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.

Step 1: Prep for the Conversation

Step 1: Prep for the Conversation

To illustrate this approach, we are using the case study of Finn*, a

Slide 2: Step 1: Prep for the Conversation
  Slide 2: Step 1: Prep for the Conversation. Click here for the written text on this slide

third-year student about to start a new project/set of experiments when COVID shut down their lab.  

Now that the labs are opening up again, they have the option to go back in the lab but aren't sure they will get enough hours to complete their previous project and/or access to the postdoc who planned to teach them some of the techniques necessary to make progress. 

They would like to limit their travel on public transportation from the East Bay until they see how transit maintains safety with the additional volume. However, they are also concerned about missing out on valuable professional interactions and mentorship from their PI and postdocs if they aren't physically back in the lab/on campus, even for a limited time period.

Their first steps include three things: 1. Identifying optimal outcomes

2. Identifying issues and concerns

3. Considering what information and support they would need.

Below, Finn sketches out their situation to prepare for a conversation.

Step 1:

Begin by considering what you would optimally like to do/have happen.

  • Optimally, I don't feel it's worth coming into the lab because the limited hours means my current project's progression will be slow. I would like to delay my current project and revisit it possibly in the fall.  I don't know how my PI would feel about this.  
  • I have brainstormed a few options to stay on track with my training goals. These appeal in the following order:
    • Option A: stay entirely out of the lab and work on an NIH F31.
    • Option B: learn more coding. I spent the spring beginning to learn Python, and I could step up and create a product in the summer.  
    • Option C: get my hands on a data set and possibly get co-authorship.
    • Option D: set up an analysis pipeline.
    • Option E: complete a literature review.  
    • Bonus: in all cases, try to set up one informational interview a month to explore biotech careers and brainstorm short check-ins with people as I progress on any of these options to continue building professional relationships
  • My least appealing option (that I wouldn't even really consider unless my PI insists) is making very slow progress on my current project, with the limited hours I'm allowed in the lab. I would still also consider doing some variation of my bonus work in this case. I wouldn't pursue Option A-E seriously over the summer, because of the extra stress/work that taking safety measures on BART/biking in the city would require to travel from the east bay. 
Step 2:

Articulate all of your issues and concerns.
  • I'm not sure my current project is viable, but unsure how open my PI is to other options.
  • Concerned won't make any progress over the summer. 
  • I'm also noticing that I'm feeling additional anxiety and exhaustion around the level of planning to needed be productive within a limited time period allocation in the lab. Traveling from the East Bay (missing connections, safety, etc), making it on time for my scheduled time in the lab, being as productive as possible during my time in the lab, and returning home - feels increasingly stressful. I need strategies to cope.
  • But I don't know if/how I'll receive mentorship from my PI/others if I'm not physically in the lab engaging in serendipitous mentoring.
  • Not clear how to initiate a conversation about these concerns with my PI/

Step 3:

Consider what information you and support you need to make informed decisions and/or move forward: 

1.  I need to flesh out other options for projects that take COVID into account. 

2. I need to get some career support

  • I'm not sure what career paths I am interested in. I might schedule an appointment with OCPD PhD-counselor co to discuss career options in both academic and non-academic career paths, and learn more about what skills/experiences would make me more competitive for positions.
    • I might also check out the OCPD website and/or talk with Mike about strategies to approach individuals for informational interviews during quarantine, and networking strategies to build relationships when not visiting the lab to address my concerns about 'being out of sight/out of mind' if I'm not in the lab.  
    • I can also practice the language and approach with Mike in a 'mock conversation'.

3. I'd like some support around a specific difficulty 


As a final point on preparing for a conversation, we'd like to turn to helping your PI prepare for the conversation as well. If you decide to have a conversation with your PI, it can help to signal your intent so your PI is not caught off guard. A quick email or a statement at the end of a conversation or meeting would be a good 'head's up' for your PI. Sample language could be something like the following:

  • "At our next 1:1, could we take 30 minutes to review my career goals and plan?"
  • "In light of COVID, it seems a good idea to review my training plan for the next 3 months. Could we discuss this at our next 1:1?"
  • "I recently reviewed UCSF's "Academic Career Readiness Assessment (ACRA) and had a couple of ideas about what I could do to increase my competitiveness for faculty positions that I would appreciate your input on. Can we find time on your calendar?"


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.