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I am speaking in the University of Chicago’s myCHOICE virtual seminar series this month. These seminars inform and educate trainees about career options and experiences that help leverage Ph.D. training to fit a range of workplace roles. The discussions have different topics, and the one I will be joining is on what it is like to be a program officer at a private foundation. The organizers sent me a list of questions derived from student surveys to help make sure panelists like me focus their remarks on the things that are most valuable to attendees. I am going to answer the first one—the one where they ask about panelists’ career origin story—here.

I love talking with graduate students and postdocs about possible career directions. No one who knew me when I was younger would have guessed that this would be something I enjoy, much less make time for. I was not a people person, especially in the sense that I do not always pick up well on others’ emotions.

I only ever thought seriously about two possible careers when I was growing up: scientist or print journalist, and I did my best to prepare for both. By the time I went off to college, I had settled on being a scientist who works on infectious diseases, which was probably a great relief to my parents, who knew from personal experience what careers in the newspaper business looked like. Within science, I knew I wanted to run a research lab and soon decided I preferred to do that in academe, as a professor.

Fast-forward to the second half of my postdoc. It became clear to me that the work I had done was not going to have the impact I needed to get a job. I would have to complete a second postdoc to generate new work that would make me competitive in the job market. I counted how many years stood between where I was and what I perceived as stability: tenure. I nearly ran out of fingers—10 more years! One to get a grant funded, three to be productive at the lab bench and get a bunch of papers out, a year on the job market, then five or six years to make my mark as early faculty and then I would get promoted.

I know now that tenure is only another hurdle in a career full of hurdles, but that is not how I thought back then. Back then, all I could see was that in 10 years I would be 40, and that I could not let myself or my family spend another decade waiting to see how my career turned out.

Even though I had decided before college that I did not want to be a newspaperwoman, I had kept writing and working on student and community newspapers because I enjoyed doing it. As my postdoc ended, I started talking with friends and colleagues about “alternative careers.” I ended up spending hours on the phone with friends-of-friends who told me about their work and the personal needs and desires that had gotten them where they were.

It was a remarkable series of conversations that changed everything about how I thought about work life and about how I understood other people. The experience also helped me get a substantial contract to do the research for a book about career change. That contract and a growing stream of freelance work ensured that I could keep paying the rent and buying groceries while I thought about what I would like to do next.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF, “the Fund”), where I work now, became one of my writing clients. I had known about this private funder and its prestigious awards from the time I was a graduate student. When a job running the Fund’s communications operation came open, I thought it was the perfect job for me. I applied and was turned down. Oh, the misery! A while later, a job that was an even better fit for me, running the organization’s infectious disease program, opened up. I did my best to convince them that they needed me on staff. Weeks letter, I got a call telling me they agreed.

How Can I Help?

Program officers in foundations and in some federal funders are the people who, using insights from the research community, design, develop, run and evaluate grant programs. Once programs have been built, we work on making sure there is community awareness of our programs so that excellent applicants will apply. On a typical day, I spend my time reading on work in the areas my programs cover, exploring other funders’ grant opportunities that may interest the communities I support, talking with researchers about how their work fits our program and talking with stakeholders about innovative programs we may be developing. I go to the major meetings in my field looking for what is new and what is missing: spotting the gaps that may be holding back discovery is important for people in this role.

I have been managing programs at BWF for more than 20 years and have enjoyed growing in my role, but in general, the people I serve think of me as a program officer—hopefully, as a good program officer, or a high-impact program officer, or a program officer who always tells them something useful they had not previously known, even if BWF does not have a program that fits them at the moment. I like a title that fits this way, the way that teacher or doctor or cook does, because it emphasizes what the person does for other people rather than their place in an organizational chart.

I am also BWF’s chief strategy officer, but it is not important that a postdoc or new faculty member having his or her first conversation with a program officer knows that. I want people to leave a conversation with me knowing that program officers are helpful and want them to succeed. Many program officers I know see their role in a similar way.

A Useful Take

Program officers have similar roles across philanthropy and in several of the grant-making federal agencies. As developers and administrators of your fields’ grants, we often have a useful take on everything from where fields are going to how important fitting your narrative to the grant opportunity can be. While the simplest reason to contact a program officer is to discuss a particular call for proposals, it is OK to ask one of us just to have a talk with you about your work or grants from our organization. Faculty members who have succeeded at getting grants from multiple agencies may be willing to introduce you to program officers they believe will give you an especially friendly conversation so that you can begin feeling comfortable reaching out for help.

Keep our role in mind: we want to see people succeed at getting our grants and helping make their fields stronger. This is a goal we share with grant applicants. See? You have something in common with your favorite agency’s program officers already. Might as well introduce yourself and see where the conversation leads.

Victoria McGovern is the chief strategy officer of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the program officer running the foundation’s grant investments in climate and health, infectious diseases, and career guidance for trainees. If you want to talk about BWF programs, email her; you can find her address at She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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