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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Is Your Mentor Opposed to Your Career Development?

October 6, 2014

The answer to this question in most instances is no; however this may seem to be the case if you are relying too heavily on your PI for this function. You must always remember, the person most responsible for your career development is the person who benefits most from it – you! Many trainees feel that their mentors are too busy and/or too important to “bother” them with their questions or thoughts. That shouldn’t be the case – they are there to help you learn and pass along their scientific knowledge to a new generation. While it can be difficult to approach your mentor to discuss career progression – and even harder to judge when this discussion is appropriate – this dialogue can be extremely helpful.

Your mentor likely has a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be very helpful as you prepare for your career. But, the rigors of the day-to-day functioning of the lab can sometimes delay or prevent career development discussions from occurring. In this case, it is certainly acceptable for you to request a meeting for this purpose. Below are some suggestions that may help as you think about this conversation:

Prepare thoroughly

  • Be able to articulate your strengths and weaknesses, short-term work goals and longer term career objectives.
  • Honestly assess your contribution to the lab. An accurate evaluation of your performance can build trust with your PI, and also allow you to point out contributions that you are making of which he or she may be unaware.

Identify areas in which your mentor can help you achieve your goals

  • This can also help facilitate the discussion by allowing your mentor to react to and comment on your assessments, and can avoid putting him or her on the spot.
  • Healthy discussion on this topic may identify additional areas of which you had not previously been aware.

Take care in scheduling the meeting

  • Remember, your mentor’s chief responsibility is for the success of the lab. Avoid scheduling around busy times and critical deadlines.
  • Potentially set it for non-working hours.

Be willing to engage in additional learning and development opportunities

  • This can be for the purpose of enhancing performance in your current position, preparing you for your career goals, or even both.

Even with preparation, making the initial request for the meeting can be daunting. A statement like (or an email), “I’d like to discuss my performance with you and get your input on my longer-term plans” can be effective. By approaching it in this manner, you are communicating to your mentor that you have thought about your career development and will not be relying solely on him/her on the topic.

This may sound like an intimidating challenge and you may be nervous for the first meeting. You will find that by using this approach, future meetings will become easier and more productive as you are able to build on past discussions. Next week, we will discuss in-depth how you can talk to your mentor about your career development, even if that means a career change.