Postdocs who are interested in advocacy activities typically receive the same advice from postdoc advisers, so-called experts, and even their peers: Stay away. Some don't even bother to ask; they (often correctly) assume that their advisers would frown on activities that could distract them from their research or motivate them to choose careers outside of the lab.
But with career prospects grim for many postdocs, especially in the biosciences, the policy and leadership training that accompanies participation in an advocacy association could prove useful.
At its annual meeting in San Francisco in early March, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) celebrated its 10th anniversary with a panel discussion featuring six of the organization's seven founders -- all of whom ignored the conventional wisdom a decade ago and spent lots of time on a cause they thought was important: improving working conditions and expanding job options for postdocs. Science Careers attended the event and asked these six how founding an advocacy organization and managing it through its early years influenced their careers.
All six say that the experience taught them invaluable skills that have helped them identify career paths -- several outside of research -- that they might have missed otherwise, and that helped them succeed.
Orfeu Buxton wasn't thinking about his career when he helped found NPA, but the experience has worked to his advantage. "Although the benefits of following this 'passion' for forming and tackling the NPA's mission … were not terribly obvious at the time, co-founding has been clearly beneficial to my career," he writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.
Buxton was a postdoc doing sleep research at the University of Chicago in Illinois when he helped found NPA. During his involvement in NPA activities, he made sure to keep up his research. When he was offered a job as an assistant professor in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, he took it -- but he was careful not to forget the lessons his NPA experiences taught him. "I directly brought NPA best practices to my new institution," he says.
Buxton wrote a grant aimed at improving the mentoring abilities of faculty members at his institution and implemented individual development plans to help postdocs better understand their career options and how to attain them. Because a nationally recognized and respected organization like NPA backed his recommendations, Buxton says, it was relatively easy to get senior leadership on board.
Buxton says his involvement in postdoc issues at Harvard has brought him closer to many of the more senior scientists in his department. "I don't think I would necessarily be on a first-name basis with the senior VP of research without this," he says. "I've been able to work closely with senior researchers outside of my area of focus and have developed an affinity for people who care deeply about these mentoring and training issues."
At the time of NPA's founding, Claudina Stevenson was studying cell biology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Through her work at NPA, she met Roz Orkin, assistant dean for faculty affairs at Harvard Medical School, who served on NPA's advisory board. Orkin introduced Stevenson to Edward Benz, president of Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who asked if she'd be willing to start a postdoc office there. Stevenson was reluctant to move away from cancer research, but she accepted the opportunity.
After a few years at Dana-Farber, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research asked Stevenson to head up its global postdoc program. It was an opportunity to lead a program with worldwide reach and also to move back towards research. Stevenson led the program for 2 years and then asked Carl Barrett, who at the time headed Novartis's oncology biomarkers program, if there were any research opportunities she might pursue. Barrett, who directed NCI's Center for Cancer Research while Stevenson was a postdoc there, appointed her as Novartis’s associate director of clinical research for oncology biomarkers.
"He knew the work I did as a postdoc and my participation in the NPA," Stevenson writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. "Although I did not have experience in oncology clinical development, Carl knew that I was capable of excelling in a new role, as I had already demonstrated my ability to adapt and get the job done. I learned those skills through the initiative to start the NPA."
Last year, Stevenson left Novartis to strike out on her own as a consultant; she hopes to continue adapting and succeeding in this new endeavor, she says. She recently joined the Halloran Consulting Group, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, which specializes in life sciences consulting.
One of NPA's goals is to illuminate careers outside of academia, and Raymond Clark was among the first people it helped in that way. Clark was studying biology as a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego, when he helped found NPA. As he and the other founders struggled through long days and nights spent researching policy and drafting recommendations, he "quickly became fascinated with the process [and] the lack of substantial data to drive policy change," he says.
Clark was hooked. Almost immediately, he decided to drop the career arc he'd been following and pursue a career in policy. "My involvement led to me voluntarily not renewing my postdoctoral contract and transitioning over to a policy-oriented position," he says.
In 2005 -- following a venture involving commercial real estate -- Clark joined the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, where he worked for 5 years as a program manager and researcher for national and international security policy, dealing with such issues as biological and nuclear weapons, homeland security, and crisis and risk communication. "It was my involvement in NPA that gave me the confidence to tackle these new challenges," he says.
In 2010, Clark took a position as a program manager in global health at San Diego State University, where he plans to further this policy career and use the lessons he learned at NPA to improve working conditions for postdocs at his institution.
Avi Spier was a postdoc studying molecular neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, when he helped start NPA. Around that same time, he joined a University of California, San Diego, Technology Evaluation Group, introducing him to a new world of business-minded scientists and entrepreneurs.
In 2001, about a year before NPA's steering committee was formed, Spier co-founded the biotech company Allon Therapeutics in Canada to develop neuropeptides with therapeutic potential. In 2002, Spier left his postdoc to lead his entrepreneurial venture full-time. In 2004, when Allon Therapeutics went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange, he joined the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, becoming its business development director in charge of forging commercial opportunities and scientific partnerships for the institute.
As the director of a biomedical institute, it behooves Spier to partner with the best scientists available to drive novel drug discovery and push drugs through the pipeline. Better scientists mean better business, and Spier sees NPA as having a critical role in bettering the state of science.
"My sense is that founding and staying in touch with the NPA is still part of my career path," Spier writes in an e-mail. "The reason I co-founded the NPA is because of a profound sense that we could be doing science better in this country. I'm sure this issue will be occupying me for my whole career."
Spier sees NPA -- and the postdocs it represents -- as stakeholders in the future of scientific research. The current postdoc system of "5 to 8 years of postdoctoral work followed by an 'alternative career' " is broken, he says, and isn't giving most scientists enough of a chance to find meaningful work. Improving the plight of postdocs will have "benefits throughout the system and hopefully lead to impactful changes to how we conduct research," he says.
As to whether NPA helped his own career, Spier is more equivocal than the other NPA founders. Yet, he recalls those years fondly. "I don't think forming the NPA helped or hurt my professional career," he says, "but the band of brothers we formed in the early days, dogging it out to get the organization started, remains one of the brightest highlights to me."
Arti Varanasi had an earlier start than most at understanding the challenges postdocs face. She began studying the issues while still a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. From that early stage, Varanasi says, she also kept an eye on opportunities outside research.
"I knew the essence of what I wanted to do, but I didn't really have an idea of what environment it would be in," she says. "It could have been the academic setting; it could have been the nonprofit setting; it could have been a government setting; it could have been a lot of things."
During her time as a postdoc studying immune response to cancer at NCI, she met the other founders of NPA and helped build the organization. When she finished her postdoc, she took a job at CTIS, a health informatics company in Rockville, Maryland. There, she moved beyond lab work and developed computer technology to analyze clinical trial data. As a startup company, CTIS was looking for someone with scientific expertise and the knowledge of how to build a project from the ground.
"I had no background in information technology," she says, "but they were really interested in the fact that I had been involved in starting multiple organizations, including NPA. … It wasn't really business development, but it was development in a sense, being able to start from an idea and see it through."
Last year, Varanasi left CTIS to start her own consulting company, Advancing Synergy. "NPA also really helped me with starting my own company," she says. "We had an idea and we had a lot of supporters, but there wasn't an infrastructure there. Knowing that I'd done it with [NPA], I knew I could do it with a business."
If Carol Manahan has a regret from the time she was involved in founding the NPA, it's that at first she hid her NPA involvement from her postdoc adviser, Peter Devreotes of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. "I don't think my postdoc adviser at the time was outwardly supportive of it," she says. "But to be honest I didn't make it patently clear that I was involved."
As she worked to organize NPA, though, she came to realize that the skills she was learning were valuable not just for improving her own working conditions but also for improving the state of science as a whole. So she decided to tell her adviser.
"Once my adviser did find out about it, we had a conversation and I explained all the skills I was learning as well as the positive reflection on Johns Hopkins and his laboratory, as well as making a difference and doing something to add to the community of science," she says. "After we had that conversation, he supported it 100%. If I had to do it over again, I would have been more upfront."
As her postdoc was winding down, Manahan realized she didn't want to pursue the career in cellular research that she had been seeking. She enjoyed founding NPA and wanted to continue work in the policy arena, so she applied for and received a AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellowship, working as a liaison between AAAS and the National Science Foundation. There, she continued researching postdoc issues, collecting and analyzing data for the Postdoc Data Project.
"I think the experience I got from NPA was essential in getting that fellowship," Manahan says. "I definitely think leadership was a skill that was built [at NPA], as well as just confidence and speaking with people from a variety of backgrounds, including policymakers."
In 2005, Manahan took on the role of associate director of the education office at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, focusing on diversity and inclusion issues. "I always knew I wanted to do something with regards to helping scientists be better, either at doing their science, or working together, or whatnot … and my NPA experience helped me solidify that," she says.
Michael Price is a staff writer at Science Careers.