• September 2, 2014

To Tell Or Not To Tell (Your Adviser)

A few months ago, I asked readers to share their experiences telling advisers that they were exploring alternative careers. The responses mirror the concern -- if not downright anxiety -- that graduate students who pursue this track often feel: that their advisers will "find them out."

Some examples:

  • "My adviser will probably discover that I transited out of an academic career after the final die is cast. Why plant a seed of doubt? He believes in me and talks me up when people call him. I don't think he'd be much use in envisioning a world outside the star system." -- An American historian in a "gypsy career" with more than five years on the job market.
  • "My grad adviser and university were in denial about other options. Forbidden topic! It may have changed some since I graduated two years ago. I have told my grad adviser now about my career debates and he has little to nothing to say. He agrees to write letters of recommendation and wishes me well, but that's about it. The difficulty I find now is not having support in my current position. Telling my post-doc adviser here would not be good. In science, if your commitment to your research and scientific career is questioned by those above you, you may find yourself on the 'unfavored' list. That leads to poor recommendations and difficult working environments." -- A postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry.
  • "It seems I'm being written off because I'm openly considering other options even though my first choice is still teaching. Telling one's adviser seems to mean burning a bridge even if you just want to keep your options open. Most advisers say they empathize with their students' needs, but their needs boil down to having ex-students on the tenure track who will preserve and enhance their reputations and act as big deposits in the academic favor bank." -- An American literature Ph.D.

As you can see from the above comments, it is widely perceived that the most committed and "brilliant" students get the most attention, the best letters of recommendation, and the most help on the job market from their professors. Conversely, students who are less successful or less single-mindedly pursuing academic careers seem to get short shrift.

Moreover, the department culture generally has its share of horror stories. The conventional wisdom is that professors are out to clone themselves and don't want to bother with wayward students; even the "enlightened" professors will naturally gravitate to the academic superstars as replicas of themselves whom they can easily help enter a familiar environment.

How accurate is the perception? Put yourself in the professor's shoes. It is, in fact, normal human behavior to be drawn to help people who remind you of yourself. Moreover, in a world of many competing demands on your time and energy, it's easier and more gratifying to support a student who will make you look good (producing what you're supposed to) and who is entering a world you know and have influence in. It would be an unusual professor who didn't start from here.

Of course, too many professors willingly wear blinders about the outside world, as well as the state of academia. However, based on my experience, the majority of professors genuinely want their students to find employment and are by this time more or less aware of the difficult academic job market. They often feel at a loss to help anyone not on the normal academic (or accepted quasi-academic) path. Sometimes, they are even relieved to discover that a student is considering alternatives, because they believe academia is not a good fit for the student (but have not dared to say anything for fear of hurting the student's self-esteem or eliciting charges of discrimination).

So part of the problem may be unrealistic expectations. You could reasonably hope for more than the example below, but unless you are in a fairly applied field or an unusual academic culture, or have found the exceptional adviser, you probably can't expect much more than moral support for a non-academic job search and possibly help with expediting your dissertation.

  • "I had been teaching at a small liberal-arts college that was not research-oriented, and when I had started that job, [my adviser] was quite neutral. 'Oh' was all she said. So there you have it -- not directly against the whole thing, but conspicuously not supportive either." -- A Ph.D. in psychology making career shift to non-profit world.

Younger faculty members can often be allies, as many of them have been through similar obstacles and may even have explored non-academic careers themselves. Collaborative efforts between graduate students and university career offices can chip away at the old culture and enlist the aid of the increasing numbers of alumni who are successfully pursuing alternative careers.

Meanwhile, what do you do?

The best time to deal with this is before you choose an adviser, so that you can make one of the paramount criteria the professor's reputation for supporting all of his or her students through the dissertation and job search process, no matter what the destination. Unless you knew unequivocally that you didn't want an academic career, you would present yourself as preparing for an academic career and pursuing these other experiences to cover your bases or possibly to make you more attractive in certain job markets.

If you already have an adviser who you suspect is not supportive of alternative careers, what then? First, do some discreet research among your grad-student colleagues, the department administration, and other faculty members you can trust. How unsympathetic is this adviser? If she or he is unsympathetic, what is likely to happen? Can you enlist other faculty members or administrators to support your path and to exert influence on your adviser in a worst-case scenario?

Depending on the "need to tell" and the degree of closeness and trust you have developed with your adviser, consider having a frank discussion about your situation, framing it as a prudent exploration of (less-desired) alternatives. If you want to take a summer job, cross-register for a business school course, or be away from the lab regularly for an internship, you may have no choice but to bring it up. If you do so, assume a positive outcome and present your case matter-of-factly and without apology. I've known a number of students who did this with trepidation, only to find their advisers supportive; others have not been so lucky.

  • "When I approached my dissertation adviser with my decision to explore options outside academia, it would be fair to say that she found it refreshing that I was thinking outside the box. She had recently been promoted to dean, and I asked her about administrative opportunities she might be aware of. Fourteen months later, while I was piecing together a living through various part-time teaching and writing jobs, I received a call out of the blue, inviting me to apply for an administrative job for which my adviser had recommended me." -- A Ph.D. in English, on the academic job market for 3 years.
  • "I haven't told my advisers that I've made up my mind [for a policy career over an academic one.] What I've told them is almost the truth: that I can imagine myself going down either path, and moreover, that I feel that it is smart to spread one's net that much wider in this Ph.D.-glutted world we live in. I haven't told them the whole truth because I still need to get my dissertation approved, as well as recommendations for both types of jobs, but it is somewhat stressful 'living a lie.'" -- A Ph.D. in political science.

If you have reasons to fear your adviser's reaction and the situation allows for deception, that may be the least-bad alternative. In general, I think deception hurts all parties, but I am also not a Dona Quixote.

One final word of advice: Get rid of any guilt you may feel about letting your advisers down, as well as any resentment you feel at mistreatment by both advisers and "the system." Even if you have ample reason to feel these things (at least the resentment), harboring these feelings will only hurt you as you move on with your life -- within or beyond the ivory tower.


Margaret Newhouse is assistant director of career services for Ph.D's at Harvard University. Even though she cannot answer e-mail personally, Ms. Newhouse appreciates comments, stories, and suggestions. Send your comments to ivorytower@chronicle.com

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