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.