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 , , , , , ,

How to Find the Right Advisor

24. June 2013

Shoresh Shafei and Sean Mossman

When you enter grad school, you are immediately faced with a barrage of choices: which courses to take, where to find funding, which topic to study, etc. It’s easy to see how finding an advisor can fall to the bottom the list. Yet it is one of the most important steps you can take toward launching a successful scientific career, since a good advisor can help you to tackle all those other decisions effectively. Everyone has different needs and priorities, but here are a few factors we think are crucial to consider.

Look for a leader. Labs run more smoothly with a strong leader, so you should take the management techniques of the advisor into account. A research group may include several postdocs, graduate students and undergrads, in addition to long- and short-term visitors. These people most likely have different motivations and goals, and they may come from diverse cultural backgrounds. A group leader must be able to balance these varied interests, help the members to work together constructively, and minimize conflicts.

Understand that training is key. He or she should spend time teaching you the skills you need to become a successful scientist. A graduate student isn’t just extra help around the lab; he or she is a mentee! The ultimate goal should be for students to become original thinkers, not to learn how to run an experiment on autopilot without interpreting data or coming up with ideas of their own.

Learn communication skills. A good mentor should communicate effectively and urge you to do the same. He or she should encourage you to prepare and present talks at conferences, make informative and eye-catching posters, and build a helpful network of colleagues. You need to be thinking about all aspects of your education, and your advisor should too.

Consider your mentor’s accessibility. Many graduate students complain about having to wait for a long time to meet with their advisor or receive a response to their emails. Regular one-on-one interaction with your mentor is crucial to making the most of your relationship. It can be difficult to know in advance how available your advisor will be, but you can ask current or former group members about their experiences.

Think about research standards and reputation. Your future advisor’s research standards will become yours as well. Think about how his or her research projects are conducted, results are analyzed, and findings are reported. Is the emphasis on getting research published as quickly as possible, or does quality take precedence? What matters most to you? Finding an advisor with a good reputation will help you to build your own, especially as a young scientist preparing yourself for the job market.

Although there are many factors that contribute to your success in graduate school, having an effective and supportive advisor is extremely helpful. Do yourself a favor and give this decision the time and consideration it deserves by thinking about it early. The more information you have, the better choices you’ll make.

We would like to dedicate this article to Prof. Mark Kuzyk, a great friend and outstanding advisor, for his 55th birthday.

Shoresh Shafei (shafei@wsu.edu) and Sean Mossman are with the department of physics and astronomy at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., U.S.A. 

 

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