more than one reason why your supervisor is not thrilled you’re leaving academia

9e46e897a7450e44f4d99b034b08fac7.jpgAbout every other day I see a piece on Twitter or a blog, or a similar about attitudes to leaving academia. It’s part of my job to consider these attitudes, especially when they may prevent people from freely accessing events, internships and mentoring designed to broaden researcher career horizons. I wrote about it in this post on silence and stigma in leaving the academy, where I make the point that supervisors and PIs have a responsibility to make sure they don’t prevent people engaging.

Intentionally or unintentionally we can give off judgemental signals about an individual’s choice of post-PhD career if it’s not what we would have chosen, or what we would have wanted for them. At the least, respecting other people’s choices allows them to feel like they can be themselves at work. And having your choices accepted and respected is empowering… whereas being judged a failure or a reject is good for noone’s work ethic.

Actually, as I’ve commented a couple of times, I don’t see the YOU HAVE FAILED attitude often. This in your face judgement is happening to some people though, and as they blog about it, or write anonymous articles, it provokes a kind of cold sweat about communicating your career aspiration that is pervading through PhD experience. I recently asked a group of 30 students at a Beyond the Academy type event:

Q1: Hands up who’s supervisor is supportive of them getting a non-academic job? A1: About 50% of hands go up.

Q2: Of the people who don’t feel supported, hands up if you have actually talked about it with your supervisor? A2: 0% of hands go up.

This pattern is fairly consistent in my work. And while we can theorise that the missing (unsupported + have talked about it) group wouldn’t attend that kind of event… I wanted to take some time to look at the preventative power of the assumption ‘my PI will be against it’. I speak from experience, I used to be a scientist. I faffed for about 6 months wondering whether to say yes to the co-authored grant I was being invited to write, and eventually decided I’d only be doing it so I didn’t let my PI down. So I let them down. The response? “Oh, I know someone you can talk to, an ex post-doc of mine, she’ll be really helpful to you, do you need anything form me?” MIND. BLOWN.

On the other hand, I more recently went to a Faculty’s PGR Tutor meeting to report on the v i s t a work and someone did a loud fake yawn while I was talking and some other senior staff laughed. So yeah, some folk may think leaving represents failure and enjoy a puerile snigger over it. However, here is a wider range of reasons a supervisor might be a bit put off when you tell them about your plans. These are drawn from conversations with academic staff over the years, and in the main, are motivated by lack of awareness of anything else but academia. They:

  • Feel you are well up to the challenge of an academic career and fear you’ll be wasted or bored elsewhere. Don’t want to see you make a move you can’t come back from.
  • Think the mood of the moment has got the better of you and you have been scared off by people saying academic careers are too hard and too horrible.
  • Are out of touch with how academic careers work and don’t understand the numbers game and that only about 1 in 10 PhD graduates will secure academic careers.
  • Assume that because they trained you, you are the 1 in 10.
  • Don’t recognise that the senior job they do now, would not be the job you have to do, and have never experienced the pressures of being a new academic trying to build a career and pull their weight in the current HE context.
  • Have greatly enjoyed their own career, love their job, and want you to enjoy what they have enjoyed.
  • Hate what their job has become in this shifting landscape, and feel that if they have to endure it, so should you. Jealousy motivated.
  • Feel you are breaking personal bonds of friendship and collegiality, feel a sense of personal loss, understand it as something they’ve done wrong and feel defensive about it.
  • Feel that if they can’t have you to work for them no-one else should.
  • Are operating from a position of privilege and can’t imagine the need for security, stability, permanence.
  • View what they invested in your development as wasted time as they don’t see the connection and transferability to other roles.
  • Need you to finish some work that contributes more to their career than yours, papers, data for grants etc.
  • Feel it takes you away from working with them as collaborators in future, their plans are spoiled.
  • Fear they won’t know how to advise you on this new career goal and feel out of their comfort zone.
  • Fear you won’t finish the PhD or post-doc project (for which they are ultimately going to have to explain themselves), or won’t invest as much in it if your focus is on another goal.

However the incompleteness of our understanding, and however good the intentions we have for someone else, good relationships are built when we trust people to do the right thing for themselves — seeing them as the expert in their own life. And with good relationships comes the loyalty, motivation and commitment to the project we are wanting.

So how does this help you aspiring ex-academic? I suppose I’d like to inspire you to be able to discuss your aspirations with your supervisor, but mostly to point out that supervisors be human and can be also be insecure, incorrect, sensitive and sad as well as dismissive, judgemental and superior.


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