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Scientific Research Funding

Careers in Science From the Field

Kevin Conway is Deputy Branch Chief and a Program Director in the Epidemiology Research Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, where he develops and administers a portfolio of drug abuse research on etiology, genetic epidemiology, and antisocial behaviors. Prior to joining NIDA in 2001, Dr. Conway was an Associate Research Scientist in the Genetic Epidemiology Research Unit in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the Yale University School of Medicine. Dr. Conway earned the Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Temple University in 1998.

What is your profession?

My profession is Program Director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). What that means is that I have responsibility for developing a program for research on drug abuse and administering grants and contracts that are consistent with that program of research. To accomplish this goal, I apply my background in psychology, criminology, and epidemiology to support novel interdisciplinary research on drug abuse.

Can you describe a typical week in your position?

A typical week entails several meetings--we all have meetings. It involves meetings to discuss administrative and scientific issues. Another component is corresponding directly with researchers in the field either those who are supported by NIDA or talking to other researchers who are doing the kind of research that the field needs to move toward. We try to get those individuals interested in studying drug abuse as well. A major portion of my time is spent keeping up with what has been published, in terms of my specific program and also more generally in the field. Some of my time is devoted to writing review articles, conceptual papers, and empirical reports from available datasets. The last thing is responding to calls from the press and other agencies within and outside the government that want a certain issue discussed. So it is pretty variable.

What are the most important personal satisfactions connected with your occupation? dissatisfactions?

Most satisfying is the ability to develop research initiatives and seeing them translated into important scientific advances, at a very broad level, and from an individual perspective that is committed to a specific line of research, collecting and analyzing data for a specific project. We have an opportunity to think more broadly and try to influence the field from a broad perspective, and in doing so the satisfaction is that the field as a whole can make big steps.

What are the biggest challenges facing your field?

Time management. I think that is true of a lot of fields. There are a lot of administrative duties, lots of reading. That is the biggest challenge.

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?

The ability to think broadly, looking 5 or 10 years down the line, and at the same time being able to be very specific in short-term goals. There is a horizon that you are heading toward, but you have to chart a very specific short-term course.

What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage someone to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this field?

Active research involvement is the most important. Gaining writing and scientific skills, and definitely interpersonal communication ability, is important. You have to be able to work one-on-one and in groups and communicate very efficiently. There are lots of routes to gaining those tools.

What type of education background is required?
A PhD or some advanced research degree (MD or Doctorate of Science-SC.D).

What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field? Is there a salary ceiling?

At the job that I do, the salary varies by geographic region. At a government agency they try to make adjustments for cost of living for regions in the USA. For Bethesda the range is very broad: $60K-$100K.

What special advice do you have for a student seeking to qualify for this position?

Make sure to acquire as much inter-disciplinary training as possible. Sharpen lots of tools in different areas so you can see science from multiple points of view.

Can you briefly comment on the peer review process and some of its shortcomings?

I think it is less of a shortcoming, but is a characteristic of the process, and that is that it is a human process. Individuals that review projects do so from their own perspective and with their own biases and value judgements as to what is good science. That is often balanced by other members of the committee, so there usually is a good debate on issues. I think that it is a very difficult job, the whole peer review process. As science becomes more interdisciplinary, skills of reviewers become more and more stretched. It is tricky to balance the expertise of the panel with the changing nature of science.

Submitted by: Eric Buescher, fall 2003 intern