Career Pathways—Explore the Possibilities, NIH Program Officer

Interview with Dr. Glen McGugan, Program Officer at the National Institutes of Health

Interviewed by Nathalie Fuentes, Ph.D., NIAID Postdoctoral Fellow

Dr. Glen McGugan poses for a photo in Uganda

Dr. Glen McGugan, Program Officer at the National Institutes of Health pictured in Kampala, Uganda visiting field sites conducting malaria research as part of the International Centers of Excellence for Malaria Research (ICEMR) program.

Glen McGugan

Dr. Glen McGugan, Program Officer at the National Institutes of Health pictured in Kampala, Uganda visiting field sites conducting malaria research as part of the International Centers of Excellence for Malaria Research (ICEMR) program.

Credit: Glen McGugan

What are you going to do after your postdoc or Ph.D. research at NIH? 

The “Career Pathways – Explore the Possibilities” series highlights different professions pursued by scientists like you. This interview focuses on a program officer, someone who administers NIH’s scientific programs, oversees grant portfolios, sets priorities for committing federal funds, and acts as an advocate for a scientific area. Dr. McGugan works for the parasitology and international programs branch at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. McGugan was a postdoc at NIAID for three years, where he worked in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases. Read this interview with Dr. McGugan to learn more about his journey to becoming a program officer at NIH.

Can you tell us about yourself (e.g., education, other professional roles)?

I am originally from South Carolina. After earning an undergraduate degree in biology, I worked for a few years in the accounting department of a company to get a bit of business experience. I then decided to continue my education and earned a Ph.D. where I focused on cell biology and parasitology. Following that, I accepted a position as a postdoctoral fellow here at NIAID in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases until 2007. 

How did you decide to pursue your current role as an NIH program officer?

As a postdoctoral fellow in NIAID, a program officer (PO) gave a seminar about the K99 and other NIH awards to us as we were considering future academic positions. While the seminar was quite informative, I became intrigued by this other side of NIH – extramural. While I knew about the existence of the extramural side of NIH, I realized I knew nothing about how extramural worked. What is a PO? What exactly does a PO do? Following the seminar, I asked the PO if I could speak with him about extramural. Several days later, I went over and talked to various program staff. I learned that while intramural research was all I knew of NIH, there was this other side that, while not conducting bench research, also had an important role in the overall mission of the NIH. During my visit, the program staff mentioned that they were currently recruiting for a PO position, and that I should consider applying. So, I did! And almost 12 years later, here I am.

Can you talk about your specific role as a program officer?

A PO at the NIH is a health science administrator. POs administer NIH’s scientific programs, set priorities for committing federal funds, and act as advocates for a particular scientific area. An important distinction between POs at other places, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), and NIH is the separation and independence of program and review.

What do the day-to-day responsibilities of the role look like? 

Specific duties tend to change from day to day but usually include interacting with the grantee community to assess research needs and opportunities, developing research concepts and requests for applications and program announcements, and advising investigators on funding opportunities. POs also administer a specific scientific portfolio of grants and contracts in their area of expertise. As part of that, we attend peer-review meetings and interact with grants management staff and scientific review officers to ensure government regulations are upheld on the appropriate use of federal grant funds. We also provide recommendations in our area of scientific expertise to NIAID, NIH, and other federal agencies as needed. 

How do you facilitate scientific opportunities (e.g., extramural grants) to scientists in academia?  

We do this in a few ways. We facilitate scientific opportunities through interaction with grantees and members of the scientific community, on the phone or in person, where we discuss research ideas, discuss outcomes of review meetings, and provide advice on ways to improve grant applications. In addition, we talk about possible collaborators, gaps in science, and new research funding announcements. Whenever possible, POs organize workshops where scientists are invited to the NIH to discuss a particular scientific area. We use these discussions to guide the development of funding opportunities. Another way we facilitate the dissemination of funding opportunities is by attending scientific meetings.

In order to meet with researchers in your portfolio, do you attend national conferences or other events regularly? If so, how often? Can you describe what you do at these events?

I attend as many meetings as our budget will allow, usually at least one domestic and one international scientific conference per year. At these meetings, I attend scientific talks and poster sessions to learn the latest progress in the field. I also have side meetings with many researchers at all levels to discuss research ideas and proposals and answer questions about the NIH grant process. As a PO, part of my job when traveling to conferences is to give presentations about NIH grants, contracts, and research resources.

What attributes does someone need to have in order to be really successful in this position?

While there is no perfect formula, there are a few attributes that I have found particularly important. Just as with independent research scientists, probably the most important attribute is the love and appreciation of science and scientific research. Strong oral and written communication ability, as well as exceptional organizational and time management skills, are useful qualities. Staying abreast of the latest advances in your area of science by meeting with grantees, attending conferences, and reading the relevant scientific journals is crucial in identifying gaps and emerging needs that the NIH may help address. And finally, the willingness to accept that your role in scientific research progress is now different in that you will no longer direct your own research program.

What is your favorite part about working as a program officer?

Serving the scientific research community is an amazing way to support the advancement of science. I greatly enjoy helping people, so my favorite part about working as a PO is the interaction with the scientific community. When interacting with a PO, principal investigators and researchers are usually less guarded, as they no longer see you as a potential scientific competitor but rather an advocate. As a result, I often learn of the latest discoveries even before they are published. For me, it is immensely exciting to learn of research advances from scientists in my portfolio. The scientific portfolio of a PO is constantly evolving, so there is always opportunity to learn something completely new. In addition, I enjoy collaborations with scientists and administrators throughout the federal government as we work together to develop and implement policies. I also appreciate the work/life balance that I have as a PO. 

What do you find most challenging?

One of the more challenging aspects of being a PO is the necessary administrative oversight of grants and contracts such as completing various checklists, required registrations, trainings, paperwork, and so forth. This is certainly an important part of a PO’s responsibility as a federal official, but it can be a bit tedious at times. 

What does success look like in this position, and how do you measure it?

This is a very interesting and difficult question! One key measure of success is seeing the field move forward in a particular scientific area as a result of a scientific workshop or new funding opportunity that I helped develop. Identifying an emerging area of science or technical hurdles to research progress that I can help overcome are particularly gratifying. Another important responsibility of POs is the administration of training activities for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Seeing graduate students and postdoctoral fellows whose career development I’ve helped to foster via training awards transition to faculty positions and independent research careers is extremely rewarding.  

Are there opportunities for professional development? If so, what do those look like?

Yes, there are many opportunities for professional development. Some are required trainings such as courses in ethics, federal laws regulating grants and contracts, and the roles and responsibilities of POs and health science administrators. I had the opportunity to complete contracting officer training as well, which is training that allows you to monitor specific aspects of contractor performance. If you want to improve your presentation skills or media interaction, there are special workshops for that as well. There are also several opportunities for professional development provided by institutions outside of NIH (e.g., other federal agencies, Congress, or the State Department) [that government employees have access to].

What was the application/hiring process like? 

The application and hiring process is not terribly cumbersome, but it can be slow. Applicants must apply via USAjobs, where it is important to meet minimum requirements to be considered. Applications that meet the minimum requirements are sent to the NIH, and the hiring official will select applicants for an interview. This can take some time, depending on the number of applications received. After all the interviews, the hiring official will select a candidate, and the candidate will be contacted to start the job offer process. This process includes background investigations and other required clearances. Once this has all been completed, the candidate is contacted to set up a start date. Since the process can take quite some time, I would advise interested candidates to apply well in advance of any anticipated transition. 

What activities or resources at NIH, or within NIAID specifically, helped prepare you for your career transition? Is there anything you wish you had taken more advantage of?

I would say that free trainings and workshops, as well as in-person meetings with various program staff, helped me prepare for my career transition. However, I wish I had taken more advantage of detail opportunities. A detail is a temporary assignment to an office or agency, like “shadowing,” where you can learn about the duties of various positions throughout the NIH extramural community. 

Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about pursuing a similar career? 

Fellows considering similar positions should first search available openings either via the NIH website or USAJobs. This will provide information on minimum qualifications, as well as a basic description of duties and responsibilities. Even if there are not any currently available openings, I would encourage fellows to contact POs or other health science administrators, ask questions about the position and about potential detail opportunities. Also, fellowship opportunities such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellowship or the Presidential Management Fellowship are excellent programs that allow fellows to work in various government agencies and gain valuable experience prior to entering a federal position. 

Can current NIAID fellows contact you with questions?

Certainly! My email is

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