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How to tell your adviser you’re pursuing a nonacademic career

I was settling in for an evening of light entertainment with one of my new favorite television shows when I was clobbered by a quote that I found quite profound. Nadja, a centuries-old vampire in What We Do in the Shadows, was lamenting how someone whom she had recently bitten was finding it challenging to move forward in her new role from human to undead. “I suppose I was not much different when I first became a vampire,” Nadja reflects. “No one had had ‘the talk’ with me about my unholy transition. I had had no one to guide me.”

Sound familiar?

I frequently hear the same thing when I speak with STEM-educated professionals who are considering their own “unholy transition” for their careers—for example, leaving academia, leaving research, or leaving science completely. Many happily make it to the other side, but often it is without much help or guidance from their grad school or postdoc principal investigator (PI).

Some advisers view a desire to experiment with and pursue careers unfamiliar to them as truly “unholy”—something to be looked down upon; a sign of failure, sabotage, or abandonment; sacrilegious; and even blasphemous. Others simply don’t know much about these options—most of them have spent their entire careers in academia, after all—and are not equipped to offer advice.

If your adviser perceives career exploration beyond the academy as your first ingress into an escapade of darkness, there are two important things to know. First of all, this is not actually true. Any career path you chase is a worthy enterprise—except one in which you devour human souls. Second, with most PIs you can initiate your own version of The Talk to explain your career interests and goals—and how pursuing them is not unholy at all, but rather a righteous, wholly win-win situation.

Of course, a logical discussion about your future is only possible if your adviser is not a hellhound. If your PI is a nonhuman creature, has engaged in harassment, is abusive and rude and a jerk, or has tried to sabotage you and ruin your reputation, you cannot reason with them. A talk of any kind is useless. The only option is to flee.

But let’s assume your adviser is not He Who Must Not Be Named. In this case, it is likely you can have a productive talk about your transition.

Before you initiate The Talk, you need to prepare. The first step is to predict your PI’s emotional response. Their reaction could consist of sadness, anger, distress, or some combination. Their feelings may reflect their beliefs that you are abandoning and turning your back on them; you are disappointing and failing them; the resources they invested in you—such as time, money, mentorship, and networks—were for naught; you don’t appreciate the sacrifices they made for you; you don’t understand what they taught you; or you are choosing to go to the dark side.

If you can anticipate what is driving their emotional reactions and their baseline belief system, you are in a better position to help them understand that this is not a negative moment for them but actually a positive one. They are not losing someone or something; they are actually gaining quite a lot.

So, what will you bring them? Think in advance what they value so that you can highlight the elements they consider most important. Use language that will enable them to understand the mutual benefits. Resources you can offer include access to new networks of people, organizations, and funding streams; exposure to new ideas, inspirations, technologies, techniques, and tools; new opportunities for technology transfer and commercialization of their intellectual property; inside information about how different sectors operate, collaborate, and support research; and opportunities for sabbaticals and for students to learn about careers.

Don’t undersell the fact that you are expanding your networks greatly and will have entrée to much more information, ideas, and other resources of value that can help your PI advance their goals. For example, you may start going to professional conferences that your adviser didn’t know about or didn’t think would be relevant for their research, and you realize that this is a perfect platform for them to present. You have now opened the door for them to promote their work, find new collaborators, and push their research agenda forward.

You should also plot and articulate how you will stay connected to your adviser after you make your transition. The idea is to let your adviser know that you will be proactive in continuing the fruitful alliance you have formed and that you intend to remain a dynamic, engaged, and contributing member of their team. You can suggest any or all of the following:

  • scheduling quarterly or twice-yearly virtual catch-ups, for example via Skype, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp
  • meeting for coffee or a meal when you are both in the same area
  • offering to give a colloquium, an informal talk to their group, or an informal meeting with group members when you’re in their area
  • asking them whether they are interested in giving a talk or meeting your colleagues at your new place of work
  • connecting on LinkedIn
  • actively introducing them to members of your network

Finally, while you are preparing for The Talk, remember that the most important person in your career plan is you, not your adviser. You make the decisions and the rules about how and where and why you’ll work as well as what you’ll do. The Talk can become emotional, but don’t let it sway you from who you are and what you want to do.

When you are ready to have The Talk, make a private, face-to-face appointment in a quiet atmosphere. Feel free to bring your notes with you.

Begin the conversation with gratitude. Share how your PI helped you and what they did for you. Use the word “you” a lot to show your appreciation for their mentorship: “you helped me,” “you taught me,” “you showed me,” “you gave me.” Equally important is to reference the outputs that you produced together: “we wrote this paper,” “we presented this poster,” “we launched a successful collaboration.” Using “we” shows that you are not leaving them but rather that you and they are a “we,” a team that will continue even as you pivot to a new profession or field.

You are not abandoning your PI by pursuing your unicorn career; you are fulfilling your own dream. The beautiful aspect of this is that you are able to do it effectively because of the training and preparedness that your adviser imparted to you, and you’ll be paying it back—with great interest. If you can clarify for your adviser how you endeavor to take what you learned from them as a springboard for both your individual success and to enable their continued achievements, not only could they continue to be a mentor to you, but they just might become a friend as well. They may even give your “unholy” transition their blessing. And wouldn’t that be simply divine?

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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