Breaking It to Your Mentor: Announcing Alternative Career Plans


Ah, summer. National productivity numbers plummet as sunny days and sandy beaches lure workers from their offices in the annual game of hooky. And you're stuck in the lab building your pipettor muscles. Me, too. Yes, although my days at the bench are numbered, I've resisted the call of the Frisbee and made some steady progress in my career preparation. I've managed to pass the patent bar, take the LSATs, and squeeze in a networking lunch or two. And I've been working hard on finishing my thesis, which is--as it should be--my top priority. But amid the multitasking frenzy that is graduate school, I've also remembered to take time and enjoy the few perks of grad student life. I've succumbed--from time to time--to the temptation to kick back, relax, and enjoy the balmy weather ... before I'm stuck with a real job!

Although my thoughts are more closely focused on the finer points of preparing the perfect margarita, this may be a good time to broach a potentially touchy subject: when and how to approach your mentor about your career plans. For those of you on a trajectory aimed directly at a postdoctoral position, no special handling is required. Race to her office and start hatching a scheme to find you the ideal appointment in a top lab. For the rest of us, however, it may be wise to consider a slightly more measured approach. That's not to say your boss is likely to launch into a tirade at the suggestion that you dare to consider working outside the Ivory Tower, but you should recognize that the notion of a nontraditional career may come as a bit of a surprise. After all, your PI has spent the last 5-plus years mentoring and training you for a productive academic career, so it's possible that she or he may therefore regard your career choice as a rejection of their skills.

For this reason, caution is advised. In most cases, a friendly, honest discussion of your postgraduation plans will result in a positive, supportive response. However, several former graduate students have reported PI reactions ranging from apathetic dismissal to quiet hostility. Whatever the underlying reasons for a negative reaction, such as belief that you are "selling out" or rejecting the staid academic tradition of sacrifice for the nobility of research, chances are your approach to the issue will have the greatest impact. Arrogantly dismissing the feasibility of pursuing a career in research exhibits contempt for those who have, and will likely offend even the most affable of advisors. Although it may not be necessary, a delicate approach serves to ensure you maintain a good working relationship with your mentor when you need it most--as you approach graduation.

This raises an important question: If you suspect your PI's response may be less than supportive, why bring it up at all? The first reason is practical. Your advisor has, over the years, developed an extensive web of contacts inside and, more importantly from your perspective, outside academia. Considering that most jobs are found through networking, your boss represents your best opportunity to get your foot in several doors. Also, most potential employers will prefer you use your mentor as a reference. True, it may be wise to avoid listing an uncooperative advisor, but no other recommendation will carry the same weight. The other reason is respect. No matter how you regard your mentoring experience, your advisor deserves to know, at some point, of your plans.

I chose to approach the issue with my mentor slowly. Evolution rather than revolution. Over time, I basically set the stage by dropping hints of my dissatisfaction in my prospects for an academic career, interests in business and law, and the specific family considerations that would preclude my taking a low-paying postdoc. I would occasionally test the reaction waters by commenting on the nontraditional career choices of recently graduated students in the department. Finally, I deliberately made no attempt to hide my patent law preparation activities and studied openly for the patent bar and LSATs. In the end, it was my advisor who approached me about my plans. He was quite supportive, although aside from the financial considerations didn't really understand why anyone would want to "abandon" research. And although his primarily scientific contacts have provided little direct assistance, I'm glad to know he and I are on the same page as we prepare manuscripts for publication and my dissertation for defense.

For those of you who are still a bit apprehensive, I suggest the following general approach. First, probe for your advisor's general attitude. Try to gauge how open she or he is to the notion of an "alternative" career. Second, prepare your mentor gently for the possibility that you may forgo an academic career by dropping hints of your true interests. Next, assuming they haven't come to you, approach your advisor with a request for help. Rather than implicitly attacking their career choice by making some grand pronouncement of your intentions, address the issue indirectly by asking for assistance in your job search. Your goal--given that it is critical for the two of you to maintain a working relationship--is not to be evasive, but delicate in light of the possibility that your advisor may not be supportive. Remember to check the disgruntled grad student attitude at the door. And relax. Whatever your boss thinks of your career path, as long as you maintain an atmosphere of respect and professionalism, you'll survive the whole ordeal. And perhaps even have time left for a little summertime hooky.

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