Your One Stop Grad School Resource

Grad Student Advice Series: Approaching Your Advisor About Alternative PhD Careers

Doctoral students in many disciplines realize the odds are against them. But students are often afraid to approach their advisers about other nonfaculty career choices, for fear of disapproval. And the professors themselves may not know how to advise students about any other careers than the research life, although given the dismal job-market statistics in recent years, that ignorance about nonacademic options becomes less and less acceptable.”  ~The Future of the PhD

Today, there is something that is holding a lot of PhD students back. Fear. What happens is they never really come out of their shell, and they feel that if they do there will be disapproval from their advisors and professors. You will be marked as the “oddball” or the person who spent years getting a PhD only to “waste” it in a field that isn’t fully utilizing the degree. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

The reality is that “non-traditional” or “alternative” PhD careers are not so uncommon anymore and are becoming traditional. In fact, the more that we hammer away at the issue and try to promote awareness about graduate education reform and the need to accommodate alternative PhD careers, the more we realize that these types of careers are deemed “acceptable.” More importantly, there are very satisfying careers outside of academia that fully utilize your training, skills and knowledge. You can apply your PhD training to other fields and be very successful. There are thousands of PhD’s that made the transition years ago, and are working in fulfilling careers with good career prospects and bright futures.

PhD grads have many attractive and transferable skills: Data analysis and synthesis skills, writing and publishing, research design, presenting, grant writing, managing people and budgets, interdisciplinary contexts, self-motivation, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.

I can relate to the apprehension and fear of pursuing industrial careers because of how your PI will take the news. In all honesty, you have to look out for yourself. And, if that is what is truly BEST FOR YOU, then you shouldn’t hesitate being clear and up-front about your intentions.

I flat out went to my PI during my final year as a PhD student and stated that I was not going to stay in academia or do a post-doc. You can back this up with informational interviews as well: tell your PI that you researched this position and feel that it would better play to your strengths and future opportunities. It looks more impressive to justify the want and need to go into industry (or whatever field you had in mind) when you base it off something concrete. And this is simply by seeing first-hand what real-world experience looks like and internalizing this to channel your direction.

So here is how you can approach your supervisor and broach the subject:

1)    Come up with a plan beforehand

Instead of going to your Professor and simply saying, “I don’t want to stay in academia or become a Professor,” you can phrase it in a way that plays to your advantage. First, I would not recommend approaching your Professor unless you have done the necessary networking and informational interviews to get to this point. Why? Because once you have done this, it gives you a justification and reasoning for pursuing a career outside of academia. You are basing this off what you have done and learned (i.e. real-world examples), and ultimately what uniquely matches you. And, you also created potential opportunities on your own in the process.

We have known for a long time that the career prospects in academia are not favorable (only 14% of those in the life sciences land an academic position within 5 years of finishing a PhD based on a NSF survey). But this is NOT the reason that you want to pitch to your Professor. It is not a valid reason and lacks depth. One resource that I highly recommend that you should check out is MyIDP. It will personalize and pinpoint what careers are a good match for you! Once you take an online self-assessment test, your test results will show which science careers to pick from and may be a good fit (over 20 science careers are featured and ranked based on your skill set and interests).

A “plan” means that you have gone out into the world and talked to scientists or PhD’s who have transitioned into alternative careers. You can set up informational interviews with someone who is two years out of their PhD. This will give you a fresh perspective on how they made the transition, and they are more likely to be able to relate to your current situation. The more you learn about these positions, the more you are able to fit your plan to your career goals and identify your strengths and weaknesses. What happens is you are able to see the opportunity that lies ahead of you.

For example, let’s say you did informational interviews with a business manager in biotech industry. Let’s also say that this manager had a certain path that you learned about: PhD, post-doc, working in industry at the bench, then moving away from there (worked his or her way up into a management position).  A lot of people that have these career paths just happened by chance, promotion, or opportunity that opened up for them. They may not have had a career plan like what you are attempting to lay out ahead of you.

In other words, you know the “jumps” you wish to make ahead of time, as it also validates the value of a PhD, how you can effectively utilize it, and explains the need to leave academia WITHOUT hesitation, fear, and/or doubts. Therefore, this is putting YOU at an advantage.

You are taking hold of your own future and at least knowing the REALISTIC and necessary steps that one needs to take in order to transition out of academia. “Realistic” is defined as what your network (via informational interviews) lays out for you. In other words, they are going to tell you based on your current interests and skill set, which entry-level positions are going to be obtainable for YOU (if you were to apply for a job right now, what are you chances and what is a good match for you?).

So instead of reading about what positions you THINK would be a good fit for you, get out there and start creating opportunities for yourself! Nothing beats face to face interaction. So simply googling and reading blog articles about what kinds of PhD careers are out there won’t really get you anywhere. This is something that I call “PhD complacency” where the need to network and learn about career opportunities on your own isn’t viewed as “necessary.” Many PhD’s think that everything will “just fall into place” or just “happen by chance” someday. If this is your attitude you need to change it now.

Knowing what you want to do ahead of time will get you there much quicker and will be more focused. It will be a better use of your time and energy. Think about it. If I told you that you could skip an academic post-doc and go right into an alternative career in a different field wouldn’t you (if you knew ahead of time that is truly what you wanted to do)?

Just as I respect those who wish to stay in academia, they also need to respect those that wish to branch out from this field. That is why you must become numb to any reactions from those within academia and stick to your decision regardless of what other people think. 5 years from now when you are established in your career, it won’t even matter what people in academia used to think of you.

I also do not disapprove of the decision to take on a post-doc. However, there are also academia post-docs and industry post-docs. So I do disapprove if you are doing a post-doc and you don’t have a career path in mind or even know what field you want to be in. And I can almost guess that a lot of PhD’s took on a post-doc or stayed in academia simply because of fear that their thesis advisor would view them as a disappointment,  would not be supportive, and may give a poor reference for a career OTHER than what lies within academia. Also, many PhD’s stay in academia simply because they didn’t network or create opportunities outside of academia.

The whole point is that you may not have a complete and totally clear career path laid out in front of you (let’s say over the next 5 years). But what can happen is you at least can justify to your Professor why you wish to pursue a career outside of academia. And the best way to pitch this is that it better plays to your strengths, interests, potential opportunity, and career plan.

2)     Open dialogue: Know what to say

Approaching my professor about pursuing a career outside of academia was one of the hardest things I had to do. Here is why:

I was offered multiple internship opportunities during my 4th and 5th year of my PhD. During my 4th year I didn’t jump on it because I was afraid that my Professor would say “No.” The more informational interviews that I did and the more unemployed PhD’s that I saw, the more I realized that I needed to create and jump on any opportunities which presented themselves. Therefore, getting over this fear is a very key part of being a successful PhD student. Beyond the PhD is really what matters, and if your Professor cares about you and your future, they will RESPECT your decision. Therefore, when another opportunity presented itself the last 6 months of my PhD, I jumped on it.

I said something like this:

Based on what I have been doing over the past year by talking to PhD’s in the field, I have come to realize that I wish to pursue a different career path vs. obtain a post-doc or stay in academia. I feel that based on my strengths and interests that I would like to pursue other opportunities. I hope you will support my decision as I truly appreciate my time here and the scientific training that I have received. I feel that I can better use my education in other fields and this is what will truly make me happy. So with that said, an opportunity of a lifetime in the biotech industry has recently presented itself as I have been made an offer. I would like to jump on it with your permission.”

You have to look out for yourself. If you don’t, conflicts will only arise later on in your career. If you do not wish to stay in academia, why are you doing an academia post-doc? Are you buying yourself time until you figure it out? If you already are a post-doc, the same rules apply. You can still approach your Professor in the same way.

Here is the response I received:

We will always have different definitions of science. I am disappointed that you do not wish to stay in the field and become a scientist. BUT, I want you to do what is truly right for you and what makes you happy. I want to see you be successful. I want to see you get your PhD and utilize it however you see fit. I want to see you in a career that you truly want to be in. So, I guess that it’s OK and I’m fine with it.”

I took the heat. So one day went by where I was coined a “disappointment” or whatever else you want to call it. But your Professors need to care about your well-being. Even the Professors that DO NOT support alternative PhD careers almost have to care about what happens to you beyond the PhD stage. Why? It is a reflection on them. If you end as an unemployed PhD, this reflects not only poorly on you but them as well.

That is why, if you do the proper planning ahead of time and “take the heat,” you will be ten steps ahead of anyone who sits back in fear and pursues a post-doc only because that is the “expected” thing to do.

And chances are that you may be surprised. Different Professors will react in different ways. Some may be supportive, others may not. It doesn’t really matter if they are supportive or not. What matters is that you help yourself, seek out opportunities, and build your network outside of academia. Don’t expect your Professor or anyone else to do this for you.

3)      Execute your plan and jump on created opportunities

So you’ve done your informational interviews and networked to learn about the types of positions outside of academia that interest you. You’ve told your Professor and others of your intentions of wanting to pursue a career outside of academia (either before or after an opportunity presents itself).  Now what? You need an action plan.

Chances are if you started networking and adding value to yourself and others, an opportunity will present itself EVENTUALLY (either during or hopefully right after your PhD). If you have read my 3 part series networking guide, you will see that at the end of an informational interview, I suggest that you ask for your resume or CV to be reviewed for feedback purposes (constructive criticism).

This will help to identify “gaps” and steps/actions needed to fill those gaps, get your name out there, and demonstrate a potential unique skill set that may add value back to the person who is reading/correcting it (One example-they might think: “Oh I had no idea this person ran their own business on the side. Or did this in lab. Or has this unique “niche” skill set. Maybe we should meet to discuss further ideas or collaborations”). I will be expanding on how to add value to others in a future post.

If you truly wish to pursue a certain career outside of academia, you will do whatever it takes to obtain the necessary steps and jump through whatever hoops you have to. The problem is that many don’t know the steps that they need to take to make this happen. And without a doubt, networking is the first and most crucial step that many PhD’s are missing or try to skip altogether.

Let’s say you wish to be in Business Development in Biotech Industry. You aren’t going to be able to crossover straight from academia unless you are really lucky. There are two jumps that you have to make. Academia to Industry. Then, Science to Business. If you can do it all in one jump that’s great, but that is not being realistic. And this is exactly why you need an action plan to execute once your professor is aware of your intentions.

In order to be able to crossover, you still may need a set of unique skills or related work experience. This is the number one problem and complaint that I hear from a lot of PhD’s. They don’t have the marketable skills to be able to crossover. You need to obtain the experience in any way that you can. This means you should be open to doing internships. If you can leverage a summer internship during your PhD or your post-doc, you need to jump on this opportunity. If you doubt that this opportunity can be created, you haven’t networked nearly enough.

When I say “Action Plan,” I mean plan ahead before you finish your PhD. The problem that I see OVER and OVER is that many PhD students are too overly focused on finishing the degree. While it is important to be a successful PhD student, learn about things you wish you knew before staring a PhD, stay motivated, write your thesis, and defend in a timely manner… This is only part of the equation. Getting the PhD is only the beginning and is not the end-game. Why do you think there is a book called A PhD Is Not Enough? It is MORE important to have a career plan laid out in front of you. If you think that getting the PhD is all that matters, you need to read what matters beyond grad school.

Here is what your Action Plan should look like (from start to finish):

  1. Identify your unique interests, matches, and career possibilities by using Science Careers MyIDP
  2. Start creating opportunities by building your network, adding value to others, doing informational interviews, and learning about alternative careers (pick your top 5 from MyIDP).
  3. Put yourself out there in any way that you can. Find out ways to stand out from the crowd that is UNIQUE to you. Think about starting a Professional Science Blog. Establish your online reputation.
  4. Overcome your fear and do not hide your intentions.
  5. Approach your Professor (as outlined above). It is up to you whether or not you wish to approach your Advisor before or after an opportunity presents itself. If an opportunity doesn’t arise, you need to keep networking and be patient. Think about how you can add value to others (this will be another one of my future posts).
  6. Look for continued support. Assuming by now you have a network that you have created outside of academia (in addition to your own Professor that is aware of your situation). PhD’s should be aided in their job search.
  7. Jump on an opportunity that presents itself whether before or after your PhD and make the cross-over.
  8. Be proud of your decision. Move forward and never look back.

Further Reading

A comprehensive overview of the many careers in the life sciences industry:

Comments

  1. PhD student says:

    I don’t agree with the suggestion to open to your advisor. In my case, I should have been warned. When my research group went out to diner with invited speakers, often part of the conversation would run: “What about Person XYZ?” “He joined COMPANY.” “What? How could he abandon research for the industry? He was so intelligent!” I nevertheless made the mistake, and from that point on, others started getting all the TA positions to support themselves, the opportunities for grants/awards/scholarships, and so on (my adviser would come up with some reason not to put in an application, thereby implicitly refusing to write the necessary reference letter; what he didn’t tell me he was actually supporting another student, and didn’t want us to be in competition – I learned this later from someone else).

    • Hi “PhD student”,

      I think the point here is the timing of when you should be upfront about your intentions with your thesis advisor. I was not open with my PI until I had a clear plan and goal in mind, as I explained in the article that you should have networked and created potential opportunities beforehand before approaching your advisor. The whole point here is that you don’t pitch it too early or too late. I am not telling PhD students to go to their thesis advisor from Day 1 and say “I want to leave academia.” And many don’t find out that they wish to branch out from academia until much later. I didn’t tell my Professor until I was in my ~4th year and had done a sufficient amount of informational interviews to know exactly what it is I wanted to do. I entered graduate school with the intention of being a scientist and/or stay in academia, but I didn’t know where or when this would become a reality. As time went on, my career plan and goals changed. But I also realized the more this became clear, the more I needed to be upfront about my intentions. If you wait till later, this will only create conflict and you may miss out on opportunities. For example, if you are presented with an internship or job opportunity that will get you real-world experience, would you skip it simply because you haven’t told your advisor yet and are fearful to do so?

      If you want to keep your intentions a complete “secret”, you have that option but you don’t want to wait too long to reveal your intentions. If you are going into a field outside of academia and you have already made up your decision, you will have to tell your Professor eventually anyways. So you would only be putting off the inevitable. You can wait all the way until the end of your PhD to reveal your intentions because of “fear” that you will have a negative graduate school experience. But also keep in mind that TA positions and opportunities for grants/awards/scholarships matter more in your early-mid graduate career. Typically, if you start networking in the mid-late part of your graduate career, the potential opportunities will come later anyways.

      The whole goal here is to have a job or some opportunity that awaits you post-PhD. If you wait till after the PhD to start networking, figuring out what you want to do, and finally telling your thesis advisor the news-then you will only be hurting yourself and may end up unemployed or having to take a post-doc because that is the “expected and respectable thing to do”. What I see happening is that PhD’s come to the end of the PhD and have nowhere to go with no direction. Then it becomes “I have to go into industry because I can’t find a job”. But making that cross-over with no network outside of academia and lacking marketable skills is very hard to do (so you get stuck). Then you almost seemingly play the sympathy card. Then they wish they would have started networking and creating opportunities much earlier on instead of waiting. FEAR keeps PhD’s in their shell. That is why PhDs need to TAKE ACTION now. The timing of when you reveal your intentions and how you do it is completely up to you, so I am not telling you WHEN to do it-I am telling you HOW to do it.

      “Abandoning research” and leaving academia may or may not receive negative comments from others. But like I said, you have to look out for yourself. It is your life and your career and you need to do what makes you happy. You have to have tough skin. If moving on to do a post-doc or stay in academia is not for you, then DON’T do it simply because you feel pressured. The whole point that I would like to highlight here is that if you follow my networking guide, it is a matter of time before you create opportunities for yourself. I don’t know when the opportunity will present itself or what exactly it will be, but I can guarantee that if you dedicate time to networking, you have an 80% better chance of finding employment either during or after your PhD.

      More importantly, creating a network outside of academia will become your support system. In terms of a quality reference letter from your Professor, this is also something that concerned me. However, landing some internships don’t even require a reference letter. And the reference letter may not be applicable or reflective of your ability to perform outside of academia (and they will take this into consideration-you will hopefully have other references from people who know of your skills and abilities outside of academia). But, any professor that is looking out for their students and cares about their well-being should be supportive no matter where they end up. It is a reflection on them. So, your future employer will look not only at your Professor’s reference (which may or may not be bad), but more importantly will also value your internship reference OR from people you did informational interviews with and added value to (i.e. professional contacts become more personal over time once you add value). So there are a lot of “ifs” and “whats”. In reality, PhD’s need to look past all this and come up with a career plan ahead of time, learn to network, create opportunities, add value, and gain marketable skills to be able to cross-over after the PhD. The positives here far outweigh the potential negatives.

  2. Hi “PhD student”,

    I think the point here is the timing of when you should be upfront about your intentions with your thesis advisor. I was not open with my PI until I had a clear plan and goal in mind, as I explained in the article that you should have networked and created potential opportunities beforehand before approaching your advisor. The whole point here is that you don’t pitch it too early or too late.

    I am not telling PhD students to go to their thesis advisor from Day 1 and say “I want to leave academia.” And many don’t find out that they wish to branch out from academia until much later. I didn’t tell my Professor until I was in my ~4th year and had done a sufficient amount of informational interviews to know exactly what it is I wanted to do. I entered graduate school with the intention of being a scientist and/or stay in academia, but I didn’t know where or when this would become a reality. As time went on, my career plan and goals changed. But I also realized the more this became clear, the more I needed to be upfront about my intentions. If you wait till later, this will only create conflict and you may miss out on opportunities. For example, if you are presented with an internship or job opportunity that will get you real-world experience, would you skip it simply because you haven’t told your advisor yet and are fearful to do so?

    If you want to keep your intentions a complete “secret”, you have that option but you don’t want to wait too long to reveal your intentions. If you are going into a field outside of academia and you have already made up your decision, you will have to tell your Professor eventually anyways. So you would only be putting off the inevitable. You can wait all the way until the end of your PhD to reveal your intentions because of “fear” that you will have a negative graduate school experience. But also keep in mind that TA positions and opportunities for grants/awards/scholarships matter more in your early-mid graduate career. Typically, if you start networking in the mid-late part of your graduate career, the potential opportunities will come later anyways.

    The whole goal here is to have a job or some opportunity that awaits you post-PhD. If you wait till after the PhD to start networking, figuring out what you want to do, and finally telling your thesis advisor the news-then you will only be hurting yourself and may end up unemployed or having to take a post-doc because that is the “expected and respectable thing to do”. What I see happening is that PhD’s come to the end of the PhD and have nowhere to go with no direction. Then it becomes “I have to go into industry because I can’t find a job”. But making that cross-over with no network outside of academia and lacking marketable skills is very hard to do (so you get stuck). Then you almost seemingly play the sympathy card. Then they wish they would have started networking and creating opportunities much earlier on instead of waiting. FEAR keeps PhD’s in their shell. That is why PhDs need to TAKE ACTION now. The timing of when you reveal your intentions and how you do it is completely up to you, so I am not telling you WHEN to do it-I am telling you HOW to do it.

    “Abandoning research” and leaving academia may or may not receive negative comments from others. But like I said, you have to look out for yourself. It is your life and your career and you need to do what makes you happy. You have to have tough skin. If moving on to do a post-doc or stay in academia is not for you, then DON’T do it simply because you feel pressured. The whole point that I would like to highlight here is that if you follow my networking guide, it is a matter of time before you create opportunities for yourself. I don’t know when the opportunity will present itself or what exactly it will be, but I can guarantee that if you dedicate time to networking, you have an 80% better chance of finding employment either during or after your PhD.

    More importantly, creating a network outside of academia will become your support system. In terms of a quality reference letter from your Professor, this is also something that concerned me. However, landing some internships don’t even require a reference letter. And the reference letter may not be applicable or reflective of your ability to perform outside of academia (and they will take this into consideration-you will hopefully have other references from people who know of your skills and abilities outside of academia). But, any professor that is looking out for their students and cares about their well-being should be supportive no matter where they end up. It is a reflection on them.

    So, your future employer will look not only at your Professor’s reference (which may or may not be bad), but more importantly will also value your internship reference OR from people you did informational interviews with and added value to (i.e. professional contacts become more personal over time once you add value). So there are a lot of “ifs” and “whats”. In reality, PhD’s need to look past all this and come up with a career plan ahead of time, learn to network, create opportunities, add value, and gain marketable skills to be able to cross-over after the PhD. The positives here far outweigh the potential negatives.

    • PhD student says:

      I’m sure timing is an important issue. But I’m surprised you say TA positions and scholarship opportunities matter more early on. How are you supposed to manage the final years without a position or a scholarship? Apart from loans, I just don’t see.

      Anyway, I approached my advisor several years into my PhD, after realizing academia just wasn’t for me, at which point I had at least a “plan A”. However, given that my advisor wouldn’t even let me pursue small research projects with a more “applied” nature, which might have helped me hone my programming skills and have been of interest to people outside academia, I really doubt he would have let me off long enough for an internship. My work contract as a TA (when I still had one) ran all year, so I would have needed his permission to leave, even during the summer break when there weren’t any classes.

      My advisor has always stressed he wanted me to do one thing after the other, and that side projects were not important. I suspect he just does not understand the value of networking outside academia. When he was at the stage of his career where I am now, he was networking at conferences, and that ultimately led him to where he is now. But he refuses to see that it’s the same for other areas.

      He is simply not interested in my future, only in my current research. As a professor, his PhD students (current and awarded) are listed in his CV. He is also second or third author on each of my publications. Post-docs and younger professors coming from his lab also reflect positively on him within the academic community, but it is almost as if people going off into industry were a stain on his reputation.

      Actually, I had a friend who after finishing her PhD started looking for work in the industry, but continued working on some of the “future work” in her dissertation in her spare time (her husband was supporting her). What she was doing was closely related to her PhD work, but our common advisor was obviously not interested anymore: Whenever she wrote for whatever reason, he would take ages to answer, which had never been the case before.

      • Hi PhD Student,

        The funding situation depends on your grad program. For example, in my graduate program at UW-Madison I receive a monthly stipend from start to finish. There was also no requirement to TA. Many STEM programs have TA as optional, others may require it. It varies by program and University. I also applied for an NIH training grant mid-PhD. Anyways, if you are paying out of pocket I totally understand. I guess some PhD programs (science) have the good fortune of education being paid in full. Therefore, the need for scholarships and other things is not as great assuming your thesis advisor has the funds to support you (that is usually why they have you apply for a training grant which can last for 2-3 years). Some may or may not have this good fortune, so I can understand that the fear of approaching your advisor in this case would be greater.

        I guess each thesis advisor is different and you cannot predict how they will react. I guess it would be interesting to hear stories from academic Professors of how they want to be approached. And if they already were approached, maybe they could explain how they would want to be approached differently. This would really put it in perspective. On top of it, it would be very interesting to know their thoughts on whether students get “black-balled” or not in this regard, or what it would take to find common ground. It is hard to pinpoint because like you said, timing is a big issue, but with that aside the outcome may still be the same.

        It is hard to find a thesis advisor that has your best interests in mind. I wish these types of advisors were more prevalent and common in academia, but in order to get out publications and further their career, there must be an attitude a set of “rules” that keeps the system “in check”. See the most recent post on the Academic Fight Club: http://thegradstudentway.com/blog/?p=1393

        Although I don’t have the complete answer for you, you’ll have to find a way to meet common ground with your advisor. Actually this topic was discussed on Versatile PhD in the STEM forum. You could even post your question there and see what others have to say. I think if you branch out and do seek to obtain an alternative career field in industry, it is a reflection on them (in some form), but is definitely not a “stain on their reputation.” There will come a point in time were they will eventually realize that their reputation will be more “stained” if they have a PhD student that graduated and is now unemployed. What would they rather have? A PhD student that is now happily employed in industry and is actually using their degree? Or a PhD that is unemployed that will end up doing a post-doc only because that is seemingly their “only option” due to fear from their advisor, unfound common ground, or lack of career planning?

        That is definitely a waste of your training, which is exactly why these alternative PhD careers exist-to better play on your strengths, interests, and opportunities. Until your advisor (and others) can be more understanding and open to alternative careers (which ~85% are going into alternative careers since only ~15% in the US get an academic position within 5 years of getting a PhD) and less ignorant about the problem we are having, then things will be hard to change. This may take time, but I think the future of the PhD is bound to change and academic PIs will come to realize this. I do wish you the best with finding common ground with your academic advisor. The best advice I can give you is what I have already written in this post. But to soften someone’s heart-that is tough to be able to offer practical advice on. In the end, you still have to look out for yourself, and do whatever it takes.

Speak Your Mind

*

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.