort zones should be set aside during the fellowship year. Said Goodman, “Go beyond your tolerance for disorder and unpredictability.”