How to Tell Your Advisor That You're Leaving Academia

28. August 2014

Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D. 

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

Many people enter into a Ph.D. program or postdoctoral fellowship thinking that they’ll be in academia forever. But for about 70 percent of trainees, this plan changes along the way. Sometimes it happens over a long period of time, and sometimes it happens quickly. Either way, their advisor is usually the last person to find out. Despite the changing culture, many advisors simply do not want their trainees to leave academia.

One of the questions that I've been frequently asked since joining Propel Careers is, “How do I tell my advisor I'm leaving academia?” For many people, the anticipation of this conversation is worse than any other conversation with their advisor.

I wish I could remember how I told my postdoc advisor, but I was too flustered to remember the details. I do, however, remember the outcome–thankfully, I received understanding and support. I've had a number of years to look back on this experience and talk to others who've gone through it, and I’ve identified a few tactics that made this conversation easier.

Give enough notice
When you decide to leave academia, try to give your advisor enough notice to make him or her feel comfortable. Most Ph.D. students begin looking for a postdoc position about a year before graduating, so this would be a good time to tell them you plan to look for a different job.

Have a research plan in place
Present your advisor with an exit plan to ease any worries about you leaving the lab with unfinished experiments. Create a list of work left to do, along with a timeline and who you will hand tasks off to, if necessary. Include as much detail as possible!

Have a future plan in place
You may not know exactly what you want to do after leaving the lab, but hopefully you have an idea. Once you choose a career path, allow yourself enough time to assess your skillset and build any skills needed to transition into your new role. If this requires some time out of the lab, tell your advisor what your plans are, why they are important to your career development and how you will build the skills you need without interfering with finishing your research.

Don't present your choice as a bad thing
You may feel guilty or like you are disappointing your advisor. Even if you get a less-than-supportive response, it is important to stay positive. Present the news as an exciting career transition, NOT as a backup plan. The more self-reflection you do ahead of time and the more confident you are in your decision, the easier this will be. It's okay if it takes a little time to get to this point–just remember, this is your career, and you are in charge.

Make sure they know you value your training
Ph.D. and postdoc training is incredibly valuable. Even if it's not the experience you hoped it would be, you can’t get through without learning something. You want your advisor to feel that the training you received will not be wasted. Your technical abilities, communication skills, ability to collaborate and work with others, train junior colleagues, grasp complicated questions, think critically and see solutions are skills that will be useful in careers outside of academia.

Although research trainee success is still defined by many granting institutions as “success within academia,” this is changing. As you progress in your career, check in periodically with your advisor to update him or her on your successes. This way, you can be included in faculty boasting as the former trainee who “helped discover the cure for cancer while working on a team at X pharma,” or the former trainee who “developed a medical device used to diagnose X disease.” As a bonus for doing this, you may make it easier for your peers to have their own discussions with your mentor!

Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D., is a Career Development Consultant at Propel Careers and has been with Propel Careers since August, 2013. During her graduate studies at Northwestern University and postdoctoral studies at the University of Massachusetts Medical School she was the primary mentor of over a dozen undergraduate and graduate students; providing career advice, and training them to be independent scientists. Prior to joining Propel, Jena worked as a consultant at a Boston-area firm specializing in fatigue risk management in 24/7 industries.

 

Academic careers, Career, Communication skills, Nontraditional science careers, Ph.D. Perspectives, Postdocs , , , , , ,

Effectively Personalizing Your Resume

26. August 2014

Arlene Smith

I recently attended a career-themed panel discussion at an OSA Topical Meeting. Scientists and engineers from industry and academia were represented in the panel and the audience, so this was a great opportunity to hear from both sides how to most effectively write a resume and cover letter. Here are some of the highlights.

Tailor your resume.
Some of the take-away points on the age-old issue of resume layout and content were perhaps unsurprising. The panel reiterated the importance of tailoring your resume to each job application, listing experience and skills relevant to the position to which you’re applying. Be selective! An application for an industry role doesn’t require an in-depth publication list; a list of “selected publications” related to the role is sufficient. This becomes increasingly important as you get more experience and your project and/or publication lists grow. First, list the experience that is most applicable to this job opening, then, if space allows, additional information can be included. For each prospective job, rank your achievements and experience in order of pertinence and build your resume from there.

Personalize your cover letter.
While the resume conveys that you fill the prerequisites for the role, the cover letter is where you can show your enthusiasm. For example, you might highlight the experience and skills that are relevant not only to this role, but to the company’s mission statement or to the academic department’s broader research goals. The panel expressed their frustration with the frequency of generic cover letters crossing their desks, so put in the time and effort to make yours stand out and show that you’re passionate about the position.

Consider your personal interests.
Just how important is the “personal interests” section of a resume? Does a prospective employer actually pay attention to your extracurricular activities? This section is typically very short and devoted to showing a bit of your personality in just a few words. Do you love team sports? Craft beers? Rebuilding your robot vacuum cleaner so it can fetch your paper and brew your morning coffee? If so, be prepared to talk about it.

A hiring manager with several years of interviewing experience highlighted how this seemingly innocent list of hobbies can prove an important topic during the interview, and can be a potential downfall for a candidate. If an interviewee professes a love for playing basketball in their spare time, this manager will inquire as to the air pressure level they use when pumping up the basketball. When the audience expressed their shock at this line of interview questioning, the hiring manager simply explained that, in his view, a technically-minded person would know this information, or at least possess the skills to give a good estimate.

So, do you like to lift weights at the gym? Do you like playing the latest Call of Duty game interactively via a Bluetooth headset? Do you play racquet sports or guitar? If so, it’s time to do your homework. Be prepared to explain why you chose to include those particular personal interests, and explain how they could relate to the job that you’re applying for. This is another opportunity to make yourself stand out and show how uniquely qualified you are for a position.

Arlene Smith (arlsmith@umich.edu) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.

 

Career, Communication skills, Job Search , , , , , , , ,

Helpful STEM Resources for Young Women

21. August 2014

On this blog and elsewhere, there has been considerable discussion of the dearth of women in STEM-related careers. A number of major tech companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and eBay, among others) recently released reports on the diversity of their workforces, and the results further reinforced the scope of this problem. The majority of employees at all of these companies are male: 70 percent at Twitter, 70 percent at Google, and 69 percent at Facebook. In spite of the advances being made by women and minorities, these fields continue to be dominated by white males.

Encouraging women and minorities to pursue STEM careers is a crucial step to increasing the diversity in the area, and there are a number of grassroots organizations currently working towards this goal. InformationWeek provided a helpful list of 12 such STEM resources. Take a look! 

You should also check out OSA’s Minorities and Women in OSA (MWOSA) program for information on our current initiatives to support women and minorities in optics and photonics. 

 

Career, Women in Science , , , , , , ,

Learning to Improve (and Enjoy) Your Public Speaking

20. August 2014

Antonio Benayas

Over the course of your career, one of the tasks you will likely face is speaking in public. This makes some people very nervous because the audience’s attention is focused solely on you. Public speaking is something you will learn to enjoy, not to fear. It doesn’t matter if you are describing research at your master’s degree examination, teaching undergraduate students, presenting results at a conference, or (hopefully someday!) giving a speech in Stockholm when receiving that prize—there are some universal steps that you can take to make any kind of public speech better and easier.

Define your topic: The first step is to decide exactly what you want to communicate to your audience. It’s okay to be ambitious in scope, but be sure that your ideas are clearly and concisely expressed. Your ultimate goal is to be understood, so quantity of concepts is far less significant than the quality and depth of your connection with the audience.

Prepare your script: Use a topic outline to structure your talk. At the beginning, this scaffold will be based mostly on your research and the list of facts you want to communicate. Gradually, as your talk evolves, you will also need to think about how the concepts and ideas you are going to present can best be delivered to the audience.

Think visually: There is much to be said on the topic of presentation visuals, but keep in mind that images or graphs are usually preferable over words. The rule “six per six but never thirty-six” means that you can have six lines or sentences on a slide, each composed of six words or less, but you should never reach both upper limits on the same slide. Practice, practice, practice: It’s natural to be nervous before facing an audience, especially if the crowd is made up of experts in your field. You can fight your fears by becoming completely comfortable with your talk and its contents well in advance. The only way to do this is to practice frequently. This might seem tedious; but I promise it is perfectly possible to enjoy the training process. Pay attention to how much your performance improves and your confidence increases with practice.

Get advice from others: It is always a good idea to practice your presentation in front of friends and colleagues and ask them for their honest advice. Their feedback will be invaluable for polishing your performance (tone of voice, pacing, body language, etc.) and the structure of your talk. You can adjust your script based on their input.

Be yourself: You likely admire speakers who connect with the audience and make a lasting impression. Try to identify the characteristics that make this speaker so good, and then think about how you can adopt or develop these features for your own presentations. However, you should try to find YOUR personal style as an outstanding public speaker. Don’t just imitate good speakers—use them as models for how to accomplish specific goals. There is no need to practice up until the last minute before your talk. Relax and enjoy your moment in the spotlight. Remember that everyone in the audience has almost certainly been in your shoes, and they are there to see you succeed.

Antonio Benayas Hernandez (antonio.benayas@emt.inrs.ca) is an Eileen Iwanicki postdoctoral fellow (CIHR-BCSC) at Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université du Québec, Canada. He completed his Ph.D. in Physics in the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. During his Ph.D. he participated in several international research projects at Heriot Watt University, UK, Federal University of Alagoas, Brazil, and University of Pittsburgh, U.S.A. He also worked for Galatea Consultores S.L. as a junior consultant for aerospace industries. His current research is focused on fluorescent nanoparticles for biomedical applications, nanothermometry and thermal imaging.

 

Career, Communication skills, Conferences , , , , , , ,