Discussing Your Career with Your PI

Last week we challenged you to make your career a priority in 2012.  We even provided a calendar you could follow for the year.  As with most “resolutions” the first step is an extremely important step.  In our calendar to job success, that first step is to have a conversation with your PI about your career plans.  This is true no matter what career path you are planning, from academics, industry and beyond. 

We have conducted a random poll around the OITE and with fellows who have recently left.  The results are clear:  Having a conversation with their PI about the next step can be scary.  You may be unsure that you have enough data to actually say this is the year that you will move on.  If you are going to be a PI you may not be sure if will be able to take part of your project with you.  Perhaps you do not know what reaction you will get if you say you want to take a different career path than staying in academic research.  All of these factors can persuade you just to not have the conversation at all. 

One thing we know, is that this conversation if often more scary in our mind than in reality.  We have expectations of what the PI will say, and then when the conversation actually takes place it typically goes much better than we had played it out in our heads.  Most PIs actually have good intentions and just want you to be successful in your career.  Before you start booing, we are aware that some PIs are tougher than others….BUT many of us suspect that our PI will not approve of our choices, but we never actually give them a chance to have a conversation about where we plan to go next.

So, here is a way to start. 

  • Make an appointment to sit down with your PI in January and state that in 2012 you want to start making moves for you career.
  • Have this conversation away from the research group (think the coffee shop). 
  • Plan ahead to make sure you get what you need out of the conversation. 
    • Do you need to discuss what part of your project you can take with you if you leave?
    • Can you discuss the direction you would like to see your own lab go in as you move into your own PI job?
    • Who do you need to meet to make your career dreams come true? AND does he/she know any of the people and can they connect you?
  • Be bold!  This is YOUR career. 

Your PI may not have the knowledge or network to help you, especially if you are moving away from the bench.  If he/she doesn’t, that is OK!  You have many other resources around you.  However, you might be surprised by who your PI knows in different fields and at different companies.  Your PI wants you to be successful.  Not just because that is part of being a mentor.  But also, because successful alumni/alumnae reflect positively on a PI, both for recruiting top postdocs to their lab and for positive reviews from their departments. 

If it really is not your PI that you want to talk with, consider who else you might be able to discuss your career with.  Do you have a mentor outside of your lab?  Have you considered talking with your Lab Chief or Institute Training Director?  While your PI likely knows you the best and, you also need to find someone you are comfortable with and who can have an honest conversation about your career path.