I have a student. She’s a marvelous student (by every objective measure) who I have written about here before. She came to me as a third year student in another lab, steered to me by her thesis committee, …but ready to quit graduate school because she has a family. SERIOUSLY. This idea did not come out of thin air, it was TAUGHT to her. I have been trying to undo it.
But that’s not the reason for this post. I was struck by something that was said over at Mother of all Scientists– by a (no doubt) well meaning advisor(s) to a postdoc contemplating a career move away from academic science. You can (and should) go on over there and read the whole excellent post, but the upshot of what I want to talk about is here:
My bosses weren’t entirely unsupportive, but they used lots of ominous phrases like “terminate your postdoc” and “closing a door firmly on your future” and “a decision you’ll regret later”. I can understand their point of view, but to some extent it’s just the same kinds of threats that I’ve been hearing since I entered grad school. “If you leave, you can never come back.”
The head of my lab, Dr. DNA, really felt like leaving the bench would be a huge mistake. “You’re so early in your career” she said, “you’re so young. You don’t know what you want yet.” She felt like it was motherhood that was simply distracting me from my work and making me feel like it wasn’t any fun. “You just have to find a way to make it work,” she said.
Ok maybe it’s all in the framing…but golly. These well-meaning people are all obviously trying to convince a person that they think has real potential to stick with academia. But there’s a problem here… can you see it?
If you want to motivate someone you really have to LISTEN to what they are trying to tell you instead of plunging ahead with what you think is best, or might be best for you (the ADVISOR). You can’t scare someone into WANTING to be an academic scientist, into WANTING to do all the hard work it takes, into WANTING to have your kind of career. And, I am of the strong opinion that this job- and any job that you are going to be good at, really- is something you have to love doing. Furthermore, it’s just wrong that if you take a break from academic science YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK. Is it tougher to go back, yes. But people who WANT this enough, and aren’t afraid to change a path that they know doesn’t fit them right, and find the right mentor- CAN DO IT AND DO IT WELL.
And for you students- the sooner you speak up about what you want the better. There are some crappy mentors out there, there are some great mentors out there- and there are some mentors that don’t know what the hell is going on with you unless you TELL them…. because they are not mind readers… . And it’s worth saying that sometimes they make remarks like those above just because taking a break or having a different career path is not something they are very familiar with- so they are speaking from a point of zero data.
Another thing that is bothering me about these exchanges is the idea that advisor’s are displaying their disappointment in a trainee that doesn’t choose the same path they chose. I just don’t get this. Notice I didn’t say I’m bothered by the fact that the advisor is feeling disappointed. It’s perfectly natural when you have a great trainee, whose potential to be a great academic scientist is obvious, to feel a little let down when they tell you they might not wish this career. But gosh- the quickest way to alienate someone is to tell them that you disapprove of their choice, and to tell them they are a failure… go home and tell this to your spouse or *privately*confidentially* mourn to someone OTHER than the student.
How about seeing things from the trainee’s point of view, indicating to her that you really understand this difficult dilemma and all the soul searching/weighing of seemingly conflicting commitments that it takes. Be supportive and indicate to said trainee that you stand in that person’s corner no matter what their choice. If this is someone you really think has terrific potential, say so- but make it real, genuine praise and NOT disappointment. Once you understand the issue- family vs. academic career in this case- you can start to help the trainee break this down into what might be possible- what doors are open, instead of what doors they are closing, locking and throwing away the key too.
How do I know this? It happened to me. I was the advisor. I had to hold myself back from screaming NO DON’T GO, THIS ISN’T A GOOD IDEA FOR YOU, YOU WILL REGRET IT, AND I’M UNBELIEVABLY DISAPPOINTED- at the top of my lungs. And I didn’t say it. I waited. I thought about it. I decided to put it in these terms:
I would be terribly sad if you left science with the impression that having a Ph.D. and a family were incompatible. It’s not easy but if you want it, it can be done.
And it worked.
FYI…I am sufficiently worked up by the ‘you are a failure at science unless you have an academic career’ attitude, that I will have to post on that at later date….but a subject that was briefly touched on over at Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde… esp. in the comments to this post.