Leaving academia gives you the freedom to explore what you really wanted out of life, and what success means to you.
Adriana Bankston, PhD
Dr. Bankston earned her PhD in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University. She is currently a policy activist at the non-profit organization Future of Research.
I initially pursued postdoctoral training because I wanted an academic career. But soon after starting in this position, I began seeking other career options. I started the CRAFT seminar series, which made me realize how much I enjoyed creating resources for young scientists. I co-organized regional symposia (early career meetings) – Membrane Trafficking and Signaling Symposium – which created a local community of researchers coming together around a common topic.
Subsequently, I became involved with organizations interested in improving the training environment for young scientists at the national level, including National Postdoctoral Association and Future of Research. Various roles I’ve had in these organizations ultimately solidified my passion in advocating for young scientists and pushing for their contributions to be recognized by the community, while thinking more broadly about how we should be training the next generation of researchers.
Once I left academia, I had a newly found sense of freedom to explore what I really wanted out of life. I knew that I had some interest in improving training for scientists, but didn’t know much else beyond that at first. Overtime, I began to discover, follow and solidify my career passion towards advocating for a better research enterprise.
The strongest influence on my path was by far the Future of Research organization, whose mission I identified with perfectly, and where my voice was valued and could be used effectively to advocate for young scientists. Through my involvement in the postdoc salary project, I discovered an interest in studying the postdoctoral population, and more broadly in biomedical workforce issues. This work fascinated me for several reasons. There is a scarcity of data on postdocs, and postdocs hold many titles within academic institutions, making it difficult to identify and count them- and thus we still don’t have a good idea of how many total postdocs there are. This is in spite of the fact that postdocs have existed for 100 years, and reforms to the postdoc position having been proposed for some time with very little change. These factors highlighted the need for increased advocacy and further study of the postdoc population in order to improve the research enterprise.
Future of Research also gave me a taste of what it’s like to lead a non-profit organization, which is one of the most exciting and challenging experiences I’ve ever had. I enjoy feeling that I am making a difference in an area that I care deeply about. It is also a privilege being part of an organization whose goal is to challenge the status quo in science and advocate for much needed changes on behalf of young scientists. This isn’t something I anticipated having the opportunity to do when I left my postdoc, but transitioning into the non-profit sector really solidified my professional interests and direction.
Most of my career path beyond the bench focused on various efforts at Future of Research. Doing research on the postdoctoral population likely eased my transition from the bench because I still collected data and published papers. I’ve also presented this work at national meetings in areas focused on science policy and advocacy, giving me the opportunity to build a network in this field. In addition, I’ve designed and moderated workshops on topics of interest to young scientists, including career resources and advocacy skills. These activities provided a great opportunity for me to become more informed about the needs of young scientists and think about how Future of Research might fill those needs. Finally, I’ve been invited to talk about my own career transition on various panels and podcasts, which I both enjoy and view as a duty in helping the next generation.
In a very broad sense, success means making a meaningful and positive contribution to the world. On a personal level I seek to build few, but meaningful relationships with those around me, and get very attached to particular groups that I work with. In a professional sense, and within a group setting such as Future of Research, success means everyone working as a team towards a common goal. What I particularly enjoy about the organization is the culture we’ve created here, in that everyone can freely speak their mind and our opinions are truly valued. I also appreciate hearing many points of view from other leaders in the organization, and I have learned a lot from working with this great group of people.
In the context of getting a non-profit off the ground and making it sustainable, success means agreeing on a direction going forward as a group, and knowing that we always have the best interests of the organization at heart. Nothing makes me happier than working towards a mission that the entire group believes in, with a common vision and plan of action that we can all agree on. It also gives me a general sense of satisfaction and happiness being a part of something bigger than myself and having the opportunity to truly make a difference for young scientists.
I’ve been with Future of Research since 2016 and have seen it grow since that time- it’s great to think about all that we have accomplished so far and exciting to think about how to move forward at this point. What energizes me about what I do at Future of Research is our ability to challenge the status quo. This type of work also appeals to my personal values of wanting to make a positive impact in the world. At the same time, I enjoy the surprises and sometimes high intensity and faced paced lifestyle that this type of work can bring, particularly in having to quickly respond to policies through blog posts or statements from the organization. In addition, I really enjoy in-person workshops and local meetings, providing the opportunity to hear about concerns and needs of young scientists within academia, and being able to then consider how Future of Research could address these needs by virtue of being independent from academic institutions.
I would advise grad students and PhDs to start exploring career options early in graduate school and to take calculated risks along the way. Try things that look inviting and challenging, take an interesting class that you know nothing about, and go to a seminar outside of your field. Being open minded and taking advantage of opportunities to explain your research to various audiences is helpful. Talk to those who might disagree- this is really helpful for strengthening the arguments and creating a stronger case for their research topic or advocacy cause. Approach others who have transitioned into this type of career, and ask them what kinds of skills would be useful to develop now. Finally, informational interviews can go a long way towards deciding whether the nonprofit route is something you might want to pursue, or whether something else is more appealing.