As graduate students, an oft-dreaded question is “When are you graduating?” The pursuit of scientific advancement comes with no roadmaps and the marathon of graduate studies can be particularly challenging in the last leg. When, finally, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, many graduate students discover that there is a more dreadful question waiting for them. What next?
If you look back to the beginning of your journey as a grad student, you remember the days and nights of hard work you put in getting your admissions packets in order- everything from standardized testing scores to letters of recommendation and letters of intent. In hindsight, you realize that the more organized you were, the less stress you faced. The same holds true for when you are about to graduate: the more you plan your exit, the smoother your transition into your next position will be. Michael A. Matrone wrote an insightful article about how to manage a graceful departure from your current job to a new one, and much of this advice can be applied to graduate students and post-docs planning to transition into the next stage of their career.
To begin with, one must have a plan. Nothing can be more challenging and stressful than realizing that you are weeks away from your graduation with nothing planned for your career post-graduation. A proactive approach is necessary to even come up with a plan. If you already know your calling and have a clear picture of the career you want to pursue, you are one step ahead of those that do not know what they’d like to do after graduate school. Most graduate schools have career counselors or special programs depending on your area of study which can help you chose your path ahead. The Rutgers iJOBs program funded by the NIH BEST initiative is an excellent place to explore your career options in a variety of career tracks such as Intellectual property, Science, and Health policy, Medical Affairs, Science outreach and education and many more. Once you’ve narrowed down a career path, you can start taking steps to find a job in that area. Having enough time to network with professionals in your field of interest while also working on acquiring any necessary soft-skills and technical tools is vital.
The next big decision to be made in your exit strategy is about when to tell your boss about your job search. In the professional setting, it is almost always advisable to keep any job hunting a secret from your supervisor. Even the best of working relationships can be strained when it becomes open knowledge that you are looking for greener pastures but is particularly tricky for graduate students, especially those planning to pursue non-academic career paths. Grad advisors may feel a strong sense of betrayal if their protegees do not wish to follow in their footsteps, which can complicate matters. In cases like this, it is often best to have multiple mentors, so they may guide you without having to disclose your intentions to your advisor early on. Alternatively, there are some fantastic mentors out there that will do their best to support and guide you to accomplish your career goals even when they do not coincide with their career path. A great way to broach this subject with a supportive mentor may be when you are discussing your IDP (Individual Development Plan) partway through your Ph.D.If you do plan to have an academic career, your PI may be best suited to help navigate your path initially, followed by a variety of faculty and grad school staff to guide you further along. Usually, it is best to disclose your intention to leave only after your new job offer is signed and sealed. Once again, this is especially tricky for graduate students who have to juggle their defense, graduation, and transition into a new job. This shift is more delicate for international graduate students who additionally have to consider their status and visa applications (check out this post about your life after student status by Monal Mehta).
Choosing transition dates depends on individual cases, but we must consider several things when selecting them. From the time you tell your advisor you are leaving, 2-4 weeks notice is sufficient. For grad students, this is simpler, as the date of your leaving is dictated by the day of your thesis defense. It is important that you tie up all loose ends before going, whether that is making sure your lab notebooks are up to date, your paperwork is in order or ensuring you smoothly transfer any ongoing project and its materials to a lab member. Alternatively, if you manage to successfully land a job towards the end of your grad career, it gives you, your mentor and your committee a sense of urgency to wrap up your dissertation. It is also essential to take into consideration the financial ramifications of making such a transition. A change in your workplace may mean you have to move, which is an expensive proposition, even if it is to find a more suitable location within the state (Did you know that your relocation costs are tax deductible if you’re moving more than 50 miles?). What is more, any gap between your exit date and your start date may mean a lost paycheck. This gap is challenging for health insurance too, as you may lose coverage between when you leave your position as a grad student and when the insurance from your new job kicks in. Often, insurance at a new workplace begins on the first of the month following your start date. So unless you start on the first day of the month, you may be without coverage till the next month begins.
Last but not the least, the key to a successful transition is to do your best and not burn any bridges. It is best if you leave your old workplace on a positive note. Keeping in touch with your advisor and colleagues is essential. Make sure that they can reach you at your new position as communication is critical. Your relationship with your advisor and lab members does not end on the day you leave. Whether you love your current situation or whether you can’t wait to get out of it fast enough, it is essential to exit grad school professionally.
My fellow bloggers, Paulina Krzyszczyk and Maryam Alapa, improved this article by their valuable insights and edits.