The Clear Path


Dear MentorDoctor,

I originally wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in the biological sciences and worked diligently toward this goal for two-and-a-half years; however, every time I voiced concern to my supervisor or adviser about my work progress, they responded by telling me I was not doing so well and that I needed to get more results to prove that I was capable of getting a doctorate. I have recently submitted my thesis for a master's degree, but I'm suffering from low self-esteem and considering changing careers. In your opinion, how can I clearly define the right career path for me?

--Unsure About Science

Isabella Finkelstein: The first advice I would give is to not let a single person (even your adviser) determine your destiny. You would not be the first student I have known who had an adviser who was more discouraging than encouraging. I am making the assumption that you are serious about your career choice and that you are capable of being successful. Below are some suggestions.

1. Have you talked with other members of your committee or other professors you have had as instructors? If not, you should certainly do this. Get another opinion. I hope there is someone you feel comfortable talking to.

2. Is your research area one that interests you? Have you worked hard on a project but the results remain elusive? Sometimes projects just do not work. Another direction might be more fruitful. Sometimes advisers are so convinced of the project they hesitate to give up on the idea. Have other students in your laboratory been successful?

3. Is it possible to get in another laboratory? I once had a student change his adviser three times at the same university. Although the second adviser was in an area of great interest to him, he was ignored and did not receive the same level of encouragement and support that other students in the laboratory received. He completed the Ph.D. with the third adviser and went on to an excellent postdoctoral fellowship.

If none of the above suggestions seems feasible, you might consider getting the master's degree and changing institutions for the Ph.D. Again, I emphasize that you should not give up because of a bad experience. You must decide whether this is the right career path. If you enjoy the excitement of new discoveries and are willing to put in the long hours to be successful, then this is the right career path for you. Changing laboratories does not mean that you are not capable. You need to evaluate your situation and make the right decision for yourself. Good luck!

Judy Jackson: Understandably, it is almost certain that a student will lose confidence in the persistent absence of encouragement. I want to caution you, however, that merely shifting to another career arena may not do much to build your self-esteem or define a more successful career path.

Before you decide to bail out, perhaps you should develop a more effective strategy. Consider a new pattern of behavior to establish and maintain positive and effective communication with your supervisor and research adviser. From your statement, it sounds as if you have developed the self-defeating habit of talking with your adviser only about concerns and unmet expectations (possibly self-imposed) of research progress. Rather than focusing on your doubts and uncertainties about the challenging project, concentrate on areas in which you have made progress or have achieved a reasonable depth of understanding. Then identify some potential challenges along with ideas about how to approach those obstacles.

In all likelihood, your adviser wants to know that you are capable of thinking creatively about such things--that you can develop some independent ideas about how to tackle problems, and that you can show enthusiasm about trying potential solutions. Success builds upon success, but it is neither spontaneous nor automatic--you must plan and work at it. You may want to have some advice and coaching if you are unsure about developing this new strategy. Talk with someone in student services (advising, counseling, or career services) or with another faculty member (in or outside your department or institution) about this new strategy. Doing so will go a considerable way toward rebuilding your self-esteem, but it will also be vital to success in your career. Don't give up too easily--there will be other challenges for you to face. Try to refocus and persevere. All the best!

James Stith: I share your concerns given that you have been working for two-and-a-half years and your issue is still unresolved. Although you mentioned that your adviser has suggested that you need to get more results to prove that you are capable of getting a doctorate, you did not mention how you were progressing in your coursework. You need to do an evaluation of the quality of your work and your level of progress to determine if you agree with the assessment of your adviser/supervisor. If you are struggling in your coursework as well as having difficulty in your research, then I agree that a reassessment of your goals is in order. You must make a decision about whether the right option is a change of fields or whether it is a change of institutions.

You also did not mention if you have had discussions with others whom you respect and trust. Touch bases with some of the people who wrote you letters of recommendation for graduate school. Seek their guidance and opinions about possible career options. Have discussions with people who have careers in the biological sciences about what they are doing to assess whether it is the specific area of specialization that is leading to your difficulty and level of uncertainty.

More important, I suggest that you seek counseling to help deal with your low level of self-esteem. I strongly suggest that you have a discussion with your physician as well as counselors in the university counseling center.

Good luck as you make the decision that is arguably one of the most important you will be called upon to make.

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