History at the FDA (feat. Vanessa Burrows)
Alumni Aloud Episode 13
Vanessa Burrows is a historian at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She is a graduate of the Graduate Center’s PhD Program in History.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Vanessa discusses her job search process, the skills she uses in her work, and the rewards of being a civil servant. Vanessa found her experience conducting research with federal records in the National Archives and the Library of Congress to be a critical qualification for her current position, and that work afforded skills and familiarity with records that she now calls on frequently in her daily work.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of Vanessa Burrows and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE-OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ABBY TURNER, HOST: I’m Abby, a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at The Graduate Center and I work in the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development. Today I’m talking to Vanessa Burrows and she’s going to tell us what her job is like as a historian at the FDA. And she comes from our History PhD program. Hi Vanessa! Thanks for joining me today.
VANESSA BURROWS, GUEST: Thanks for asking me to join you. I do have to give a disclaimer since I am a federal employee. I have to make it known that the opinions expressed in this interview are my own and not those of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And I should also be clear that I’m not supposed to speak about current projects that are under way. I can talk about the nature of the work and about things that are public knowledge. But even though the stuff we’re working on right now is intended for public viewing, I can’t give specific details about it.
TURNER: Okay well that’s good to know. Why don’t you start us off with how you got your job at the FDA? What took you to the FDA to be a historian?
BURROWS: Well I guess there’s a million different ways I could answer that. The path was not a straight shot from you know completing the dissertation to walking through the doors at the FDA. And it definitely was circuitous and unclear what I would end up doing once I left The Graduate Center. During my degree I had worked on a documentary film so I had a little bit of experience in public history. And that documentary film just happened to examine public health policy and particularly looked at the Department of Health, Education & Welfare, which is now the Department of Health and Human Services that the FDA falls underneath. So I don’t know if that’s synchronicity or if it’s just circumstance. But the fact that I had a little bit of a background in public history definitely gave me a leg up in looking for a non-academic job.
And I would say my willingness to do unpaid work after I graduated and you know I’m being snarky by saying that but, I sought out volunteer opportunities to gain other kinds of skills. And I worked in the museum, helped curate an exhibit, did some public communications for the museum. I worked in advocacy for the humanities actually. And if anybody is listening and they don’t know about the National Humanities Alliance, it’s a fantastic group that is helping to maintain federal funding for the humanities. I also did some work in digital curriculum for the Smithsonian. So I was really willing and really eagerly sought out volunteer opportunities both for intellectual curiosity and to keep myself busy while I was on the job market and like I said to develop skills. And so long as I’m mentioning it, I would also say when you’re looking for a job outside of academia you need to have non-academic references, so volunteering is a really great way to build relationships with people that can vouch for your talents in a non-academic sphere.
TURNER: Yeah, that’s definitely a great tip. So these were volunteer opportunities in general …the ones you just described, the four you just mentioned? So what skills were you picking up from those? What skills in particular do you think are most useful that you got out after you left your program?
BURROWS: Well I got experience in doing different digital communications. Another one I did was writing for a blog and I would also say that in doing this volunteer work and in being on the job market for about a year and a half, I was forced to think about the kinds of skills I already had as well and how they’re adaptable to different kinds of settings. And I have to thank your office a little bit for helping me along this path because I met with Jenny when I was still a student and she took a look at my CV and helped me turn it into a resume. It was the beginning steps of me thinking about, how do I think about what skills I have as a historian that are not just doing historical research you know. How do I make my skills actionable in the non-academic environment? So critical thinking, project management, communications, being able to write, you know those sorts of skills are certainly things that people are looking for in job candidates. And being able to talk about them and identify them within yourself is really important. So recognizing those skills was part of it but in working with…So I volunteered with this museum, it was actually a Historical Society. And it was the first time I got to curate an exhibit. So doing that, doing public lectures not just conferences but you know for a general audience, giving guided tours to public audiences. In the Smithsonian I was working on putting together a digital curriculum.
TURNER: And what did that entail, the digital curriculum for the Smithsonian?
BURROWS: So I was really lucky to get involved in this fantastic project that they’re working on. The Smithsonian has this amazing 3-D imaging initiative where they’re taking various objects in the collection and making 3-D models of them and then they use 3-D tours. For certain objects you can really see things that you can’t see you know with the naked eye. Like the cosmic Buddha is this ancient statue that has the story of the life of Buddha etched into it but you can’t see it because it’s been worn away through the years. But with 3-D imaging they were able to really bring it out. So anyway so the 3-D imaging project was being used to create 3-D models of original electromagnetic inventions and make 3-D files that you can use to print out a 3-D model.
So we’re developing this curriculum for middle school engineering students to use this very cool cutting-edge 3-D technology to be involved in like discovering how electromagnetism works and what they could apply it to in different ways. And you know the hidden message was to think of yourself as a maker and think of the world around you as the product of people being creative like that as well. So what I did was the history side of it and I created this scaffold set of lessons that conveyed like basic biographical information about inventors, problems that they encountered and how they overcame them, what the social setting of their work was, how their work took place, what the impact of their inventions were and the larger scientific community that they operated within.
TURNER: And how much did the research you were doing at The Graduate Center overlap with this. Did you need to be a historian that knew about that stuff [inventors] going into it?
BURROWS: Well my first semester at The Graduate Center I took Joseph Dobbins’ class on the history of scientific revolutions, which was fantastic. So definitely you know that was a benefit to me in designing this curriculum. And I taught for 8 years and really had a lot of experience in developing curriculum and scaffolding assignments.
TURNER: Ok, so a lot of that would come more natural to a Graduate Center fellow, one who has been teaching at CUNY
BURROWS: Absolutely. And knowing what works and what doesn’t you know like what you can expect to cover in a lesson and how to identify learning objectives. That kind of stuff definitely I would not have been able to do it without having been a teaching fellow.
TURNER: Great. So why don’t you tell us about what a typical day would be like at work? What kind of projects? You obviously can’t give us details of the projects but what types of projects do you take on as a historian?
BURROWS: I love my job so much because I get to do so many different kinds of things. So I do historical research obviously. I do it in response to inquiries we get within the agency for various presentations or actual scientific research sometimes. I do it in response to external requests from the media, from researchers, certainly for FOIA, or freedom of information requests, and I do it for projects we design in history office. I am one of 3 historians at the FDA. John Swann and Suzanne Junod created the history office and I’m very lucky to get to work with both of them. I also have a collection of about 12,000, I think at this point, artifacts and I preserve them, I catalogue them, I do research on them. I’m also involved in our oral history program. We have about 250 oral histories that are available on our website and at the National Library of Medicine, mostly with Afghani police but also people that did work related to the agency’s mission. And we develop exhibits. One of the reasons I was hired and one of the things I’m most excited about doing is the virtual exhibit component of the FDA history office’s work. And alongside that there’s also social media communications we do, so we do like throwback Thursday or flashback Friday. FDA history little vignettes and case studies and if that isn’t enough different kinds of things, I also present our work, that’s an important one. I do presentations within the agency and to the public as well. And given my background in curriculum one of the things that we’re looking to in the future develop are some teaching materials to make publicly available on our website.
TURNER: Teaching materials about what?
BURROWS: About FDA history. So can’t talk about stuff we’re working on right now. Well I can talk about it in the abstract. I can say you know there are certain periods in the agency’s history that were really formative, where you know there’s a legislative reform and the agency was given new regulatory powers. And one of those was in the 1930’s. So you don’t generally when you’re studying the New Deal in American history classes, you don’t generally learn about the FDA but the themes that you study in the New Deal about using government to promote social welfare and leadership of FDR and things like that interact with or are revealed in FDA’s history at that time too. So that would be something that you can bring forward to help teachers integrate FDA history into their own content obligations.
TURNER: Okay so it sounds like no two days are exactly alike.
BURROWS: No. I love it, I really do. It’s fascinating and I get to work with all different kinds of people you know, with scientists, with politicians with, communication specialists, you name. It’s really fun.
TURNER: So on that note tell us what it’s like to be a federal employee? Maybe what its like to live in the DC area as well?
BURROWS: I guess if you’re going to be a federal employee, the DC area is the best place to do it. I started in January of 2017 so I don’t know what it was like before then, I guess I’ll just leave it at that. But it’s really rewarding for me. I concentrated as a US historian but I created an ad-hoc minor to allow me to specialize in the history of medicine and public health. And given that background, the fact that I can actually work at a regulatory agency with a public health mission is extraordinarily rewarding for me. And one of the biggest benefits for me is that I’m a civil servant and I am doing something to advance public health in a meaningful way and I get to use history to do that. It’s like if I could have designed a job for myself… I mean I’m being silly but I’m 100 percent serious.
So it’s really sort of like on that spiritual level that I you know feel what it’s like to be a federal employee. Having worked at a very large academic institution, there are some similarities in you know like infrastructure and the feeling of bureaucracy and you know sometimes the hoops you have to jump through just to get approval to use a specific program on your computer, that kind of stuff. But there’s also the lack of students, like not interacting with students is a big difference. And I’m like I said really fortunate to have great colleagues, fellow historians that I work with, but there’s only 3 of us. And so we all seek out you know other scholarly communities outside of the FDA. But that’s a big difference, you don’t work in an office with a bunch of other academics. Of course the people at the FDA have a lot of education behind them. There’s a lot of people that come from academia and then go back to academia, though not that many humanities PhDs.
TURNER: So do you ever get a chance to continue your own scholarship or continue research that you’re interested in publishing or projects you’re working on, on the side? Or are you really just interested in the kind of work you’re doing that’s more actionable?
BURROWS: Well both. I actually am currently putting the finishing touches on an article that was accepted for publication in a historical journal. I started that before my work at the FDA but as you well know preparing an article for publication is a monotonous, ongoing journey. And I’m still involved in the documentary film that I worked on. One of the big differences about being able to do non-FDA related research is you have to get approval for outside activities as a federal employee. And different agencies handle it differently but FDA, since we regulate 20% of consumer products, the FDA has a more conservative attitude about what employees are allowed to do, what you’re allowed to invest in, how you’re allowed to make money in your own private time. You know if I was going to make money teaching a class about the history of FDA that would be a little problematic considering that you know the public pays me to be an FDA historian. So doing outside activities even my own research that is not directly connected to FDA, I still have to get approval to do that.
TURNER: Gotcha, I think that you explained that really well. Can you give more detail on how you got the job? Like did you see it posted somewhere, was it a reference, were you already in DC, how did that work?
BURROWS So I moved down to DC about a year before I got the job. I actually moved to the town that the FDA is located in. And that was not planned, it was just fate. *laughs* But my husband got a job in DC and so our family relocated down here. He was also in the history program and we finished our degrees at the same time, so we knew we were going to be moving somewhere. So you know my approach to the job market at that point was to cast my net as widely as possible. And I applied for all different kinds of jobs: policy jobs, public history jobs, communications jobs, advocacy jobs, educational development and curriculum jobs, all different kinds of jobs. I’m sure I’m missing many categories. And I must’ve done probably 30 applications on USAjobs.
TURNER: USAjobs, right, that’s a good source.
BURROWS: Yes so USA jobs is very tricky in figuring out how to how to submit a strong application because it uses a computer program that filters the applications before a human being ever sees them. So you have to have the right words in your resume, like key words. So if you’re applying for academic jobs, it’s the cover letter that matters. References as well but the it’s the cover letter that really matters. And on USAjobs no one will ever see your cover letter if you don’t have a strong resume. And some of the best advice I got in the course of how to get through the USAjobs system is you literally have to have the same words in the job call in your resume or the computer will not pick it up. And having gone through the hiring process I now know exactly that the HR representatives have to match your skill set that’s listed in the actual document, your resume, that you filed in order to make sure that you are qualified for the position.
TURNER: Wow, that’s a good tip.
BURROWS: Yeah, so you might feel like you’re plagiarizing the job call but you literally have to have the exact word. If you’ve got public speaking skills from you know being a professor but it says oral communication, you need to switch public speaking to oral communication so that it will pick it up. So I did tons of USAjobs applications and eventually got through. And just a funny little quirk I actually was told I was rejected for my job by the computer.
TURNER: But you got the job anyway? So are not to trust the USAjobs system?
BURROWS: I’m not saying that per se. I mean some of the jobs I applied for are still open.
TURNER: Oh wow, 9 months later.
BURROWS Yeah like a year. And some of them were taken down and revised. And for 2 of them I got emails that said I was invited to re-apply to the new listing. So you know it’s a crazy system. And I don’t suppose this would be very off-putting for people who are considering academic jobs. In the academic job market you interview in like February, March, April for a job that won’t start till September. The hiring process in the federal government takes a long time so don’t think you’re going to start 2 weeks after your interview. I started a month and a half or two months after my interview and that was a very expedited process.
TURNER: And did you have a lot of background checks to go through?
BURROWS: Yeah I actually had been offered another job in the federal government two weeks or something before I got the job at the FDA. And so they had initiated my background check already so that expedited the process.
TURNER: Oh you were looking into another one. What were other jobs that interested you?
BURROWS: It was at the Department of Education as a writer. The writer job title, it can mean so many different things you know. I work with writers at the FDA that contribute to writing for the commissioner’s speeches. But the position I was interviewing for at the Department of Education was all web-based writing. So it can mean a lot of different things. So it’s just the way they classify the government pay scale.
TURNER: And so do you think that what drew you to choose the current job you have is that you kind of saw it as being a mixture of all your interests and your hopes to do public service as well?
BURROWS: Yeah absolutely. Like I said before, if I could have invented a job for myself, I would have invented something like this. I love the job.
TURNER: And was there a PhD requirement for this job?
BURROWS: No there wasn’t.
TURNER: So are you working with… I mean I know you have two very seasoned historians, but in your department like are there other PhDs?
BURROWS: Yeah there’s PhDs all over the FDA.
TURNER: All science ones or do you have some humanities PhDs around?
BURROWS: Well there are actually. There’s a group of social scientists, I know it sounds like they’re not humanities but it was started actually by a historian of science. And they’re involved in like health literacy and risk evaluation and that sort of stuff. You know the 2 historians I work directly both hold PhD’s in history. And I’m sure there are others I am unaware of somewhere else in the FDA.
TURNER: It’s good to know that there are other positions if someone is looking to get into a department like that or an agency like that. So what kind of experiences at the Grad Center, while you were still either taking classes or maybe during your dissertation phase, what kind of experiences did you gather that you think are helping you out now or you picked up skills doing?
BURROWS: I mean you know one skill that anyone who is working on a dissertation should recognize that they have is project management. And that’s something that any organization needs. And you know I often think if I had done my dissertation just like 5 years earlier, I probably wouldn’t have used a cloud based organizational system you know. I probably wouldn’t have had a tablet or a smartphone to take into the archive to take pictures of the records that I was working with. And it just would have been a very different organizational system and would have completely changed my work flows. At any rate the fact that I operated that way as I was working on my dissertation certainly prepared me for the way that I organize information in my current job. And I mean adapt it in a different environment but nevertheless being able to be fluent with those sorts of technologies I think is really important.
And I was just thinking today…I was reading something and thinking my grant writing experience. Like being able to make a succinctly and passionately argued statement about why something matters…I use that all the time. That’s a really important scale. So applying for fellowships or any other grants people may be involved in that is great and also something that should be on your resume for sure. So not to borrow the current jargon but you know one of the key 21st century job skills that people look for is critical thinking. And if you’re on the job market and you can’t articulate how your background and your doctoral studies has helped you hone critical thinking skills, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You should definitely be able to have like a talking point on that. You know critical thinking, problem solving, running towards conflict, those kinds of things. If you’re looking outside of academia like you’ll see those words in job calls.
TURNER: Can you tell us a little bit more about what the interview was like or if it was a process? Was this a multi-step thing?
BURROWS: First I got an email that said I was a candidate for the position and I set up a call with an HR rep. And they basically just you know reviewed the process, said that I was going to be invited in for an interview, scheduled the date, that kind of stuff. I met in person with my current colleagues and it was about an hour long. And you know we talked about the position. Of course they asked me what I could bring to the position and asked about my background a little bit. And showed me around on the FDA campus and you know like the artifact collection, things we’d be working with. And afterwards I heard back about a week later I think and found out I got the position.
And then there were many layers of coordinating with an HR rep, who was actually based in Atlanta, to discuss my terms of accepting the job and you know like as a federal employee you can enter with a certain amount of hours that you earn every pay period for leave or for sick time and that’s something that can be negotiated. You can negotiate salary, those sorts of things. And of course I had to complete the background check, which takes about 3 weeks you but it could easily take more. I’ve definitely heard of cases in which people were hired contingent on the completion of the background check that was still being conducted. But a fun tip about federal employees and going through the background check, you’re pre-cleared for TSA because you’ve already gone through the background check. And then after that all was settled, we just settled on a date that I would begin and I went through a 3-day orientation process with an enormous group of other people that were onboarding. And then I began my job.
TURNER: And from what I hear, that onboarding, the 3-day sessions are kind of like, “this is what you can do as a federal employee, this is what you’re not supposed to be doing?
BURROWS: Yeah. And also like basic stuff about the campus. There’s definitely sessions about you know health insurance, life insurance, employee benefits and that kind of stuff. And definitely IT, security, your legal obligations, freedom of information, there’s a lot.
TURNER: So you graduated and then it took about a year and a half to find the job. You were searching for that whole year and a half did you say?
BURROWS: Yeah it was. And I was on the academic job market too and so I really embraced the idea of making my job search a full-time job. As well as the other jobs I sort of cobbled together to keep busy and active and make money.
TURNER: I was also interested in networking tips that you have for your fellow students that are going to be out there soon. Did you start doing that or do you have any advice for other people that need to start networking?
BURROWS: I mean I definitely did it but it wasn’t a lot. You’ve seen my LinkedIn page like I don’t have 500 connections on LinkedIn. But I definitely kept in touch with people that were in my field and especially people that were also in the job market. You know sharing tips, sending links to job calls and things like that. And like I said I did so many different things through volunteering and I guess my odd jobs, I met a lot of different kinds of people and heard about different kinds of positions. I was in touch with some members of my cohort. Some of my co-worker got academic, tenure-track jobs, some of them left before they completed their dissertation for non-academic jobs. And it’s just a great diversity of things that people ended up doing. The point I’m trying to make is that being aware of the range of possibilities you know. I don’t know if you call that networking. Like I have friends that digital curriculum designers, I have a couple friends that did that. I have friends that went into policy, think tanks. I have friends that went into careers in advocacy, as activists, and certainly in the arts, in museum planning and development. So just like knowing that there’s a broad universe of possibilities open to me. I don’t know that I was working my connections to get an interview always but I talked to all kinds of people.
TURNER: Great. Is there anything else you want to say to students, maybe some fellow historians, who are worried about what they should do with their history PhD?
BURROWS: I would definitely say, start thinking about your skills beyond academia as soon as possible you know. Think about what you do as a historian and how that applies beyond academia. And not just historians, anyone involved in the humanities, think about the ways that you do research, the ways that you organize material, the ways that you find sources, the ways that you communicate. Think about your skills and how they apply to different careers. And you know it might help you realize something that you actually really enjoy that’s a component of your specialization but something that you might want to pursue in a non-academic setting. I know very well that some people are hesitant to talk to their advisors or you know teachers they have a close relationship with about pursuing a non-academic track job. But I would say if your advisor doesn’t support you in that, you might need to develop another mentor relationship with someone else because it’s just realistic. And I know that a lot of people don’t find the support they need and that departments need to find a better way to support students in searching for non-academic track jobs. And if students initiate the conversation, the department will have to respond.
TURNER: Yeah, our office feels the same.
BURROWS: Yeah you know it’s hard to come up with the question when you don’t know exactly what to ask, like how do you help me find a job. But I fundamentally feel like if history departments and English departments, not just to blame history, began from day one, even during the admissions process, talking about how being a historian is useful not just for doing historical research; that would be a great service to students and to the field.
TURNER: And then to the public at large like what you’re doing right.
TURNER: Okay so if that’s everything then we can conclude our interview and I just want to thank you for hopping on the call with me.
BURROWS: Well thanks for asking me to be involved in this, Abby, because like I said I feel a debt of gratitude to your office and Jenny. And I’m really excited that you guys are offering this to Grad Center students.
TURNER: Thanks so much to Vanessa for taking the time to be interviewed for this episode of Alumni Aloud about her work at the FDA. If you want to meet with a career counselor from our office like Vanessa did, visit us at cuny.is/careerplan to make an appointment. You can also learn more about your career options by attending one of our events or following us on Twitter @CareerPlanGC for the latest news and updates. We hope to see you soon.
This entry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.