Speaking Up for Change

Adriana Bankston offers six tips for how to effectively use your voice to benefit society early in your academic career.

June 25, 2018

When I was in academe, I was what you would call a typical shy scientist, happy to do experiments, publish and graduate. During my graduate studies, I was lucky enough to be part of a great team that shaped me into so much more than just a bench scientist. I learned to lead projects and work with others, while diligently doing my work under a great mentor, as well as mentoring other people in the lab.

But even with all that encouragement, I didn’t use my voice enough on issues of importance to me -- probably because I couldn’t articulate clearly enough what those issues were and didn’t know how speaking up would affect me. Now, having transitioned into the nonprofit world, I am realizing more than ever the importance of using our voice to benefit society.

So, I would like to emphasize a few points I learned along the way about advocating for issues of interest while thinking about how this could affect early-career scientists.

Step 1: Find an issue that you are passionate about. If you are like me, you might be bothered by a certain injustice in the world and want to fix it. Or maybe you went into science because you want to make the world a better place by discovering something that can help humanity as a whole. Whatever it is, as an early-career scientist, you are in the best position to speak up and make change on a particular issue.

It may take a while to find what this issue is for you, and that’s OK. I’ve learned that wanting to fix everything in the world isn’t going to be a good strategy. It is much more effective to focus all your energies on one issue (or at least one issue at any given time with the potential of switching to another later).

Step 2: Run it by people you trust. Speaking up for change will inevitably be met with reticence by some individuals in the scientific community. Generally, people enjoy consistency and stability, and they may be apprehensive about change. Talking about your ideas with those you trust -- such as your peers or mentors -- and asking them to give their opinions is a good idea at first. Find someone who will honestly tell you what they think about your issues and plan of action.

Be prepared to answer tough questions, such as, “How will this change benefit society?” and “How would you talk to someone who disagrees with you?” Those kinds of questions will help you think about the broader implications of your proposed change.

Step 3: Formulate a concrete plan. Once you have an idea and an argument for the change you’d like to see, the next step is to formulate a plan to put it into action. Think about where you want to implement this change -- whether at the institutional level, within a scientific society or even as a national grassroots movement. Think about what you want to achieve by a certain timeline and make it clear to the world when you have done so. It will help people support you along the way if they are able to see your long-term vision and various milestones you’ve achieved, and it will also expand your supporter base.

Step 4: Balance your ideas with career goals. Perhaps the most difficult question to consider when you have an issue that you are passionate about is how speaking out on that issue will affect your career. You should be careful to articulate your views within the correct medium and with the right audience. Chances are that if you advocate for a positive change in the world and are doing it effectively, you will gain momentum and a stable base of supporters along the way.

Step 5: Know the risks and rewards. Advocating for change is by definition going to disrupt the status quo, and therefore it comes with certain risks. You have to be a certain type of person to actually speak up for change. Doing that in a thoughtful way -- so that you engage a trusted group of people to back you up in a step-by-step process -- will provide some assurance that you are on the right path. Over time, others will also get on board with your ideas for change, which can be very rewarding.

One of the risks, however, is maintaining your ground in the face of disagreement and making your argument in a constructive way while also trying to understand the other side. You will want to do this in a responsible manner so as not to burn bridges with people who might be able to help you in the future.

Step 6: Celebrate your successes. Having been involved with a nonprofit that is advocating for change, I have learned the importance of celebrating successes along the way. That could mean celebrating the creation of a useful resource, a publication or a successful event. These are milestones along the path to success, which you should celebrate within your group. Such celebrations will give you renewed energy about your trajectory and help you periodically evaluate your direction as an organization.

As a final note, besides speaking up for change ourselves, we can also empower others to do so. That can be extremely energizing in terms of creating a national movement, as well as helping re-evaluate our goals, motivations and achievements on a long-term basis.

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Adriana Bankston is associate director of fund-raising and strategic initiatives at Future of Research (FoR), a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion, engage and empower early-career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. A member of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders, she can be reached via LinkedIn or on Twitter.


Adriana Bankston

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