Exploring Non-Academic Science Careers: Peace Corps

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a difficult question for many people to answer. Do you have a degree in science, but don’t know what your next career move should be? Are there any options outside academia? For reasons related to recent trends in funding and employment, the scientific community is looking for information regarding opportunities outside the traditional academic environment.

This series, called Exploring Non-Academic Science Careers, will highlight options that allow you to use your scientific expertise in ways that you may not know are out there! Our first post in this series highlighted the Presidential Management Fellowship.

In this second post in our series, we interviewed two scientists, Dr. Theresa Good and Dr. Stacy Kelley, who both work in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Both have successfully completed science PhDs and Peace Corps service. After a short introduction of Peace Corps, we would like to share their thoughts on Peace Corps service as an option for scientists interested in non-academic science careers.

What is Peace Corps?

Peace Corps is a US government agency founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship. Applicants who are selected for service, called Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), are US citizens age 18 or older with education, life experience, knowledge, or skills who are ready to live and work for 27 months in one of 63 countries.

You can learn more about Peace Corps, fill out an application, or read position descriptions here.

What do Peace Corps Volunteers Do?

During service, Peace Corps Volunteers collaborate with community members or organizations to build capacity at the grassroots-level. A PCV’s role during service is unique – defined by the overlap of their own interest and abilities with the needs and goals of the community, host nation, and Peace Corps agency. PCVs work alongside host-country counterparts in international development on a micro-scale by innovating sustainable solutions to large systemic issues like climate change, agricultural challenges, community economic development, health challenges (such as nutrition, HIV/AIDS, and water security), education and literacy, gender equality and letting girls learn, and youth development.

Each Peace Corps experience starts with training. PCVs live with a host family in their host nation while learning to speak one or more languages, core and technical aspects of their role, and history, culture, and customs for three months. Then, PCVs move to a host community where they live and work for an additional two years. PCVs who complete their 27 months of service are welcomed back as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV).

How Did You Hear About Peace Corps?

Dr. Theresa Good: I am the Deputy Division Director of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). When I was a graduate student at Cornell, doing a project on the mathematical modeling of E. coli back in the early days of systems biology, Peace Corps came on my radar. Cornell had some programs that seemed to attract RPCVs. It was hard not to romanticize about the idea of joining Peace Corps especially when you heard RPCVs’ stories.

Dr. Stacy Kelley: I am a Biologist in the Division of MCB. My husband first introduced me to Peace Corps. We both believe in public service, and loved the idea of living overseas. Some may see it as idealism, but we knew Peace Corps was right for us. The only question was when? I was in graduate school, teaching and conducting PhD lab research, with my sights set on a fulfilling career in academia. Stepping off of that well-defined path was frightening, so we talked with a Peace Corps recruiter to make a more informed decision.

What was the reason you decided to join the Peace Corps?

Dr. Theresa Good: I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with my research, or if I really wanted a PhD. As I was searching around, not sure of the relevance of my research, it seemed to me that while I was trying to sort out what I wanted to do, I could do something that “made the world a better place.” I never thought I was altruistic; I was just trying to find myself in a socially acceptable way.

I had suggested to the Peace Corps recruiter that as a chemical engineer specializing on growing bacteria in a bioreactor, I should be able to teach people how to grow fish in a pond. But instead, Peace Corps asked me to teach biology and chemistry in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It seemed like an adventure! But, I also had no idea what I was getting into.

Dr. Stacy Kelley: Talking with a recruiter convinced me Peace Corps was the right choice, so we filled out an application. The application and selection process was different back then. For example, it took us weeks to fill out the paper application, and now you can do it online in about an hour. Where we would be living and working was a surprise, but now you can request a specific country and position. We knew it took longer for married couples to be placed, so we applied and thought we would just fit it in to my scientific career once we were accepted. We had no idea that more than two years later, we would be asked to serve…just as I was about to graduate with my PhD. We can still remember the excitement of opening the envelope that said where we were serving!

What are the professional and personal benefits of Peace Corps service?

Dr. Theresa Good: I discovered I loved to teach and that I was good at it. There is something magical about that moment when students “get it”, when that the light bulb goes on. My village lacked electricity and running water. I will never forget when my students did an experiment for the first time in a chemistry lab with water we got from a stream using donated materials that were tucked away for years in a supply room. After adding metal to a solution, they noticed bubbles evolving and came running to me saying (in French, not English) “Miss, miss, is this a reaction?”…and they finally got what they were learning. Wow!

I also discovered how resourceful I was – you can’t actually survive for 2 years in the DRC without being resourceful. Being resourceful is a skill that translates to all areas of life.

Jim Olds, the Assistant Director of Biological Sciences, asks me periodically about my resilience as a leader. Peace Corps is a great opportunity to practice resilience – at least in my village, you never knew what to expect – so having a sense of humor and the ability to adapt (and thrive) in the midst of change – was important.

Finally, diversity is an important value at the NSF – we value diverse opinions, people who can work with diverse people, and people who come from diverse environments.

Theresa

Dr. Theresa Good (far right) talking with other Peace Corps Volunteers in Zaire.

After living for two years in an environment where I was the one who was different (the only white woman who some of the people in my village had ever seen), I gained a whole new appreciation for diversity. I also gained an appreciation for working with students from different cultures (whose English language skills might not match their intellectually ability in their technical area). I spent two years teaching in French (a language I had learned in high school, but was not particularly good at when I first got to the Democratic Republic of Congo), so I knew first-hand what it was like to be “really smart, but have language skills of a 5-year-old.”

I found by becoming more resourceful and resilient in Peace Corps, I became a better researcher in graduate school in Wisconsin. Resourcefulness and resiliency are both important skills in science when experiments fail or your proposal gets rejected. Really, when something “hard” happens now, I know it really isn’t that hard compared to some of the other things I’ve been through in Peace Corps service.

Dr. Stacy Kelley: I served in Youth Development working with youth, adults, and communities to improve the social, economic, and leadership opportunities available to youth. My husband served in Community Economic Development helping small businesses, teaching business and computing classes, and developing entrepreneurs. Though my work was not directly related to science, I found ways to incorporate my love of science into everything I did. For example, during Graduate School I taught college students about HIV infection in a lecture hall in English, and in Peace Corps, I taught high school students about HIV infection on a soccer field in Spanish. I used my scientific data collection and evaluation skills to co-create an online, monitoring and evaluation system that are still being used. My husband used science in his community project creating robotic tractors for agriculture. As a married couple serving in the same community, we often worked together on secondary projects including science fairs, murals, and teaching English and computing. These experiences uniquely round out my scientific resume.

After serving in Peace Corps, I have terrific examples for job interviews of overcoming challenges, working in a multicultural setting, developing and managing small or large scale projects, multitasking, and most of all – resourcefully innovating MacGyver-style with whatever you have or can find to make everything you need. Life in Peace Corps is an adventure – difficult, exciting, and filled with change – requiring me to find the best in myself and adapt quickly to challenges such as power or water outages, cold showers, long bus rides, earthquakes, or new social norms. I also found I was stronger than I knew – overcoming the personal sacrifices of missing my brother’s wedding, aunt’s funeral, and nephew’s birth. My husband and I are now more resilient – better able to make mistakes, laugh at ourselves, and handle challenging situations with greater ease.

Peace Corps Volunteers receive benefits and professional development. One of the biggest professional benefits for me was becoming part of an expansive network of diverse RPCV peers who generously help newly minted RPCVs find their place in the world. The training and experience you receive conducting data management, project design and management, grant writing, and managing budgets, combined with unique experiences that change your perspective on the world, are also highly valued by potential employers, including Employers of National Service who have committed to hiring RPCVs. If you are interested in working for the US Government, RPCVs are awarded one year of non-competitive eligibility (NCE) status that makes the hiring process a little easier. Being an RPCV, you also have the ability to apply for high-impact, short-term assignments called Peace Corps Response. Those with a medical doctor or nursing background can apply for Global Health Service Partnership positions.

Overwhelmingly for me, the benefits of Peace Corps service were deeply personal. My husband and I have countless, priceless memories of heartfelt moments with so many people – from those we only interacted with for a few moments while waiting for a bus on a dusty road, to those we saw everyday walking up green, mango tree covered mountains in the hot sun. In Peace Corps, we found a second family, a new home, and are now finding it harder to answer the question “Where are you from?” All this from taking a road less traveled, a non-traditional path towards a career in science.

Any advice you would give to someone who is interested in science and Peace Corps?

Dr. Theresa Good: There are so many more opportunities to serve in the Peace Corps now than there were in the 80’s. I was one of the few (only) chemical engineers that joined the Peace Corps – and while teaching Chemistry was somewhat relevant, there are more relevant projects available to Peace Corps Volunteers now. The Peace Corps is a great way to get some experience – but also grow personally and in leadership skills you might not have the opportunity to use in other “entry level” positions. So – if you find an opportunity that fits, are willing to explore a more circuitous path, and you have a sense of humor and a sense of adventure – go for it!

If you know of a great alternative way to use your science degree and want us to highlight the opportunity for readers, let us know!

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