Q: I finally screwed up the courage to talk to my adviser about my decision to leave academia. She was really supportive, but she also said she had no idea how to help me. So now I feel kind of stuck without any kind of mentorship in my new career path. What should I do?
First of all, congratulations on having talked to your adviser. That conversation can be difficult, and it’s great that you had it.
But your question is certainly a crucial one. Like careers outside the academy, mentorship outside the academy is not nearly as cut-and-dried as it is in graduate school, during which most grad students are advised first by the director of graduate studies and then by a dissertation adviser, and it’s likely that your dissertation adviser won’t be able to help you. With a few exceptions, most faculty members have only ever had one job in one very specific and specialized field. Since you’ve decided that this is a field you don’t wish to pursue, it’s natural to wonder who you’re going to turn to for career advice and access to a professional network now that your adviser can’t offer them.
The bad news is that there is no easy answer. The good news is that there are a lot of places to look for mentorship—it just requires a bit more effort.
A good place to begin is with alumni. Since you’re able to talk to your adviser about what you want to do, you might ask her for the contact information of PhDs from your department who’ve gone on to connected careers. In a best-case scenario, your adviser will be able to connect you directly with alumni through e-mail introductions. But since people who leave academia often fall out of touch with their academic advisers and colleagues, your adviser might not have contact information for them. She might, however, be able to give you a few names, and a bit of light Internet stalking might turn up an e-mail address or a LinkedIn profile with contact information.
Many universities also have official alumni networks run by their career centers. Sometimes these are only open to undergrads, but more and more often they are opening up to PhDs as well. These can be great ways of connecting with PhD alumni in connected careers, and you have the added benefit of knowing that they’ve already agreed to be mentors. Schedule an appointment with your career center ASAP.
Another way to find potential mentorship is through informational interviewing. Many informational interviews are one-offs, but they don’t have to be. If you meet someone whose work you find interesting and with whom you have a connection, you might ask to shadow him or her for a few hours at work or even just to arrange to speak again in a couple of months. Eventually, you might ask if there is a project you could work on to gain experience and find out if you really like doing what he or she does.
This brings me to a third way of finding mentorship: doing a job that brings you into contact with potential mentors. In many ways, this is the hardest way to find a mentor. But in my experience it is also one of the most effective.
Working part-time during your PhD can be tough. It’s not like you have an overabundance of free time. But if you’ve decided to pursue a connected career, the value of transitional work experience cannot be overestimated. While still working on my PhD at Stanford, I held several part-time jobs, and in each of them I had staff members who served as mentors for me. They were there to answer questions, offer professional advice, and let me know about opportunities for growth. Perhaps most important, my supervisors could really speak to the work I did, and they were very invested in my success. These relationships are much stronger than the ones I formed through Stanford’s alumni network or through informational interviewing.
And on that note, I would like to end by underscoring that mentor-mentee relationships take work—perhaps even more work than it takes for you to maintain your relationship with your adviser. You and your adviser probably have some shared academic interests, and you likely work in the same building. That may not be true for your other mentors, so making sure you have coffee or lunch with them at least once a semester might take a little more effort. This shouldn’t be a burden—you should like your mentors, whoever they might be—but it can be difficult to accommodate very busy schedules. Putting in that small amount of effort will make your relationships with your mentors much stronger and more beneficial in the long run.