Your boss can’t always be your mentor

“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your boss exactly what you want to do for your next step – it’s their job to mentor you,” is the advice I have given many people, particularly grad students and postdocs who decide they want to pursue careers other than strictly academic research but are afraid to tell their bosses. And now under similar circumstances myself, I have become very hesitant about what information to give my boss about my career plans. I see all the reasons that people would not want to be upfront with their bosses.

  1. I don’t want to get fired. If my boss thinks that I’m no longer right for this job, or the kind of person they want to train, they could just let me go.
  2. As far as I can tell, my boss is not interested in mentoring me for a career outside of academic research.
  3. I don’t want to appear flaky or uncertain. Mostly for reason #1, but also because I still want to be able to count on good letters of recommendation if needed.

At the same time though, there are reasons I should talk to my boss about this.

  1. I could use some advice, mentoring, and maybe even connections or referrals, and I still believe it is part of a boss’ job to provide those things.
  2. I don’t want to waste any more of our time or energy applying for research and training grants, if that is not a direction that will help my career.
  3. Doing so may actually push me to move out into the career I want – even if it was because I got fired.

Plus, I just prefer to be open and honest and I’m sure my boss would prefer that as well. So I will try to first get some mentoring outside of my boss, come up with a game plan for my next career steps, ideally a plan that includes a clear reason why my current position is valuable for my future, and then open up to my boss about it.

With this new perspective, I completely understand why people would not want to be completely open with their bosses, and I apologize for acting like it was so clear cut. That said, as many before me have noted, I do think that most PIs need to be more aware that the majority of trainees are not going to end up as PIs like them, and be open to the many career possibilities that appeal to PhDs. And let’s be honest, your PI probably can’t be a great mentor to you when you’re pursuing a career outside of academia, the only path they’ve traveled, an you’ll want to find another more helpful mentor anyway.

2 responses so far

  • chal says:

    well, I don't think it's the exact same thing "having a job" and "being a grad student or post doc" when it comes to talking about your career with your boss. Why? Because grad student and post doc are by nature transient positions. Your boss knows that you will be leaving. The underlying idea is that you get done as a grad student and move out of the lab to fly on your own. Similar with post-doc, it's a training position, it's a temporary position (<5 years in my mind anyway) and then you move on to something new. And that new job, the new direction, is something that your boss and mentor should be interested and knowing well that you are going to do.

    That said, it's complex of course.

    I personally have found that being open with your boss about your thoughts on future can sometimes lead to that you can get training and open up new opportunities that you didn't think about before. And sometimes, that you have to be careful how to word these "my future plans" since if they sense that you are out the door right now, you are having issues. Overall though, I highly recommend people to have at least two people "above" you that you go to for advice and support. Especially in academia where the grant money gods are fickle and connections are important. An extra mentor rather than only having your boss is a resource.

  • EPJ says:

    Payed internships in industries coordinated by the university may be an answer to the uncertainty and to any possible discrepancies with the boss.

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