Choosing the Right Career Path

D ear MentorDoctor,I am in need of some career advice. I am in the process of completing a Ph.D. in science from a well-respected institution in the Midwest. I am proud to say that I will be graduating within the next 6 months! Overall, I had a reasonably good experience and I have two publications in peer-reviewed journals. It has been difficult being one of a handful of minority students here, but I had a lot of support. However, I have decided that I want to pursue a career in science policy rather than pursuing a research career. I tried to talk with my advisor about this, but she was not supportive. She feels that my Ph.D. is a research degree and I would be wasting it pursuing an alternative career such as science policy. Furthermore, she went on to say that few women and minorities pursue research science careers and so I should seriously consider becoming a professor or working in industry. How can I make my advisor understand that I don't wish to be her clone? Please help!

Dear Student,

One figures that on average a student will take 4 to 5 years to complete a bachelor's degree and an additional 6 years to complete a Ph.D. This means that most people get their Ph.D.s around their 30th birthday, give or take a couple of years depending on the individual situation. With that, it is then fair to expect that a newly minted Ph.D. scientist will be looking forward to a career that will span at least 30 more years. That is an awfully long time to train for and do something to which you feel little commitment and from which you receive little fulfillment. Your advisor has clearly made her choices--a commitment to research--based on her own life experiences. It appears that you as an individual have also made your decision based on your own experiences and motivating factors, and it is at the very least unreasonable for your advisor to try to force you to make the same decisions that she made.

Your question seeks a solution aimed at changing the perceptions of your advisor as to the judiciousness or your choice of an "alternate" career pathway. I can of course point out that a career in science policy could potentially impact more minorities and females than one in academia or industry. I could also point out that someone working in academia or industry who is embittered by knowing that their choice of career was made by seeking to placate an advisor could do more to discourage other women and minorities from entering scientific careers. I am almost sure that you have thought of these arguments and might even have presented them to your advisor when she expressed her disappointment in your choice of career paths.

Your situation is one of the very few where I would have to encourage a student to pursue what she thinks is right even if it means doing it without the support of their advisor. You must do as much as you can to explain in a very respectful way to your advisor the thinking behind your decision. Whether or not your advisor agrees, this is a situation in which you and not your advisor will experience the consequences, be they positive or negative, so this decision must be made in your best interest.

It is imperative that you do as much as possible to research careers in research policy and begin--if you haven't already done so--to do the necessary networking. These efforts will ensure that you have indeed made an informed decision, and they will also provide you with a support network that can provide mentorship and guidance in the unfortunate instance that this has significant negative implications in the relationship between you and your current advisor. Additionally you want to know that you have taken care of all the administrative issues involved in your impending Ph.D. degree award, because some individuals (hopefully your advisor is not one such person) might see your decision as a betrayal and take punitive actions that might involve being obstructionist.

In summary, it is the individual who's life will be most affected by the decision that should take it. It is reasonable and wise to consult others before making an informed decision, but in the end, you should make the decision that you feel will result in the most very productive and satisfying career. I can tell you from personal experience that there is little better than looking forward every day to doing something you love and actually wondering at times why you are being paid for doing something you truly enjoy.

--The MentorDoctor

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