In my previous post, I talked broadly about my career path and how it led me to leave my academic comfort zone and instead focus on policy and advocacy with a non-profit organization. As a former academic, I was probably guilty of being somewhat selfish in my motives while at the bench in order to publish and graduate. I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, but inherently I also knew that my personality was such that I needed to do something that would transcend this individualistic experience. Based on my academic experience, I started to feel that I wanted to help other early career scientists, a group of researchers I was becoming more and more passionate about in terms of ensuring they got proper training and were treated well while at the bench. This passion was awakened through participating in a research project around postdoc salaries at the non-profit organization Future of Research (FoR). After that, I could imagine doing nothing else but studying biomedical workforce issues, as opposed to the skeletal muscle biology work I did while in academia. As a result, I became incredibly passionate about this area and subsequently focused on fundraising efforts as a staff member with FoR. Fundraising is namely challenging, especially for academics who are trained to remain largely behind the bench for most of their training. Academic life is in some sense very individualistic and driven by personal success, while also operating under misaligned incentives. Much of the focus in academia is typically on the PIs themselves, and what they need in order to keep the lab going. In a way it is somewhat of a selfish culture driven by personal ambition, instead of a collaborative effort that would ultimately benefit society. And, as such, it can be a lonely existence where the researcher is constantly working at the bench, trying to publish, or revise a paper or grant. This lifestyle doesn’t leave much room for personal interaction, which I believe contributes to the lack of social skills that scientists often experience.
The importance of social skills
Social skills can be learned by repeatedly engaging in behaviors that facilitate this learning. Much of this behavior can be practiced by developing mutually beneficial and genuine interactions with other people. These relationships can be with people who are in academia, as well as outside of it, and should be thought of as partnerships towards a greater societal good, and not for individual gain. For instance, my fundraising role at FoR allowed me to learn more about developing effective relationships with people that I wanted to get something from. Fundraising, like any other relationship, requires establishing a genuine connection with another person through a common interest, after which perhaps money can be discussed later on in the process, but should be done in a way that mutually benefits both individuals and accomplishes a common goal which both parties believe to be important. In our case, this goal was largely focused on improving the research enterprise by ensuring that a trained workforce of early career scientists are able to advocate for themselves within institutions. Here, your PI can have a pivotal role to play by preparing you to stand on your own and showing you where to go and who to talk to in advancing your own career.
While unprepared for this level of responsibility, I appreciated the confidence placed in me during my time as a staff member focused on fundraising efforts. The mere fact that someone had decided I was good enough to do this job, and asked me for fundraising ideas, advice and resources, increased my confidence in being able to work in this space. Being in a non-profit organization I believe necessitates having a good understanding of how your work can benefit society, and this work should be ultimately performed with this broader goal in mind. Overall, this fundraising role within FoR was a tremendous opportunity for me to do some good in the world and at the same time support my favorite non-profit. I did a lot of “learning on my feet,” asking other fundraising professionals for advice, and eventually designing a strategy for grant funding solicitations and online campaigns. The fact that I was so passionate about our mission at FoR allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and discuss our projects with people I had never met in hope that they would make a financial contribution. As for any academic, this was not easy. But while academics are untrained to be outgoing, social skills can be learned by repeated engagement with others towards mutually beneficial and genuine interactions for a greater societal good. Working for a non-profit organization in this type of role teaches you how important it is for every aspect of your organization (including fundraising) to align with your overall mission, and for that mission to ultimately benefit society.
If I had to leave early career scientists with any advice from my experience, it would say this: take opportunities as they come along, take the chances you are afraid of, and always remember your motivation for doing something, as it can keep you going through tough times. And if you are lucky, you will be able to work collaboratively with a great group of people who share your goals, and hopefully improve some aspect of society through working at your favorite non-profit.
Featured image: obtained from Pixabay under Pixabay license, i.e. free for commercial use and no attribution required.