How to Tell Your Advisor You're Leaving Academia

Mon, 03/21/2016 - 13:55 -- dougk
Leaving the lab

While most jobs for PhDs these days are outside of academia, some PIs and graduate advisors are still having problems accepting that their PhD students and postdocs may be leaving for nonacademic jobs. At the recent Beyond Academia 2016 conference, Els van der Helm moderated a panel of faculty who discussed how and when to discuss career options with your advisor. Here's a distillation of comments from the panel and the audience.

When should you have the discussion?

As early as possible was the consensus.  One of the panelists made the important observation that the best time to initiate the conversation is when you are interviewing graduate schools (for prospective grad students) or PIs (for a postdoc). I couldn't agree more - see my post 'Finding a Nonacademic Career Friendly Graduate Program'.  If you are uncomfortable having that conversation while interviewing, check online to see whether lab or department alumni with nonacademic careers are listed. (I have heard from graduates who aren't named on department or lab alumni lists even though they went on to prestigious nonacademic careers!) Even if you think you are headed for an academic career, why not choose a program (or advisor) who will support you if you later change your mind?

If you are early in your graduate career, the panelists encouraged students to bring up the subject during rotations, before you have committed to a lab. Ask the advisor about his or her track record in placing graduates - how many went to nonacademic destinations?

All also agreed that it is better to be proactive.  One unfortunate grad student related her story of being ambushed by her PI and accused of not being committed to an academic career. She wasn't prepared for the conversation and it turned very emotional. It is far better to develop your story, rehearse it (with peers), and choose the time and place for the discussion. 

How should you have the conversation?

This entirely depends on what reaction you expect. If your advisor has a reputation for supporting nonacademic careers, you can relax a bit.  But you still have to do your research about your personal career options and have specific suggestions for what you want your advisor to do for you (introduce you to corporate friends, allow you to take business courses, give you time off for an internship or fellowship, etc.).

It becomes harder if you suspect (or know for a fact) that your advisor is likely to be antagonistic to your career choice. Here are some helpful suggestions:

  • Frame the conversation as a question, not a decision. To the advisor: "I've been reading all the statistics about tenure-track opportunities and it makes me nervous. I think it would be a good idea to explore nonacademic alternatives.  What do you think?"  This can be tricky, but it's a good way to determine their initial response.
  • Get support. Can you find an ally on your committee or in your department? Practicing your conversation with an ally is a good way to get feedback. Then maybe you, your ally and advisor can sit down for coffee and discuss nonacademic career options. Or is there a prestigious alumnus or alumna in a nonacademic career from the department who can advise/mentor you? 
  • Consider their position.  For a lot of faculty, their students are their legacy. In some departments, faculty are judged not only on their publications, but also on placing their students in the most prestigious academic destinations. That's an old-fashioned way of thinking, but it can represent a real threat to a faculty member up for tenure.  
  • Consider their emotions. You need to be careful not to represent your decision as a repudiation of their career choice. It's ok to flatter them a bit (but be sincere):

    "I'm learning so much and you are a great role model. I see how hard you've worked to earn a tremendous reputation.  I think I need something different from what the rewards of an academic life provide, so I'm considering alternatives."

    Be alert for signs that your advisor is feeling rejected or defensive and go to lengths to assure them this decision is about you, not them.

  • Your advisor may feel ill-equipped to advise you. Part of the faculty-member personality is frequently a need to be in command and have the answers.  Because most have no experience with nonacademic careers, they may feel that they have nothing to offer. Many faculty would genuinely like to help but it's like asking a fish to teach you to ride a bicycle. In my workshops 'Guiding Your PhDs to Nonacademic Careers' I help faculty understand the similarities and differences between academic and nonacademic job searches to help make them more confident advisors.
  • Reiterate your commitment to your advisor. Faculty who haven't had much experience with nonacademic career candidates need to be reassured that you will continue to honor whatever commitments you have made concerning your project work and timing. If you need accommodations made (to do an internship or to wrap up research by a certain date, for example) make sure to communicate those issues as early as possible and be flexible about reaching a mutually agreeable solution. It also helps to formalize your agreement about the extent of project work, timing, resources needed, etc - perhaps in writing or an email thread - to minimize misunderstandings.
  • Seek out help if you need it. If, after having a conversation with your advisor, you feel that things haven't gone well then it's best to find some support. If your department has a graduate or career counselor, enlist their help. Sympathetic faculty or alumni are also a good resource.  Failing these options, most colleges have an ombudsperson on campus to handle situations like this.

 One last question arose: Do I have to tell my advisor at all? Someone suggested that perhaps he could wait until after his thesis defense to inform his PI. Everyone agreed this was a last resort and that a relationship based on openness, trust and communication was much preferable.

As academic opportunities dwindle, faculty are going to have to accept that their students and postdocs will pursue nonacademic alternatives. Some students have been concerned about having this conversation with their advisor only to find it was an easy, nonthreatening dialog. Using the communication tips above, I hope you have a good experience too.

Got other ideas for talking with your advisor? Leave a comment below. 

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Submitted by Joseph H. Cable on
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