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How to Leave Academics, Balance Life and Publish Papers | BenchFly
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How to Leave Academics, Balance Life and Publish Papers

Dear Dora: How to Leave Academics, Balance Life and Publish PapersIn this month’s installment, you put Dora to the test with some great questions!  Thanks for all of the submissions over the last few weeks!  Since we’re tackling three questions a week we can’t get to every question each month.  So if we didn’t get to your question this time, keep an eye out for our future issues where it will likely show up!

Hi Dora!

After a lot of thought, I have decided to forgo the academic track after graduating.  I am dreading telling my PI, as discussions about my work center on what would be most helpful for getting a good postdoc.  I know he wants what is best for me, however I also know he thinks less of scientists that don’t go for professorships.  Any advice?

Carrie, graduate student

Dear Carrie,

Making the decision of leaving the academic track is a difficult one, because most students who enter doctoral programs would like to follow an academic career. It sounds like you have made up your mind already, but you are worried that others will think less of you when they find out that you are leaving the ivory tower.

Many students feel embarrassed about seeking alternative career paths, but most likely your friends and family will be supportive of your decision. It is true that some professors think more highly of scientists who become professors than those who do not, and your PI might ask you why you have made this decision. Regardless of where you apply for jobs, your PI will be a key reference, so it is important to have a discussion with him about your career.

My suggestion is to have a little brainstorming session before you tell your decision to your PI. Write down your reasons for leaving academia as well as your reasons for choosing a different career path. You should also think about the postdoctoral positions your PI suggested because many industry positions prefer Ph.D.’s with postdoctoral experience. If you do not want to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship, do some research about other job options. Alumni are usually happy to share their experiences, so they are an excellent resource. An email followed by a phone call would be a quick way for you to get first-hand information about your options and the details of the different jobs (the department headquarters usually keeps a record of alumni and their current positions).

Remember that your PI is your mentor, and he wants his students to be successful. In general, professorships are highly coveted positions, but there are many other ways to contribute to your field. An easy way to begin this conversation, would be to thank your PI for keeping an eye out for good postdoctoral fellowships, and to let him know how much you appreciate his help.  Then, explain to your PI why you chose a different career path, and why you are passionate about it. He might be a little surprised when you tell him the news, but if he understands why you are excited about a different type of job, he will almost certainly be supportive, and might even suggest some job leads. It is possible that he will seem disappointed, but it is probably because he thinks you would succeed in academia. In either case, if you are comfortable with your decision and your reasons for making that decision, others will follow eventually and be supportive as well.


Dear Dora,

I recently graduated and also recently got married.  During graduate school, my wife (then fiance) was pursuing her MBA, so we both had “lab-like” schedules.  We told ourselves it was just temporary and things would be better once we graduated.  Well, we’ve graduated.  Her schedule is now very predictable- long weekdays, no weekends.  I’ve just started a postdoc and am trying to establish a similar schedule so we can actually see eachother at some point during the week!  However, I’m  struggling to establish a “no weekends” boundary with my new PI, and it seems that everyone in the lab is in on Saturdays.  So, I guess my question is, which boss should I talk to first?…

Eric, Posdoc

Dear Eric,

It is challenging to develop a schedule that allows you to be productive while having a life outside of work, especially if your colleagues spend their weekends at lab. You mentioned that you are struggling to establish a “no weekends” boundary with your new PI. Does he or she insist that you spend your Saturdays at work? While many PI’s like to see their students and postdoctoral fellows work hard, they are primarily interested in results. Therefore, I think the first step should be to clarify with your PI what your research goals are. Once you know your objectives, it will be easier to plan your schedule so you can complete your work during a five day work week. Some people actually find that they are more productive when they have a strict schedule, especially when they get rest and have fun on the weekends! You might initially experience guilt when you take weekends off, but remember that the goal of your postdoctoral fellowship is to get a project done, not to spend a certain number of hours at work.

There are some PI’s (I am not sure whether your PI belongs in this category) who insist that their students and postdoctoral fellows work on weekends. If your PI questions why you did not work on Saturday, let your PI know that you are trying to get all your work done during the week, so you could see your wife on the weekends. Let your PI know what you have accomplished and hopefully this will reassure him or her that you are mindful of your work, even if you are cutting back on your hours.

There are some situations which could make it tough to skip out on weekends. For example if you work with cells or animals, you might not be able take a whole weekend off. If you really must be in the lab during the weekends, see whether you can take some time off during weeknights. It is very important to make family time a priority, because if you do not, you will probably work all the time. Let your wife know that you are rearranging your schedule so you could spend more time with her, and see whether both of you can set aside specific weeknights to spend as a couple. She might be able to cut back on her hours during the week as well, and then work when you are in the lab on the weekend. Planning is definitely crucial when both parties are busy, and if work out your schedules together (and think of fun things to do during your free time), you will not have a great time together, but also be guilt-free and more productive at work.


Dear Dora,

I’m a 5th year grad student looking to graduate in the next year, which means I need a first author paper.  We submitted a manuscript to a top journal and it was rejected.  The reviewers said they thought it was missing a specific set of experiments that would nail it down.  The problem is, those experiments would take 6-12 months and have a 50% chance of working (which is why we didn’t do them in the first place).  So my PI is now obsessed with those experiments and the idea of the big paper.  I think the paper could get into a very solid journal as-is, so I’d rather just reformat it and go that route…and graduate.  I’m the first author, but he’s the PI… who makes the call?

Stephanie, Grad Student

Dear Stephanie,

You must be very frustrated to find out in your 5th year that your PI wants you to do a long set of experiments, which have a low chance of succeeding. Still, I do not recommend submitting a journal article without your PI’s consent. First, it would be very difficult to get the paper accepted without his support. Second, if your PI thinks you need more data he might not let you graduate even if your paper is published. My suggesting is to think about a way to rewrite the paper without investing 6-12 months into experiments, which have a low probability of producing useful results.

As your PI is not in the lab as much as you are, he might not understand the breadth of experiments you would need to do to get the necessary data. If he knew how much work and risk would be involved, he might not want to spend his hard-earned grant-money spent on this work. The reviewers for your paper suggested a particular set of experiments, but perhaps there is another way to give your research more credibility. Before you meet with your PI, think about the exact question that you are trying to answer and the experiments that would answer that question. There are many ways of solidifying a paper, and perhaps you can get ideas from colleagues or the literature. The next step is to talk to your PI about rewriting the paper. This meeting will also be a good time to discuss what you still need to do in order to graduate.

Your PI really wants you to do those experiments, so you can begin the meeting by reassuring him that you understand the need for more data, but you do not agree with the suggestions given by the reviewers. Remind him why you had made the decision previously of not doing this set of experiments. Once he understands how long they would take, and all the problems that could arise, he might let you submit the paper as is to a different journal. If he does not, talk to him about an alternative experiment, or just doing part of the original experiments. Hopefully, when your PI sees that you have thought about this very carefully, he will let you submit the paper without doing so many experiments.

If your PI insists on the 6-12 month experiments, let him know that as a 5th year student you are concerned about doing a long set of risky experiments. Since these experiments have a high chance of failing, it is very important to have a backup plan. Ask your PI what other experiments he thinks would make sense, which you could run concurrently with the originally planned ones. Whatever the two of you decide, it would be a good idea to write it up after the meeting and show it to your PI to make sure the two of you are in agreement. This way you will have a written research plan that will guide you in redrafting your paper and will also allow you to graduate within a reasonable amount of time.

To find out more about Dora Farkas, author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” visit her website at www.yourphd.com.  You will find links to her book, newsletters and graduate school resources.


Stay tuned for the next Dear Dora in two weeks!  In the meantime, check a few of Dora’s recent posts:


Submit your questions to Dora at DearDora@benchfly.com, or use the comment box below!


11 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. wizkid

    wrote on November 17, 2009 at 5:18 am

    To Eric- definitely keep communication open with your wife. You may need to juggle your schedules if the boss is inflexible. But if it gets really bad, you'll have to make a tougher call as to whether it's a manageable situation with your new boss over the next several years.

  2. dayman

    wrote on November 18, 2009 at 2:07 am

    To Stephanie, you may want to use your thesis committee for input on this if you REALLY don't want to do those experiments and just graduate. They are an impartial third party who can act as mediators.

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