Working Life

When do I tell my supervisor?

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Science  23 Apr 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6540, pp. 430
DOI: 10.1126/science.372.6540.430

There seemed to be no point in mentioning the possibility yet. I was a few years into my Ph.D., and I had just applied for a 3-month industry internship program. Starting even before I joined my supervisor's lab, I had been open with her about my interest in an industry career. She had always been supportive, including sharing her experience transitioning from biotech to academia. But I wasn't entirely sure she would be happy with the internship timing, which would mean taking a break from my Ph.D. during my final year. Anyway, I doubted that I would even get in. It didn't seem worth opening a potential can of worms for something that felt unlikely to happen.

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“Choosing your own path takes determination and resilience, but you don't have to do it alone.”

Then, in January 2020, I was shocked and thrilled when I received word that my application was successful! But soon, things took a turn. I could have used my supervisor's help. Yet I still hesitated, feeling I needed to present her with a clean, confident proposal of my plans rather than lean on her for support.

The internship coordinators matched me to a company based on my experience and interests, and it seemed like a great fit at first. But after meeting with the CEO, I began to have second thoughts. The company wanted me to start in the spring. However, I was in the middle of critical experiments for two manuscripts and hoped to start a little later in the year to minimize the disruption to my Ph.D. Also, the company did not have a clear project for me, and I worried that I could end up doing busywork rather than getting an authentic industry research scientist experience.

I spent the next few weeks mulling over my options. Should I accept the offer, knowing I might not find any job satisfaction and that my Ph.D. could be derailed? Or should I gamble on finding an opportunity that was a better fit? The funds had to be used within 2020, so I would be racing against time to find another host company and get everything set up. Moreover, most of the companies from the selection pool were outside Oslo, where I live with my husband, and we did not want to live apart, having already been through that once before.

Ultimately, I rejected the original company's offer, cautiously optimistic that I would be able to find a new host in time that would be a better match. It was a big gamble, and it finally spurred me to face my fears and involve my supervisor. I worried that I would lose this opportunity, and my supervisor seemed to be the best person to help save it. Although I did not know how she would take the news, I mustered the courage to send her an email explaining my predicament.

I was surprised and relieved when I received her positive response. She didn't even question me about the late disclosure. She was happy for me to take a 3-month break. We had honest conversations and decided on a reasonable timetable that would make the transition back into my Ph.D. project as smooth as possible and wouldn't significantly delay my degree. Through her contacts, she also found three companies in Oslo that matched my interests, and ultimately I found a suitable host. In hindsight, I wish I had talked with her sooner.

In September 2020, I said goodbye for now to my academic colleagues and headed to industry. The internship gave me time away from the repetitive tasks of my Ph.D. and offered new challenges. It helped me appreciate that much about being a scientist is the same everywhere, and that the skills I had acquired during my Ph.D. were useful in industry. And I built valuable connections that could be helpful in the future. I'm now back in my Ph.D. lab, finishing up my thesis and scheduled to graduate just a few months later than if I had not done the internship.

The experience taught me that you have to push for what you need. Choosing your own path takes determination and resilience, but you don't have to do it alone. Be open with your mentors, and reach out for help.

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