While many of her peers studying neuroscience wanted to pursue careers in academia, Karen Christopherson knew even before she entered her doctorate program at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), that she wanted to work for a biotech company. "I'm not one of those people that initially maybe wanted to go into academics and changed for whatever reason," Christopherson says. "After I graduated from undergrad, before graduate school, I was at Genentech for a few years and I really liked biotech, so I went back to graduate school always with the intention of going back into biotech, which is what I did."
"It just seemed like the work I could do in industry was much more relatable to society." —Karen Christopherson
Christopherson is one of the seven postdocs who founded the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) in 2003; the other six were profiled last month in Science Careers. Christopherson's success in industry is further evidence that advocacy work during training is fully compatible with career success, even when it requires a considerable investment of time.
She says she was drawn toward bench work in industry rather than at a university because the private sector work seemed more directly transferrable to creating medicine and helping human health. "It just seemed like the work I could do in industry was much more relatable to society," Christopherson says. "I enjoyed publishing papers, and I enjoyed scientific questions and academic exercises, but at the end of the day, it kind of felt like an exercise."
But even though she knew the path she wanted to follow, Christopherson realized that systemic pressures within academe could penalize her for looking for nonacademic jobs. When the question of career goals came up as she was interviewing at various graduate schools, she dodged the question or hedged her answer, saying she hadn't fully decided what kind of career she wanted.
"There was definitely a bias … against people going into nonacademic careers, that they were somehow not using their full potential, that they were only doing it because they couldn't do anything else," she says. "In fact, during interviews sometimes I wouldn't want to say that that was my intention because I was worried I wouldn't be accepted into labs because I didn't say I was definitely going into academics."
Once she finished her Ph.D. in molecular neuroscience at UCSF, she took a postdoc position at the Stanford University School of Medicine in 1999. Midway through her postdoc, she helped found NPA.
Christopherson finished her postdoc in 2005 and continued along the path she'd started down, working for 3 years at a biotech company named StemCells Inc. Then she moved to her current position as principal scientist of a group that studies Alzheimer's disease and age-related macular degeneration at San Francisco's Rinat Laboratories, which is owned by Pfizer.
Though she doesn't think her involvement with NPA either helped or hindered her career, Christopherson says some of the organization-building skills she learned creating NPA have helped her identify the rudiments of successful research teams at Rinat. She also feels comfortable talking with policymakers and stakeholders, who can hold very different views of research than scientists—a skill she also developed at NPA, she says.
Ultimately, Christoperson says that her postdoc-advocacy days are behind her for now. "We do have postdocs here, although not very many of them."I haven't really seen an opportunity or seen a need that I thought that I could make a difference in. I would if I did, but I'm not really involved in postdoc stuff anymore where I am."
Still, she remembers her involvement in NPA fondly. "It was a fantastic experience for me. I count it as one of the most meaningful things I've ever done in my entire life … in terms of its impact on people, and seeing that it's still going on and going strong. I'm very, very proud of our work."
Considered as a group, the careers of all of NPA's founders indicate that advocacy work need not harm careers and indeed may be advantageous, providing valuable connections, confidence, and leadership and communication skills. All of the founders have found success in the areas they have chosen: academia, industry, policy, consulting, and entrepreneurship. Their experiences suggest that if you are passionate about something beyond your bench research, you can work on it without giving up your scientific ambitions.
Michael Price is a staff writer for Science Careers.