Having “The Conversation”: Telling Your Advisor You Don’t Want to Be a Professor

"Hand Knocking" by Chris M. Golde

By Stacy Hartman and Chris M. Golde

How do you tell your advisor that you don’t want to pursue the faculty path? Or, at least, that you’re exploring other possibilities? Maybe you’ve decided you don’t like research. Maybe you don’t like teaching. Maybe you’ve realized that you need to be in a particular geographic area. Maybe you’ve calculated that your chances of obtaining a faculty position are uncomfortably low. For whatever reasons, you want to consider a wider array of options.

“The conversation” can be anxiety-provoking, even in fields with a well-defined “industry” option. The stakes feel very high. What if it goes badly?

We believe that most of the time these conversations go well. Many students report tremendous relief once they disclose their plans to their advisors. It is much easier for them to move forward without worrying about their advisors’ reaction, and advisors, now aware of their advisees’ real ambitions, are able to lend their support more effectively. Everyone wins.

So Why the Fear?

There are stories, nearly mythical, of advisors who responded harshly to students who admitted they wouldn’t be pursuing a faculty career. These advisors said things like:

“I will no longer be your advisor.”

“You may not work in this lab.”

“I’m withdrawing your funding.”

“I won’t support you.”

“You are dead to me.”

Although there aren’t any data, we’re certain that these negative responses are rare. But it’s human nature to gossip about high drama. Tales of disaster are retold for years, while the positive accounts don’t get repeated. We rarely hear about the advisors who respond, “That’s great. How can I help?” when students reveal their real career ambitions.

Like many difficult conversations, this one can be approached in a way that tips the odds of a positive encounter in your favor.

Before Speaking to Your Advisor

Preparation is important, especially if you’re concerned about your advisor’s reaction. Planning what you’re going to say also gives you confidence.

Think about Your Goals

Go into the conversation having given serious consideration to your future plans. You don’t have to be 100% certain of what you want to do, but it is helpful to have a response when your advisor asks about your professional aspirations. Your advisor might not have much experience with different types of careers; sharing your plans will help show what a PhD can do outside the academy.

If you are exploring a broader array of careers for the first time, there are lots of resources to consult. Here are a few of the many out there:

Think hard about these questions before you talk to your advisor:

  • What kinds of jobs are you interested in?
  • Are you exploring or have you made a decision about what kind of jobs to pursue?
  • Are you going to go on the academic job market as well? Many people apply for a wide range of jobs in several sectors. Applying and interviewing can teach you a lot about where you can thrive.
  • What are the reasons for your decision? These might be professional, personal, or a mixture. You may not need or want to disclose them (you need not feel defensive), but you should understand your motivation. Decide what you want to share.
  • What is your timeline?
  • How will this decision affect your scholarly and research work, if at all? If your dissertation won’t be your academic calling card, you may not need to add an extra chapter or experiment.
  • How will you balance your commitments and still sleep? Create a game plan for meeting your academic obligations and your professional development goals. Strategic time management is the first piece of advice in Stacy Hartman’s Three Keys interview.

Practice What You Will Say

Figure out what you want to say and practice delivering your message. You don’t need a fully rehearsed speech, but if you master the basic points, you will be less nervous. Most advisors are well-meaning. Assume good intentions on their part, and go into the conversation with a positive attitude.

During the Conversation

Be confident. Stay calm. Breathe. Deliver your message.

Then listen.

Your advisor may express surprise or uncertainty about how to help. The good news is that there are many things that your advisor can do:

  • Continue to push you and support your research and scholarship. Continue to provide feedback on your work and expect you to meet high standards. Continue to invest in your intellectual development.
  • Connect you to friends, acquaintances, and former students with whom you can conduct informational interviews.
  • Alert you to opportunities that you may not have heard about.
  • Continue to support you personally.
  • Write strong letters of support.
  • Recognize that you will be spending some of your time on other things: conducting informational interviews, gaining practical experience and new skills, exploring career options, building your network, and developing job application materials.
  • Advocate a broader approach to career preparation among other faculty members in the department and among other students. Publicly support and endorse you and your choices.

After the Conversation

Follow up with and thank your advisor.

Keep your advisor up to date on your exploration and applications.

Be prepared to revisit the conversation. This is something that you’ve been thinking about a lot, but your advisor may be quite surprised by and unprepared for your revelation. You may need to schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss your timeline and the ways in which your advisor can support you.

These resources can help your advisor help you. It is important to know that disciplinary societies and funding agencies are valorizing careers of choice.

Worst-Case Scenario

What if the conversation goes badly? What if your worst fears are confirmed?

You still have allies and options:

  • Seek out other faculty members. Start with the other members of your committee. Talk with faculty members in your own or another department—those known to support students in all career paths. They can support you emotionally, and they may be able to advocate for you with your advisor or department chair.
  • Consult with staff members in the graduate dean’s office, who have experience with these matters.
  • Talk to a career counselor on your campus.

We recognize that talking candidly with your advisor about your career plans can be very stressful. We hope that the strategies outlined above reduce your anxiety and help you take control. We want to hear from you: What are your experiences? What is your advice to grad students? What can faculty members do? Leave a comment below or tweet us @catsonatardis and @gradlogic using #AdvisorTalk.

DSC_0352Stacy Hartman is the project coordinator of Connected Academics at the MLA. She writes for the Connected Academics blog and tweets @catsonatardis. Stacy decided early on that she didn’t want to be a faculty member. As a result, she got involved with five different projects related to humanities pedagogy, graduate education reform, the public humanities, and alternative academic careers. She coordinated a lunch-time speaker series of university staff members with PhDs who were working in nonfaculty jobs. This led to her job at the MLA. She offered three pieces of advice for graduate students in her Three Keys interview on Golde’s Grad|Logic blog.

Chris M. Golde is a career coach at BEAM, Stanford Career Education, working with PhD students and postdoctoral scholars. Before that, she spent eight years as associate vice provost for graduate education at Stanford University. She writes the Grad|Logic blog, where this is also posted, and tweets @gradlogic.

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