Exit Strategies- Planning to move on

By Jennifer Casiano-Matos

As graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, our responsibilities and aims in a research lab are on a limited time frame. Graduate students usually spend 5-6 years in the lab and for Postdocs, it is dependent on many variables. Such as experience needed for the job market or career path. Regardless of your current situation, changing positions or jobs is something that all of us will experience more than once. The key is to move on gracefully and in good terms with your mentor. You may need a letter of recommendation or you might want to work with a lab mate in the future, so leaving your last position cordially is key to move to the new step.

Since being a graduate student or a postdoc is a temporary training position your mentor’s expectation is that you will move on when your training is over. This will require, analyzing what kind of mentor you have and decided when it is the best time to inform them of when you want to move on to another position. Some mentors will help you in your search for a new position, while others may not. It will be natural for a graduate student to communicate that they are going to start the job search since they need to move on as soon after they defend. On the other hand, some conflict can occur if your mentor disagrees with your selected career path. Here is where having multiple mentors becomes important. For a postdoctoral fellow, it will depend on the years that you have spent in the lab. For example, a mentor reaction to a job search could be totally different from a 4-year compared to a one-year postdoc.

Preparing to Leave

For a successful exit strategy, the first and most important thing to do is to create a timeline. To create a timeline efficiently, you will first need to answer some questions. You can start answering how much time will take you to finish the starting project? When are you planning to defend and how much time will be needed to wrap up or to hand your project to another person? Is there a time restraint? How much time will take you to get a new job? It is important to give yourself some milestones and have a clear idea of what things need to be completed before leaving. Building a timeline should go together with creating an agenda including buffer time for conference calls, interviews, networking, and future responsibilities.

Always work backward from your goal. When you are looking or applying for a certain position you need to think about what you need to do to get there. Career planning is the key to success and mapping the baby steps will help you achieve those goals. This can include new skillset, networking, mentoring your successor, and seeking mentorship in other areas of expertise. Build out everything that is needed to get that position and to complete your resume. As soon as you realize you have acquired enough skillsets for a position that you like, contact recruiters, update your profile on LinkedIn and other recruiting websites.

Check your contract. For any appointment graduate student or postdoctoral fellow there are details on how you move from your current status to the next and how much time in advance do you need to provide the notification. For example, in my case as a graduate student, my timeframe is eight weeks, however, that can differ by university and/or position. You need to notify your future employer about contract restrictions and have a clear communication if some extra time is needed for the transition. As soon as you receive an offer, communicate your plans with both parties and your supervisor should be the first person you notify that you are leaving.

Meeting with your boss/mentor. One of the hardest parts is notifying your mentor that you have an offer and it is time to move on. Don’t jump into your boss office right away. First, create an agenda for the meeting to be sure that you cover important points in your conversation and be sure to practice. During the meeting, be thankful for the opportunity that this person gave you over your time working with them. Acknowledge his/her mentorship and every opportunity given. Ask for recommendations in terms of priorities and things that are needed to be completed before leaving. Create a timeline of your remaining days in the lab and mention the deadlines that will be completed during this period. Engage with your mentor and lab manager by showing where you are leaving your work and if needed, provide training to your successor. Leave your contact information so your supervisor can contact you if needed.

Organize everything. My recommendation is to not leave this for the last minute. You can start with your old laboratory notebooks and organizing the boxes in the fridges and freezers in a way that your successor knows what is in them when you are gone. You will be surprised how much data and materials you had created during your time and if you leave this task for last minute this can be overwhelming and time-consuming. Creating a spreadsheet might help you to organize your lab notebooks, freezer and fridge boxes, stored cell lines, etc. In addition, this can be a good way to leave everything clear for future researchers in your lab or your mentor. You don’t want to give the impression that you are leaving right away but start in a few bits by first organizing your personal belongings that are no longer needed from your desk. Delete cookies, web forms, and saved passwords from any work computer. Save any personal documents and separate them from any job-related documents. Check contact details that you want to get in touch with in the future.

Lastly, leave in good terms. Perform at your best until the last day of your appointment and keep your work ethic impeccable. Leave in good terms with your boss and coworkers. Think positively about this opportunity and don’t talk too much about your new opportunity. Focus on what is needed to be done before leaving and what the lab expects from you. Don’t do interview duties or new job duties while you are in your current position. Don’t discuss disappointment with colleagues if something bothers you on your last days. If you have an exit interview, state problems if any, in a constructive way giving the impression that you have good interpersonal skills. In summary, close the door of this important step in your life with a thank you and publicly praise the group for the help and opportunities given.

Edited by: Eileen Oni and Deepshikha Mishra


1. NIH OITE Seminar: Exit Strategies

2. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/06/12/advice-gracefully-leaving-your-current-job-new-one-essay

3. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/217842



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