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5 Things To Consider Before Discussing A Job Search With Your Advisor

Questions to answer before discussing a job search with your advisor
Written by: Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.

I’d had it.

I did not want to stay in academia anymore.

I’d spent all of my time in the lab, completing experiment after experiment, with no end in sight.

I was ready to quit, to give up, to throw in the towel.

But I had no idea how to leave — besides, how would I find another job?

It was clear that my advisor did not like me and my career was not advancing.

No matter how hard I worked, my advisor hated everything I did.

Without a recommendation from my advisor, I was sure I wouldn’t have a chance at another job.

I was doomed.

I started to look for other jobs during lunch breaks and quickly realized I was wasting my time because I did not have a job search strategy.

That was it — I was going to be stuck in academia forever.

Before I gave up hope completely, I met with a close friend who was already working in industry and asked him how he managed to transition.

I told my friend about my dead-end project, my fruitless job search, and my unsupportive advisor.

After my rant, he told me he had faced similar issues, but had managed to transition into industry through the support of his alternative career mentor, who taught him the best way to network and how to craft the perfect industry resume.

Good advice… but I was still terrified about speaking with my advisor about wanting to transition into industry.

I was worried he might fire me or sabotage my job hunt, and I was sure he wouldn’t write me a letter of recommendation.

As it turned out, I didn’t need a recommendation letter from my advisor to land an industry position.

I took my friend’s advice and I began to network and hone my job search strategy.

I didn’t tell my advisor that I was looking for a new job.

In fact, as I made new connections through networking, I started worrying much less about my advisor’s opinion.

There was a light at the end of the academic tunnel and no one, especially my advisor, was going to keep me from getting the industry job of my dreams.

In biomedical science alone, less than one-sixth of PhDs will go down the tenured professor track

Why You Must Thoroughly Prepare Before Talking To Your Advisor About A Job Search

Whatever the scenario is in your case, looking for a new job can be a tricky subject to talk about with your advisor.

The reasons a PhD starts a new job search vary from person to person.

Your current position might lack career development, or maybe you want to be closer to your family.

For most, it’s a combination of personal factors that include feeling tired of making the average postdoc salary of $46,000 per year (as published in Payscale) and realizing that you will never become a professor.

The New York Times reported that in biomedical science alone, less than one-sixth of PhDs will go down the tenured professor track, and The Royal Society reported that less than 1% will actually become tenured professors.

No matter what your reason is, you need to start putting your career goals and future first.

According to a Gallup poll, only 13% of people worldwide like going to work and are emotionally invested in it.

If you are thinking of changing your career, you need to put some thought into it.

Identify your core values and find a position you will enjoy.

5 Things To Consider Before Telling Your Advisor About Your Job Search

Looking for a new job can be stressful.

But preparing to leave your current job is a whole different beast.

You may be thinking all you need to do is give your employer 2-4 weeks notice, then pack up your stuff and leave.

It’s not quite that easy.

There are many intricacies you need to consider before vocalizing your job search.

In academia, an advisor can make or break your career.

For this reason, telling your advisor about your new job search is a big issue.

How will he or she take it? What consequences will you face once they know you plan to leave?

Here are 5 things to ask yourself before starting a conversation about your job hunt…

Whether or not you tell your advisor about your job search depends on the quality of your relationship

1. Should I tell my advisor I am looking for another job?

Should you even have a conversation about your job search with your advisor?

It’s a tough question, and every situation is different.

Some think that it is customary to let your employer know that you are job hunting, but doing this has the potential to hurt your future job prospects.

Whether or not you should tell your advisor about your job search comes down to the quality of your relationship with your advisor.

If you have a good relationship with your advisor, it makes sense to give them a heads up about your job search.

This demonstrates your respect for the advisor and will also show them that you care about their lab, since you are giving them ample time to figure out how to move forward without you.

A supportive advisor may also be able to point you in the right direction and introduce you to their industry connections.

All good things.

But, If you have a bad relationship with your advisor, it’s probably best not to tell them about your job search.

Of course, your advisor will benefit if you let him or her know you plan to leave, but have you thought about what might happen to you afterwards?

Your advisor might fire you, since you are leaving anyway, or they might increase your workload or neglect you completely.

These negative reactions by your advisor could hurt your career in the long run.

Whatever your circumstance may be, think about whether you want to disclose your job search status to your advisor.

You don’t want your job search to come to a halt before it even has a chance to get started.

2. Should I let my advisor know where I am going?

So, you’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided to let your advisor know that you are looking for another job.

Now, your advisor is curious and they ask, “What companies are you interested in?” or “Where do you want to move?”

While it may seem like a good idea to keep your advisor informed, in some situations it could be harmful.

If you have a supportive and trustworthy advisor, you can use this opportunity to give back.

By letting your advisor know where your new industry position is, you may be able to help others coming from the same lab, later down the road.

Building your network is all about providing value, and guiding PhDs from your previous lab into great industry positions is a wonderful way to do just that.

But, if you have a bad relationship with your advisor, it is advised not to tell them where you are going.

Every employer should stick to a certain professional standard, but it might not stop your angry advisor from sabotaging your chances of getting your dream job.

If you have not signed an official job offer, an angry advisor could call your prospective new boss and leave a scathing review of your work and attitude.

This will likely lead to a retraction of the job offer.

So, if you do plan on giving this information to your advisor, you should do so only after you have signed an offer, or started the job in the case where a contract is not signed.

Another problem you may face when prematurely telling others about where your new job might be, is that your prospective employer might cancel the position at the last minute.

This could be due to restructuring or lack of funds. Whatever the case, you can save yourself a lot of hassle by not divulging potential job information too early.

Don't let a bad advisor stop you from a successful job search

3. How should I execute my job search?

If you are on good terms with your advisor, they can be a valuable asset to finding your new job.

An advisor with a large network can help place you into an industry position.

So, talk with your advisor about what you would like to do, and you can start connecting with people in your desired industry and conducting informational interviews.

Sometimes, a super supportive advisor may even give you extra time off to network and prepare for interviews.

However, a bad relationship with your advisor will make a job hunt more difficult, but this is not the end of the world.

You can implement your job search strategy after or before work hours. Just make sure that you put in the obligatory eight hours a day — no more, no less.

Do not do your job search at work if privacy is a concern for you.

Especially if managers or your advisor may have rights to the computer that you are using.

Lastly, save up your vacation days in case you land an interview or find an important networking event.

Remember that a job search is a full-time gig, so use your time wisely and cram in as much quality networking as you can.

4. What about my letter of recommendation?

A letter of recommendation from a supportive advisor will go a long way toward getting you a new job, and nurturing that relationship can open new opportunities in the future.

But, what if you don’t have a supportive advisor? Are you really doomed?

No. A recommendation from your current advisor is not necessary when moving into an industry role.

Seriously, you do not need a recommendation from your current advisor to get an industry position.

Instead, you can use previous employers or colleagues at your current employment as references.

There may be cases where your prospective employer asks why your current advisor is not a reference.

Be ready to give a professional answer and do not talk badly about your advisor.

For example, you could say, “In my current job, my role is mainly focused on technical lab work. So, I believe that my previous boss would be a better reference as he/she knows me as a more well-rounded scientist and manager.”

5. What if I am asked to give an exit interview?

Exit interviews are standard at some universities, and the questions that are asked can vary from place to place.

These interviews are done to increase employee retention rates and allow the employee to give an honest opinion about their working experience.

Generally, exit interviews are conducted by HR, but in some cases, advisors may start one informally.

It’s important to remember that if you are going to give an honest opinion, you should do this professionally without calling out individuals, using foul language, or giving a grim view of the work environment.

This can backfire, and when a prospective employer calls your university, a negative review will be given.

If you do not want to give any feedback, that is okay too.

In this case, just state that you are looking for a career change and you are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with your soon-to-be-ex-employer.

There is nothing wrong with that.

Wherever your endeavors take you, always remember that every decision you make after deciding that you want to switch careers can make your life easier or harder. It is important to ask yourself the tough questions and do your research. Know how, when, and if you should start a conversation about your job search with your advisor. Some of these concerns may not seem like a big deal, but the consequences of being ill-prepared can cost you your future.

To learn more about 5 Things To Consider Before Discussing A Job Search With Your Advisor, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Aditya Sharma, PhD

Aditya Sharma, PhD, earned his advanced degree at the University of Toronto, Canada. Now, he combines his passion for all things STEM with keen business acumen, and he works as a scientific consultant at a top Canadian consulting firm.
Aditya Sharma, PhD

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