• September 16, 2014

How to Tell Your Adviser

Ph.D. students’ anxiety over admitting 
their nonfaculty aspirations may be justified

Pursuing PhD Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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close Pursuing PhD Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

Whenever I talk with graduate students about how to prepare for a nonfaculty job search, there is one topic about which they share varying degrees of anxiety: how, and when, to tell their Ph.D. advisers.

Students who are determined to exit the academy are usually the least concerned about burning a bridge with their advisers. The most anxious are students who, knowing the odds are stacked against them on the tenure-track lottery, still want to play that game but also want to explore alternate career options. Those students worry that if they so much as express an interest in an off-campus internship or a nonacademic career, they will be labeled "unserious," lose grant money, or be overlooked for academic opportunities.

It would be nice if I could tell anxious students that their concerns were unfounded, but that would be misleading. I have heard faculty members say things like, "anyone who won’t ‘do what it takes’ isn’t worthy of my time and investment." And I’ve heard many adviser horror stories from graduate students and Ph.D.’s. It’s reasonable for them to be anxious about admitting their nonfaculty aspirations.

I was fortunate. My two faculty mentors were supportive and kind when I decided to end my tenure-track quest. They treated me like an adult capable of making my own decisions. It’s what we all hope for from our mentors, but it’s not always the case.

So how best to break the news to your advisers that you may be straying from the fold?

Why tell them at all? Unless you need something from your adviser—a reference or permission to work outside the department—then why have this conversation at all?

A graduate student’s relationship with an adviser often becomes oddly parental/feudal, but keep in mind: This is a professional working relationship. Any conversation about your future plans should happen on a need-to-know basis. That is especially true if your adviser is—or is rumored to be—an unreasonable jerk.

If all you want is sympathy (for your abandoned academic dreams) or support (for your newfound career path), chances are you don’t need to broach the topic of your nonfaculty search until you graduate. It is entirely possible to explore career options, network, gain volunteer experience, blog, tweet, write a résumé, create a LinkedIn profile, and even apply for jobs without ever telling your adviser that you plan to leave academe.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that your advisers take their roles as teachers and mentors seriously. They want to help. They assume an academic job is your top choice, but unless your advisers are complete idiots, they know the job market is terrible. They have watched their students struggle to land tenure-track jobs. They sit on hiring committees and see the high caliber of candidates who are applying for (what used to be) entry-level positions.

The truth is: Faculty members don’t have solutions to the academic employment crisis. When a student comes to them for advice, when they don’t have any to offer, they feel powerless. And feeling powerless can make people act out or say things that aren’t true or helpful. They are not trained or prepared to offer advice about nonacademic careers, so don’t expect them to—at least until academic departments do a better job of accepting and recognizing nonacademic career paths for Ph.D.’s.

Prepare for the conversation. When the time does come to talk with your adviser about your nonfaculty career plans, it is up to you to make the conversation productive. Frame it around the fact that the academic job market is terrible, that you want to be prepared for the possibility of not landing a tenure-track job, and that you’re aware of your options.

Before you chat, do your homework. Find out the tenure-track placement rates and/or the number of job openings in your field. Although department-specific data might not be available, most professional organizations have started to publish statistics on the number of new Ph.D. recipients each year, compared with the number of new full-time academic positions in a particular field. Simple math will show you and your adviser how difficult it is to land a full-time teaching job.

To highlight the range of possibilities in your field, you could also do research on the careers of Ph.D. graduates from your own department and talk about where they have landed. Chances are, someone on that list will be a student whom your advisers admired, and they will be surprised to learn that he or she is working beyond the professoriate.

Second, talk with your advisers about the push/pull factors. The push factors are the reason you are leaving academe. Try not to be too negative (don’t talk about how much you hate undergraduates, academics, or the business of higher education). Here are some safe push factors:

  • The academic job market is terrible.
  • You have financial obligations that make working as an adjunct, a postdoc, or at a community-college unrealistic. Perhaps you have large student loans; you are single and must support yourself immediately upon graduation; you’re over 40; or you have children you need to support.
  • You have geographical limitations. Perhaps you’re a member of a particular minority group and feel unwelcome in large swaths of America. You have a partner with specific career needs, or you have children and need to think about schools. Maybe you need to stay close to your aging parents. Or you are in the United States on a student visa and must return to your home country.

Assuming your advisers are sane, normal, compassionate people, they will understand family, personal, and financial pressures that can limit your career choices. Focus on those.

Pull factors are the reasons you are attracted to another career. Here is a chance for you to be positive about your graduate-school experience and highlight the possibilities awaiting you outside academe. For example, you might say things like:

  • I am really interested in helping people, and while I enjoy teaching, I wonder if I can make a bigger impact in X (where X might equal working for a nonprofit agency, for the federal government, or in industry).
  • I recognize that professors spend a lot of time teaching and doing administrative tasks. I think I’d like a job where I can be a full-time researcher.
  • My dissertation helped me realize how passionate I am about women’s rights/immigration/judicial reform. I’ve got an internship that will allow me to do that.
  • I am very committed to higher education, but I know it is difficult to land a tenure-track job. I’d like to look for opportunities in higher-education administration, so I’ve applied for a job in student affairs (or whatever).
  • I love teaching, so I’ve applied to a private high school.
  • I’d love to make history accessible to the public, so I’m taking an internship at a museum.

Whatever your reasons for taking your career outside of academe, stay positive when you’re explaining them to your adviser.

Finally, have a plan before you meet with your adviser. Make sure you’ve spent time researching your options. Talk about informational interviews you’ve had, alumni you have spoken with, and companies or organizations you’ve investigated. This conversation is your chance to inform your adviser about the range of opportunities you’ve discovered.

Ask for something specific. Let’s say you’ve landed an interesting internship, and all you need is support. Open the conversation with that request: "I’m here today to talk about exploring career options. I’d like your support. While I remain interested in a tenure-track job (if that’s the case), I recognize that the academic market is difficult, so I want to be prepared. I’d like to discuss a specific opportunity with you, which I’m very excited about."

Maybe you need a reference for nonacademic job openings? Say, "When I started graduate school, I assumed I would want a tenure-track job. Given the state of the market, I have decided to explore other options. I’m particularly interested in nonprofit work. Would you be willing to serve as a reference for me when I apply for jobs this coming semester after graduation?"

Prepare a handy cheat sheet to guide your adviser in how to be an effective reference for your nonacademic search. Make a list of skills that are most often requested in job advertisements for your new nonfaculty career and walk your adviser through it. Give specific examples of how you’ve demonstrated those skills—examples that your adviser may then use when speaking about you to potential employers.

Do you need time off from your graduate studies to pursue a nonfaculty job?

Even if your advisers are the nicest people on the planet, they will be concerned that an internship or an off-campus job will delay your graduation. That’s a valid concern. Regardless of how you feel about your advisers, they are in your life primarily to help you earn a Ph.D.

If some off-campus opportunity will delay your graduation, then have a compelling reason why that will be OK. A paid internship or summer position might mean you won’t have to live on student loans. Knowing you have options will energize you to finish your dissertation.

Whatever you need from your adviser, be clear about it. Ask nicely and directly.

What if it goes terribly? What is the worst that can happen? Your adviser will yell at you? Call you a loser? Refuse to be a reference? Deny you a dissertation fellowship? Prohibit you from publishing a paper or defending your dissertation?

If any of your advisers act like outraged parents, report them to the department’s director of graduate studies and the chair of the department. If either of those people shrugs off your complaints, speak to the graduate dean or someone in the dean’s office in charge of students. Deans are very concerned about the academic job market and about unresponsive faculty members who refuse to recognize this reality. Deans also care about reputation. They don’t want angry students bad-mouthing their institution. The graduate school should help you negotiate a reference with your department and see that you graduate.

Instead of being hostile, it’s more likely that your advisers will encourage you to keep applying for teaching jobs because you are fabulous and talented. They may see your nonacademic quest as temporary. That’s a benign fantasy on their part, and a compliment. It means they value your academic work. Tolerate their academic fantasies about your future, so long as they are also supporting you in your nonacademic career explorations.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. 
in history from the University 
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead 
researcher of Lilli Research Group, a company that provides research consulting services 
for organizations and career coaching for Ph.D. job seekers. 
She lives in Denver.

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