Wednesday, 05 April 2017 10:27

The Talk: A Career Discussion with Your Mentor

Two people Discussion Career SiteYou are 1-2 years away from defending your dissertation and want to switch into a different sector or move away from research altogether. Or you are a postdoc who is actively applying for jobs outside of academia. How do you tell your dissertation/postdoc mentor that you are considering a career different from an academic research position? We discuss hurdles that trainees encounter and provide tips on having a career discussion with your mentor.

Psychological Hurdles
Talking to your mentor about your next career move can be overwhelming for several reasons.
After spending 4 or more years being trained to do research in an academic setting, you may feel like you are letting your field, your mentor, and even yourself down by pursuing a non-research career. Additionally, some students and postdocs feel that once they disclose to their mentor about pursuing a career outside of academia, the quality of training they receive from their mentor may change or the mentor may think that they are not serious about the research needed for a dissertation and/or manuscript(s). Also, by making the decision to leave academic research and telling other people, whether your mentor, family, and/or colleagues, you feel extra pressure to attain that non-academic research career - a process which may not be very clear when you are in graduate school or a postdoc.

The combination of prospective disappointment, anticipated changes in your mentor-mentee relationship, and high expectations from others for you to reach that non-academic research career, can make the decision to discuss career options with your mentor difficult.

Prepare for the Career Interests Discussion with Your Mentor
The best thing you can do is prepare before your meeting and be able to communicate these aspects clearly:

  • Do Your Research:
    Be comfortable in knowing and talking about the facts of the Ph.D. workforce. Almost 70% of people pursuing a Ph.D. are considering non-research careers and less than 20% go into a tenure-track academic position. This not only helps when talking to your mentor, but it also helps in dealing with misgivings you may have for wanting to leave academic research.
  • Assess Your Mentoring Relationship:
    If you are concerned that your mentoring relationship will change once you express your desire to leave academic research, emphasize elements of the relationship that you would like to maintain during your meeting.
  • Take Ownership of Your Career:
    Once you’ve identified a career path that you want to pursue, create a plan and use ScienceCareers myIDP to set up goals on how you will attain it - whether it’s by getting more experience, developing additional skills, or building a network. This is important for when you talk to your mentor because it shows that you are well prepared to make the transition and opens the discussion to how you and your mentor can collaborate on the process.
    If you haven’t decided on a career path yet, take the time to understand what your options are, decide on a 1-2 career paths, and create a career plan. Then, have a discussion with your mentor about your career plan.
  • Be Positive About Your Career Moves:
    Every journey to completing a Ph.D. is different. There are skills that you enjoy and can do well more than other skills. There are different experiences and interests that make you unique and drive your career passions. When discussing your career moves with your mentor, focus on the positive factors that led you to make a specific career choice - such as your favorite skills or experiences. Try not to say anything negative about academic research, because your mentor is in that path.
  • Create a Transition Plan:
    Make it very clear that you are still interested in maintaining your quality of work while you apply for jobs and share your transition plan. Dr. Anne Dekas, Assistant Professor at Stanford University, suggests to think about these factors before your meeting:
    • Will you finish your project completely before you defend or will you train someone else in the lab to continue it once you’re not there?
    • Will you still contribute to the publication of any unpublished data?
    • Will you be willing to come back to the lab after starting your next position to make sure the transition is going well?

The sooner you can have career discussions with your mentor, the better. Some mentors are open to frequent discussions and will take an active role in helping you at every step. Dr. Anne Dekas states, “Try to avoid having this conversation for the first time when you are asking for specific recommendation letters. Especially if you are choosing a path outside of academia, your mentor will be more likely to support you if he/she knows you have been deliberate and thoughtful about your decision process, and even elicited his or her advice on it in the past.”

Now What? My Mentor Can’t Help Me with My Career
If you’ve told your mentor about your career interests and they can’t help you with contacts or information about how to obtain the necessary skills, that is okay.

Dr. Mrinalini Nikrad from Seres Therapeutics, Inc., recalls how it was difficult to bring up her interest in industry because everyone assumed that as a postdoc, she would be applying for a research position at universities. When she did bring it up with her postdoc advisor, he was willing to share his industry contacts but didn’t have any in-depth advice for her.

Graduate students and postdocs think of their dissertation/postdoc mentor as the person with all the answers and advice. However, we can’t expect them to provide everything we need for leaving academic research. Many of them entered the field at a time when academic research was the most common path, and that may be all they know. The best thing you can do is accept whatever they are willing to help with, while at the same time, finding one or two mentors who are in your desired field to provide you with advice.

While having the career talk with your mentor can elicit all types of emotions, be prepared to discuss your career interests and next steps for both you and your mentor in regards to your current research and career. And remember that after you leave your current position, your mentors can become great collaborators. As Dr. Anne Dekas says, “It isn’t always “bad news” to a mentor to hear that a [student or] postdoc is interested in a next step that is outside of the expectation. There can be benefits to having collaborators at different types of institutes—universities, research institutes and for-profit companies—because different grants and pockets of money are specifically available to researchers at each of these.”

Start your career discussion today by setting up a meeting with your mentor to discuss your long-term career goals.

Microbe Mentor would like to thank Drs. Anne Dekas and Mrinalini Nikrad for their insights.

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