How to Talk to Your Mentor about a Career Change

October 13, 2014

Employment statistics today tell us that, though many of you start out your doctoral studies and postdoctoral training to pursue a career in academic research, the majority (the latest figure is about 70%) wind up in careers outside of academia. This change in focus may occur gradually over time or may be precipitated by a specific event and happen much more rapidly. This changing employment demographic means that a great number of you will need to sit down with your PIs or mentors to inform them of your new career path.

The prospect of this discussion can strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest trainees. As we discussed in last week’s post “Is Your Mentor Opposed to Your Career Development” this anxiety is often understandable. You need to tell someone who has built a successful career in academic research that you want to do something else, a path they didn’t choose. It is not uncommon that trainees view it as a failure; many feel that they are letting their mentor down. Trainees also worry that disclosing an alternate career path from academia will change the level of support they’ll receive from their mentor.

Often times, this is not the case and having an honest discussion about your career curiosities can actually enrich and help encourage a more meaningful discussion. Below are some suggestions that can facilitate the discussion and lead to a positive outcome.

Provide plenty of lead time

  • Plan to conduct the discussion when you begin the job search or at least while you are in the search process. You may be surprised; your mentor may have a contact or be able to help you in other ways.
  • Remember, most graduating PhD’s begin their search for a post-doc about a year before graduating. This time will help your PI find your replacement in the lab.

Develop a strategy

  • Your strategy should include your overall career objectives. This part of the plan will provide the rationale as to why this switch makes sense for you.
  • It should also include a transition plan detailing how your work can be transferred to others to keep things progressing in the lab.

Present your move as a positive

  • You have thought this through and think it is the best course of action for you. Take ownership of your decision – it represents an exciting career opportunity. It is not a Plan B or a failure.
  • The meeting is to ask for your mentor’s support of your decision, not his or her permission.

Reiterate the value you have received in this training

  • Explain how your association with this lab and this PI has enhanced your knowledge and experience. The skills and abilities you will need to draw on in your new career were developed during your time here.

“Success” is no longer defined as only “success in academia.” There is a big world out there with opportunities in any number of areas. When you find the opportunity for which you are best suited, you must pursue it even if that opportunity happens to be outside of academic research.

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What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

March 17, 2014

Image of a green four leaf cloverIn celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, we decided to take another look at what luck really looks like.  If you search the word “luck” on this very career blog, many of the results include interviews with NIH alumni who have attributed some part of their career to luck. This is a small example which reflects a larger sentiment.  Many individuals feel that their career path has unfolded by chance and they somehow just got lucky.

In fact, there is actually a Career Development Theory of Planned Happenstance pioneered by Dr. John Krumboltz which supports this. You can read more about this theory in his book, Luck Is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career; however, this approach emphasizes the role of chance and taking advantage of unplanned opportunities that come your way.

The previously held belief that a career path unfolds as a set of steps within a linear process is constantly being challenged by today’s job market. So, how can you use planned happenstance to help create your own luck and turn seemingly random events into productive opportunities? According to Krumboltz’s theory, there are five critical skills to develop and utilize:

  1. Curiosity
    Explore learning opportunities — topics, occupations, hobbies and activities that are of interest to you.  Attend a presentation, sign up for a class, or do an informational interview. Increasing your exposure to more things increases your chances of discovering a new opportunity.
  2. Persistence
    There will be many barriers along the way — both internal (indecision, self-doubt) and external (job rejections, layoffs). The key is how you persist in your career exploration.
  3. Flexibility
    Sometimes the dream job appears at the wrong time or in an inconceivable location. Being flexible means being open to opportunities even when they don’t match our preconceived “ideal.”
  4. Optimism
    Avoid negative language that is global in nature such as “Things never work out for me…” or “I can’t ever do that because…” Verbalizing negativity contributes to reinforcing a cycle of despair.
  5. Risk Taking
    Challenge yourself to take risks that are manageable (but somewhat scary) to you. Taking a risk can mean any number of things to different people. For some, it could be changing their career path entirely; for others, it could mean talking to someone they consider intimidating. Whatever risk means to you, realize it is often a necessary aspect within self-discovery and a job search as well.

Overcoming Goal Setting Challenges

January 15, 2014

Image of a chalk board with post-it notes ascedning a stair case reading: Set Goal, Make Plan, Get to Work, Stick to it, Reach GoalRecently, the staff here in the OITE had a dose of our own medicine.  Our boss asked us to complete a document about our professional goals and needs. This document reminded many of us about how we tell trainees to “fill out an IDP”.

For a group of professionals in the career development field, we were all surprised how hard this document was to complete.  Now, we have a whole new appreciation of what our trainees struggle with when we ask them to do the same thing.

A favorite quote from one personal document was: “These goals seem a bit random, because at the moment that is how I feel about preparing for the next step.  A bit out-of-focus and not sure where to go next; I am not sure what I am missing.” Sound familiar??

So why was it so hard for us?

  1. Telling our boss what we want to do next is tough.  No one wants their current boss to think they are unhappy with their current job.  Sometimes one can actually be really happy, but this document makes it feel like you are telling them all of the ways the current position stinks.  And if the boss thinks we are not happy, or are we are thinking of moving on… the boss may think less of us or perceive us as not giving 110%.  So, we struggled with how honest to be.
  2. Not having a clear understanding of where you want to go next, nor what you need to get there.  This is like the interview question, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”  We all honestly just want to say, “Happily employed”.  But this question really is at the heart of career development.  What trajectory do you want to go on?  For some of us we feel like we are in unchartered territory, there is no obvious next step.  Therefore it is hard to understand how to prepare for it.
  3. Assessing where you are personally and what you need to work on takes a high level of self-awareness and honesty.  This really means taking a hard look at your strengths and weaknesses and then charting how these will influence your career path.

How did we overcome the challenges?

Taking time to sit and think. This is the type of exercise that takes time, and time is always a limited commodity.  We are all busy.  But, like exercising, this is one of those things you need to do for your personal good.  We all finally had to set a deadline, and for many of us this is the reason we finished.

Find a way to structure your thinking.  For some of us, that was pulling out an IDP document.  Others of us did a personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats).  Some people made lists of items.  Whatever works for you, find a way to give yourself some starting points so you are not just looking at a blank piece of paper.

Asking career mentors.  Hopefully you have heard our mantra of multiple mentors.  Here in the office we chatted with each other (peer mentors) and other staff to put some ideas on the table to discuss the pros and cons.

Realizing that this is just a process, and not a commitment.  The goal here is to have a document to start a career journey, not to make a long term contract to a particular career choice.  By continuing the conversation with a career coach, thinking more, and exploring– this document will morph as we make choices for our futures.