Staying On Track Through Challenges

Unexpected developments can make you feel like you've lost your way. Here we discuss the two steps that students and postdocs should take to get back on track with their training and career goals.

Skills to help you to stay on track

Staying on track doesn't mean staying the course - it often means adjusting your plan. We encourage students and postdocs to take two professional steps whenever a significant development either advances or interrupts their previous plans: any situation from winning a fellowship to your PI departing unexpectedly. Our recommended two steps are to:

  1. Create, review and/or revise your (training/career) plan, and
  2. Gain explicit buy-in from your PI on your goals and process, if possible.

To create, review, or revise your training/career plan,  you can book an appointment with us!

This page explores the second step: getting buy-in from your PI. When things change or new difficulties arise, you may need to gauge anew what a reasonable level of productivity could be. Students and postdocs often have questions about how to approach their PI for their support in staying on track.

Why can discussing your training/career goals with your PI seem challenging?

career conversation image
     Slide 1: Why is Your ‘Career Conversation’ a ‘Negotiation’ With Your PI?. Click here for the written text of this slide

There are several reasons you may have questions about how to have this conversation with your PI:

  • You may feel you have not received clear signals from your PI that they would be open to having this conversation. (Sometimes this is a 'missed connection' - your PI may equally feel that they have been consistently sending signals that they are approachable).
  • You may not feel skilled in initiating or conducting a conversation/negotiation in general or be unsure of the professional etiquette to navigate this interaction.  Factor in the power differential between the two of you, and it may feel like the stakes are too high to 'get it wrong'.

Another reason this conversation may feel complicated is due to the fact that for many of you, talking to your PI is simultaneously:

  • a 'career conversation' with your mentor (who is interested in your development goals),
  • a 'training conversation' with your instructor (who is concerned with your education in the lab), and
  • a 'negotiation' with your supervisor (who is also responsible for taking the lab's productivity goals into consideration when making decisions). 

If these were separate individuals, your approach to these conversations, the level of candor you might display, and what you might expect from someone in the role might be quite different. Since your PI embodies all of these roles, we encourage you to view and engage discussions about your training and career goals/plans as both a conversation and a negotiation. The following approach is one strategy to prepare and engage in a conversation professionally.  This preparation can help identify concerns, the type of support you will need as you navigate your training, and touchstones to keep the conversation on track.

Three steps to prepare for a negotiation/conversation with your PI

In a nutshell, managing any professional conversation/negotiation includes: 1) Prepping for a conversation, 2) Having the conversation, and 3) Managing next steps, post-conversation.

Want to talk about your situation?

Hopefully, this tutorial gives you an overview and ideas about how to prepare for and approach a conversation with your PI. Going through the steps of prepping for a  conversation/negotiation can also give you a sense of other key factors, such as when to have a conversation, how to best raise and have the conversation and whether or not to have a particular conversation with your PI (or if there is someone else with whom it might be more helpful to have a conversation first, such as other mentors).

If you want to brainstorm more strategies for your specific situation, need more help in understanding this process, or want to practice your approach, feel free to schedule with Associate Dean for Graduate Programs (students), schedule with Assistant Dean for postdocs, or schedule with one of the OCPD counselors (students, postdocs). We're here to help!

*Note: the example of "Finn" is a student archetype based on several OCPD counseling appointments and responses from the OCPD student/postdoc pulse surveys.