CRAFTing a path: how early career researchers can create local change

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Like many of you, when I began my scientific training, I was heading down the default path of an academic career. While working as a postdoc, I realized that I was not interested in this career path, so I decided to be proactive and create my own path.

In the search for my path, I started the Career Research Advancement Focused Training (CRAFT) seminar series, together with another postdoc (John Tooley, now a Research Scientist at University of Buffalo). The goal was to bring speakers to the University of Louisville to talk to postdocs about various science careers outside of academia. This experience made me realize two things: 1) a lack of professional development resources existed for postdocs and 2) I could use this opportunity to make a difference. The purpose of this post is to empower early career researchers to be proactive in things that interest them and act locally on these interests.

How CRAFT was developed

I identified a need at the university, which was something that I initially sought to do for my own exploration. But as I thought about it more, I realized that this could stand to benefit the entire postdoctoral population at the university, and this greater goal was becoming much more appealing.

I started small; I found another postdoc who had the same idea and we brainstormed together on what we wanted this to be. When we presented this idea to the leadership of the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at the university they approved and agreed to provide pizza at the first event. They also helped us advertise across campus.

We had no idea whether this would catch on, but, to us, it was a basic need for local postdocs. Although we had a good turnout at the first event, it took a few tries to get this seminar to stick. We built it out gradually; first, we brought speakers who were alumni of the program or other local scientists. Upon attending the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) meeting, we then gained additional ideas for speakers to bring to CRAFT.

As the seminars continued to grow in popularity, and as the speakers’ caliber grew, we realized that this was becoming very useful for the postdoc community. Postdocs thanked us for doing this, and we both drew a lot of satisfaction from many aspects of this program. The best thing was that postdocs left the lab and got to know each other. They asked questions during the seminar and even went to lunch with the speakers. We not only got the sense that this was useful to them, but that it was slowly changing the local culture. The postdocs looked forward to the next session. It also increased our confidence. We began as relatively shy – although more outgoing than others – postdocs and transitioned into postdocs who approached speakers at NPA meetings (and eventually other meetings) and ask them to come to Louisville and talk at a seminar series.

Personal reflections

I enjoyed providing this resource to postdocs and was happy to see that this was later also extended to graduate students, even faculty attended from time to time. CRAFT has been going strong since 2014 and is evidence of what early career researchers can accomplish if motivated. The success of CRAFT also shows the power of individuals to achieve change if they believe something is needed and have the necessary partnerships and support to do so. Engaging in such an activity can provide tremendous professional development as well as enrich the larger community of researchers around them.

I still keep in touch with some of the speakers, and they often recount their experience of speaking at CRAFT when I see them at conferences. I’d like to believe that this program has slightly shifted the local culture towards encouraging postdocs to get out of the lab and be proactive in attaining their goals. This is the only way we can create a community that can achieve change within our own institutions.

I hope that this basic seminar has also opened the eyes of postdocs towards the need to think proactively about their career development. Some graduate students decided not to do a postdoc after hearing some of the talks from these speakers. Postdocs began to ask more questions about how they could build the skills for particular career paths that interested them, some they hadn’t heard about before CRAFT. I hope this seminar has opened the minds of early career scientists more to possibilities outside of academia. At the very least, from what I could see, it made them realize that they needed to get out of the lab and engage in different activities to build skills for their careers of interest.

Going back to the beginning, although I was doing this mostly for the benefit of the community, it had a tremendous personal impact on my career as well. It planted the seed for my interest in training the biomedical workforce and thinking about the role institutions play. This topic has now become a passion, and I plan to pursue it as a career. I will always be grateful that I had this opportunity to discover what I can do to change the culture even in some small way.

In closing, I will leave you with these questions: What would you like to change in science? How you will get there? What partners and supporters could help you? Who would fund your idea? These are questions to consider in trying to change the culture in your corner of the world, and I’m here to tell you that it is possible! I’d love to hear your thoughts, and feel free to reach out to me for brainstorming ideas!


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