Defining your own professional identity outside academia

4/20/2018 5:01:36 PM

An interview with Adriana Bankston,
science-policy researcher and advocate for junior scientists

Many of you are familiar with Adriana Bankston as a contributing writer for the ASBMB Today magazine and from her important science-policy work with the nonprofit organization Future of Research, where she advocates for fair postdoc pay and academic transparency. This week, we wanted to highlight Adriana’s own career transition into science policy and see what advice she has for others interested in embarking on this journey. (Note: Adriana also will be live tweeting from the ASBMB Annual Meeting in San Diego this week. Be sure to follow her on Twitter [ @AdrianaBankston] and connect with meeting attendees via the other social-media channels.)  

  Adriana Bankston
Adriana Bankston representing Future of Research at the 2017 March for Science.


Finding a career passion for science policy and advocacy 

You may say that Adriana Bankston was destined for a science career, having been born into a lineage of academic researchers. So, it was only natural that she would go to grad school and follow that tradition. In 2013, she completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry, cell and developmental biology from Emory University and went on to pursue postdoctoral research at the University of Louisville. However, she discovered early on in her postdoctoral training that an academic career was not for her. This set her on a mission to define what her own career in science should look like.  

During this career exploration, she started to think about the factors that were important to her in a future career and discovered that science policy/advocacy was a good fit. Adriana explains, “I knew that I wanted to make an impact and affect a large number of people at the same time. In addition, my experiences in academia motivated me to advocate for better training and policies affecting early-career scientists.”  

Additionally, early on in her postdoc, she attended a National Postdoctoral Association meeting where she had an opportunity to debate postdoc issues, and this further piqued her interest in postdoc advocacy. She comments, “That was fascinating to me; I never knew that you could study the postdoc position, and it felt like an area where I could make a difference. So, I considered a career that would more broadly focus on improving the environment for early career scientists.”


Gaining skills for a career transition through strategic volunteering 

In order to gain the skills needed for such a career transition, Adriana has taken a strategic approach to volunteering. She says, “Given that I wasn’t trained in a lot of things that I wish I knew while I was in academia, I’ve had to acquire them through volunteering activities. But at the same time, these activities helped me figure out what my career interests and passions really were.”  

Therefore, Adriana has sought out volunteer activities to gain skills in key areas needed for science advocacy, such as project-management and communication skills. She adds, “I also purposely looked for things that were out of my comfort zone, such as participating in and leading conference calls and talking to people on the phone whom I had never met before for an informational interview or another purpose.” Her volunteer work has included organizing career-development workshops and research symposia, developing postdoc career resources and serving on various committees and boards for organizations that support junior scientists.  

Of note, Adriana contributed through Future of Research to a policy study investigating the compliance of academic institutions with a federal labor law that concerned fair pay for postdoctoral researchers. This experience affirmed her new career direction. She notes, “To my surprise, this became a really interesting and exciting topic, and remains the most fascinating and rewarding research I’ve ever done. At some point during this process, advocacy on behalf of postdocs and studying postdoc policies became intertwined and led to the larger goal of wanting to empower postdocs themselves to effect change in the academic system.”


Overcoming challenges related to leaving academia 

Along the way, Adriana has faced a number of challenges during this career transition, such as the lack of a clear “roadmap” to pursuing a career outside of academia and the accompanying social isolation once removed from the academic community. As she notes, “Having been at the bench for so many years, I was somewhat used to having a mentor I could go to for advice and peers whom I could talk to on a daily basis who were in close proximity. But once I was out of academia, I felt very much on my own in having to discover what I wanted to do and find ways to accomplish them.”  

This isolation also has been augmented by parenting obligations and her recent geographic relocation to the San Diego area. To address this, Adriana has done a remarkable job creating an expansive network of like-minded, science policy and advocacy professionals whom she can learn from and collaborate on projects with. She does this through a comprehensive networking strategy that includes participating in events (e.g., presenting policy research) on both a national and local scale, being active in nonprofit organizations that align with her career goals, proactively reaching out to talk to or meet with others who have shared interests, and staying visible online through social media.  

But overall, Adriana comments that one of the biggest challenges has been grappling with defining her new professional identity. She says, “The hardest thing about this transition has been figuring out where I belong and what defines me now that I am no longer at the bench, which, in retrospect, I may have let define me a bit too much.” She frequently thinks more broadly about the type of professional community she wants to be a part of long term in order to help focus her job search and networking strategy.  

Despite these challenges, Adriana has remained focused on her career goals and finds motivation through a supportive network of people who encourage and promote her; and also, from knowing that she has now found a satisfying career direction that is both professionally and personally fulfilling. She also comments, “Going from the academic environment, which I knew after a while was not for me, to having the freedom of exploring and pursuing what I actually wanted to do with my life has been very liberating.”


Advice for other scientists transitioning out of academia 

Adriana also shared some great advice for other early-career scientists looking to transition out of academia. In summary, she suggests learning about career paths as early as possible in your science training; engaging in activities outside of the lab to explore careers and gain new skills; and building a solid support network of mentors and peers. Importantly, she says, “Don’t be shy. If you want to truly make headway in your career transition, you need to be proactive and bold, and put yourself out there in ways that you never did before. That will allow you to discover new aspects about yourself, and ultimately, to choose the career path that fits you best.”  

Adriana also advises to carefully consider input from others but to ultimately make your own career decisions. She explains, “I try not to be influenced too much by other people’s opinions, and just do what feels right. People will always have opinions, and you just have to do what’s right for you, so try to figure out what that is. My gut feeling tells me that I am heading down the right path, so I just try to keep moving forward and stay positive.” And finally, she says, career directions change over time, so know that you are never really stuck in one specific path, and you also should seek to cultivate other options along the way.


Recommended resources and reading 

Adriana also is a prolific writer on science-policy and career-related topics. Here are links to some articles she has written that may be useful for your own career needs. A full list of resources and articles can be found on her portfolio website.

Author’s note: For other relevant advice on this topic, check out these recent ASBMB Careers Blog posts on giving and receiving through volunteer work and resolving to a career in science policy

Donna Kridelbaugh is a contributor to the ASBMB Careers Blog. She holds an advanced degree in microbiology and is a former lab manager.  

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