Blog written by Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D., Career Development Consultant, Propel Careers
Many people enter into a Ph.D. program or postdoctoral fellowship with the plan that they will be in academia forever. But for about 70% of trainees, this plan changes along the way. Sometimes it happens slowly, over a long period of time, and sometimes it happens quickly. In either case, usually their Ph.D. or postdoc advisor is the last person to find out. Despite the changing culture, many PI's simply do not want their trainees to leave academia.
One of the questions that I've been frequently asked since joining Propel Careers is, "How do I tell my advisor I'm leaving academia?" For many people, including myself, the anticipation of this conversation is worse than any other conversation with your advisor, especially if this is the first hint that they'll have that you don't plan on pursuing a career in academia.
I wish I could remember how I told my post-doc advisor, but I was too flustered to remember the details. I do however remember the outcome – thankfully, understanding and support. I've had a number of years to look back on this experience, and to talk to others who've gone through it, and have identified a few tactics that have worked for others. In the end, you hopefully know your advisor well, and have an idea of how they will react to the news, so choose the tactic(s) that fit their personality and mentoring style.
1. Give them notice
When you have decided to leave academia, try to give your advisor enough notice to make them feel comfortable. Most graduating Ph.D.'s begin to start looking for a postdoc position about a year before graduating, so this would be a good time to tell them you plan to look for a "real job" as well.
2. Have a research plan in place
When you decide to tell your advisor, present them with an exit plan. To ease their worries of you leaving them with unfinished experiments, create a list of experiments left to do for graduation or publications, along with a timeline and who you will hand them off to, if necessary. Include as much detail as possible!
3. Have a future plan in place
You may not know 'exactly' what you want to do after leaving the lab, but hopefully you will have an idea. Once you choose a career path, allow yourself enough time to assess your skill set, and build any skills needed to transition into the new role upon leaving the lab. If this requires some time out of the lab, it is always best to tell your advisor what your plans are, why it is important to your career development, and how you will build the skills you need without interfering with finishing your research.
4. Don't present your desire to leave the lab as a "bad thing"
You may feel guilty, you may feel like you are disappointing your advisor, you might be leaving academia for reasons not entirely under your control, and you might encounter a less-than-supportive response, but it is important to stay positive, and present the news as an exciting career transition, and NOT a "Plan B". The more self-reflection you do ahead of time, and the more confident you are in your decision, the easier this will be. It's ok if it takes a little time to get to this point – just remember, this is your career, and you are in charge.
5. Make sure they know you value your training and time in the lab
PhD and/or postdoc training is incredibly valuable – and even if it's not the experience you hoped it would be, you cannot get through without learning something. You want your advisor (and yourself!) to feel that the training you received was not a "waste". Your technical abilities, communication skills, ability to collaborate and work with others, train junior colleagues, grasp complicated questions, think critically, and see solutions, are skills that will be useful in careers outside of academia.
Finally, while "success" of research trainees is still narrowly defined by many granting institutions as "success within academia," this is changing. You are a driven, motivated, intelligent, and highly trained individual, and chances are, you will be successful in whatever career path you choose. As you progress in your career, check in periodically with your advisor and update them. They may have no other way of tracking your career, or knowing how you benefited from their training. This way, you will be included in faculty boasting sessions, and held on par with your "Assistant Professor at Harvard" peer as the former trainee who "helped discover the cure for cancer while working on a team at X pharma" or the former trainee who "developed a medical device used to diagnose X disease", etc. As a bonus for doing this, you may make it easier for your peers to have their own discussions with your mentor!