This is a guest post written by Advocating for Science Travel Awardee, Holly Hamilton:
Path Towards Advocacy
My journey to science advocacy began with a few wobbly steps of self-exploration. I voluntarily started to help evaluate trainee needs at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Smithville, TX. The main needs were for career development and a stronger sense of community. Meeting these needs with professional development workshops, social hours, and one-on-one meeting with trainees helped me to see my path forward. I realized that I wanted to direct trainees towards satisfying careers. The feeling I got from helping students see more appealing “alternative” career options was something like a lightning storm of serotonin in my head that led to pleasant tingling feelings on my scalp. This was in stark contrast to the mind-numbing boredom I had typically felt during scientific talks. With that disparity I realized that academic research was not for me. Helping others recognize their strengths, fill skill gaps, and identify jobs that were personally fulfilling was my thing. After that I think I just assumed everyone would be just as excited about trainees getting into satisfying careers.
Current Attitudes in Academia
Instead I ran into an invisible barrier preventing people from exploring life outside of academia. It wasn’t a barrier created by a few chromogens, but rather an attitude maintained by most academics. Along with this vague discontent with career exploration there were more defined concerns and assumptions as follows.
“If we drastically decrease the number of students and postdocs working in labs, then the biomedical research enterprise will collapse.”
The structure of biomedical research is currently unsustainable. Rapidly reducing trainees in the workforce likely would destabilize academic research. Thus the number of trainees should be slowly reduced to allow for a rebalancing of lab personnel. Recommendations for such a plan have included filling excess trainee positions with staff scientists and incentivizing staff scientist longevity by increasing the stability of their positions and allowing for advancement. The Future of Research point out that staff scientists would offer skilled labor, as opposed to the relatively unskilled labor of trainees. Due to recent changes in overtime pay, postdocs are becoming much more expensive. Thus this shift in workforce structure is likely to be a necessity.
“Academic research institutions cannot be expected to train students to do anything but academic research.”
In 2013, the NIH launched the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training or BEST program to provide career development resources for a multitude of career options. This set the tone for professional development as an expected component of graduate training. The cost of funding career development does take away from the research budget in the immediate future. However, the long-term payoff is a larger fraction of students making significant contributions to society. However, considering the concern that many PhD-holders will not land jobs that require PhD-training the number of PhD students will likely need to be reduced over time. Until then, broader training will be necessary to transition PhD-holders into positions outside academia.
“A PhD holder cannot find anything intellectually stimulating enough outside of academia.”
Connecting with Advocacy Groups
Frustrated by an inability to change these attitudes on my own, I began a personal search for like minded scientists. First, I was introduced to the National Postdoctoral Association – a group that advocates for the wellbeing of postdocs. At my first NPA Annual meeting in 2016, I found my people. I had never felt more at home professionally. The NPA is like an enormous machine that steadily tracks forward. However due to the size and structure of the organization, I felt myself craving a smaller group. So I continued to search and found The Future of Research, a science advocacy group whose mission encompassed student and postdoc well-being, funding issues, communicating with policymakers and the public, and several other issues.
The Future of Research
A few months after following FOR on Facebook and Twitter, I saw an announcement for a conference and workshop on “Advocating for Science”. I applied for the travel award, a necessity for me as a now out-of-work scientist. Less than a month later I made the voyage from Denver to Boston. I quickly got connected with the other travel awardees. Together we inspired one another and have kept in contact. At last, what did I get out of this meeting? I learned that science advocacy is about communicating with others (the general public, your institute, politicians, or other advocacy groups) about one issue that you’re passionate about. It’s about getting that message across with a few key points, without nuances getting in the way. Every scientist can be a part-time advocate. So this meeting helped me realize that our power lies in getting several scientists to do a few advocacy activities to sway the attitudes of academic professionals and the general public. I look forward to sharing ideas that I had at the conference in future blog posts. Considering the enthusiasm of the other meeting attendees, I am confident that the future of research looks brighter than ever.
The Advocating for Science 2016 Awardees:
Not pictured: Tess Eidem