OK, you were nodding your head but were you LISTENING?

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.


6 thoughts on “OK, you were nodding your head but were you LISTENING?

  1. 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.”

    This is a load of fucking crap. I “left science” for three years between grad school and post-doc. It can be done. But be prepared to spend the rest of your life explaining why you left, why you came back, and how committed you now are to staying.

  2. PhysioProf, that’s really interesting. Can you elaborate at all?

    DrdrA, I really like your way of putting it. I’m so sick of people who say, whenever somebody brings up how hard it is to have a family and be a scientist, that you have to have a passion for science. Well, yeah, but is that exclusive of also having a passion for a family? It’s the attitude that being passionate about anything *outside* of science is problematic that I find most frustrating.

  3. thanks for being a good mentor to your students. by listening, you realized that your student needed tools to assist her in meeting her love of science with her love of her family. For me, the key to coming back was finding a mentor that not only “understood” (just giving lip-service) the importance of having a passion outside of science, but was demonstrating that by having a life outside of running the lab. Coming back is not easy, I struggle every day to find the right balance between being at the lab enough and spending enough time with my monkey. It also means recognizing that you give certain things up – for me social engagements with non-parents because non-lab time always includes Mr.SM and the monkey.

  4. PP- I believe we are in total agreement on this point 🙂

    Dr.J&Mrs.H. – Nope. Although I struggle with the work/ family thing (with 2 kids) .. I wouldn’t give up either part. I find intellectual satisfaction in my job, but wouldn’t be a complete person without my family. I find that my family also provides a much needed perspective on my JOB. Its just much easier to realize that when things go wrong with the paper/grant/lab… that these things are just not that serious if everyone in my family is healthy and doing well.

    ScientistMother- I myself have two children (ages 10 and 6), so I live this every day- just like you. And there are definitely things I have given up on the social side- and I no longer have time for too many extracurricular activities that aren’t my kids activities.. but I imagine that I’ll have time for these later in my life… And the bottom line is that my job is an awful lot of fun, and so are my kids- so I’m not missing a thing by giving up a bunch of extra stuff I used to do.

  5. I do hate the mentality that if you leave academia you are considered a failure. As a current grad student, we are told about former students who left academia. These stories are passed along furtively between grad students and these former academics are spoken about in hushed tones. I think that the more students are told that there are options and given an honest and (mostly) unbiased opinion about these options, the better their decisions. Heck even if we knew the options for making family and science “work” it would be helpful!

  6. Amanda-

    For myself, I only think I would be a failure if I spent my life doing something that made my family or me unhappy- when I possessed the power to change things…and, more importantly, if I screwed up raising my daughters or my marriage.

    With that in mind, what you do in your job are just details.

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