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.

Advertisements

Making the Most of Your Transition to NIH

June 2, 2014

Part Two of a Two-Part Series on Transitions

If you are just arriving at the NIH as a summer student, postbac, graduate student or postdoctoral or clinical fellow, adjusting to your experience at NIH represents a transition that will be one of many transitions you will face in your career.

You may be starting a new phase after leaving a comfortable niche in your undergraduate or graduate university. Or you may be exploring some new opportunities. Having a model or road map for your transition can be helpful. William Bridges is a writer whose model of transition may be of interest.

Bridges’ model highlights three stages that people go through when they experience change. These are:
1. Ending, Losing, and Letting Go
2. The Neutral Zone
3. The New Beginning

Graphic image of William Bridges' Model of Transition

 

1. Ending, Losing, and Letting Go
At this stage, you are probably experiencing a situational change which can trigger a psychological transition. Change can signal the start of a new opportunity which also means the end of an old opportunity. This could mean the temporary end of feeling sure of your daily tasks or the end of associating with a (comfortable) peer group. Even if this ending is a positive development, it could cause you to feel uncertain and question yourself and your values or abilities. As you are letting go of your previous experience, make sure you solicit the support and resources offered at NIH. The Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) offers many workshops and individual counseling appointments to help you get oriented and connected to the resources and opportunities at NIH. You may learn more at www.training.nih.gov.

2. The Neutral Zone
The neutral zone or transition period can be a time of creative exploration and discovery while you are clarifying your options and goals. This is a great time to explore new ways of thinking about your career and to connect to people who are working as professionals in fields of interest to learn about their work. In order to learn more about your options and connect, you may want to start talking with people in informational interviews. Sometimes trainees find it helpful to plan how to set up informational interviews with a career counselor, especially if this is a new concept. If your experience has been primarily at the bench, you may also want to explore professional involvement in a FELCOM Committee, a professional society, or committees in your IC or community.

3. The New Beginning
The new beginning is the final step in the transition process. It is usually marked by a decrease in anxiety, an increase in enthusiasm, and a clearer vision on how your recent change fits into your long- term plans. This might include starting medical school, a PhD program or moving on to a career as a faculty member, PI, science policy analyst, specialist in technology transfer, grants administrator, and beyond.

Most people will go through each phase during a change; however, remember that each individual responds to change very differently. You might find that you breeze through transitions pretty quickly while others may struggle with each step. No matter what stage you are in related to your career goals and transitions, please take a look at the resources and services to support you at www.training.nih.gov.

William Bridges’ book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, offers suggestions about dealing with transitions and coping with change. You can find this book in most public libraries and it is also available in the OITE Career Library on the second floor of Building 2.