Getting Crushed After Your Ideal Job Offer
Sofia was nearing the end of her 6th year in a Chemistry PhD program and she networked with professionals very proactively to get a head-start on her job search. She went to networking events and followed up with the most interesting people over the phone and coffee.
Sofia had 2 publications in progress and she told her professional contacts that she would finish her papers and her thesis by the end of her 6th year. One of the alumni from Sofia’s department was impressed by her technical expertise and confident communication skills, and he invited her for an interview for a Senior Scientist position that just opened up at his company.
A few weeks later Sofia received the job offer, and it was the perfect fit for her career goals. Overjoyed by the news, Sofia set up a meeting with her supervisor. Before the meeting she outlined her plans for finishing her papers and thesis by the start of her new job – just 3 months in the future.
Sofia’s supervisor was speechless for a few moments after she presented her plans. Then, he said: “Sofia, I thought you had already finished the project with our collaborators. It is an indispensable part of your thesis research. We can’t let you graduate without wrapping that project up. You need to have at least a manuscript in preparation before you can schedule your defense.”
Sofia felt like she was punched in the stomach. Even by all optimistic estimates it would take her at least 6 months to collect and analyze all of the data for her collaborator’s project.
“I am sorry, Sofia” her advisor said “I thought you knew that this project was a requirement for your thesis. This data is essential for our next grant proposal. We discussed it at your last committee meeting. I wish you had spoken to me before you scheduled your job interview.”
Sofia called HR at the her potential employer and learned that they could not wait 6 months (or more) for her to start he new job and they withdrew her offer.
Sofia learned the hard way, that lack of communication is the biggest communication mistake of all.
While her supervisor was reasonable most of the time, Sofia started avoiding him when she started her 6th year. It seemed like every time they met he piled more work on top of her. She incorrectly assumed that if she avoided him, he could not give her more work, and a job offer would persuade him to let her graduate.
Don’t Let the Resentment Build Up
Sofia, like many other graduate students, felt like she and her supervisor were on opposite teams. She wanted to graduate and get a PhD-level job, and he wanted her to do as much work as possible so he could secure his grants. How could they reach an agreement with such a conflict of interest?
The main reason that they did not come to an agreement was that they stopped having regular meetings in the beginning of Sofia’s 6th year. She was resentful of all the extra work he assigned to her, and he assumed that as a senior student she knew what she had to do to satisfy the graduation requirements.
The root of the problem was they had different interpretations of the agreements they made at her last committee meeting. Sofia assumed that finishing her 2 papers would satisfy her graduation requirements. She had not considered that the additional data from the collaboration project was essential to her thesis.
Sofia’s advisor advisor assumed that she knew how important this grant was to his funding, and she was the only one with enough expertise to finish the collaboration.
Had Sofia met with her advisor prior to scheduling her job interview she would have learned about his reservation to let her graduate without finishing the project with her collaborators. However, her fear (of getting more work piled on her), stopped her from approaching him and discussing long-term plans.
7 Steps to Move from Conflicts to Open and Effective Communication
Do you ever avoid your supervisor because of previous conflicts? While conflicts are unpleasant, avoiding communication with your supervisor will not resolve problems – in fact it will probably create more problems. The reality is that if you ever want to graduate, you need to have the “talk” with your supervisor at some point (the “talk” is the meeting , or series of meetings, where you nail down your graduation requirements).
Don’t wait until your last year to talk to your supervisor openly about your gradation plans – it is much better to develop a long-term professional relationship built on trust over the years than to avoid communication until it is absolutely necessary to get your thesis signed off on.
Some students are intimidated by the thought of approaching their supervisors : What if he/she thinks your ideas are ridiculous? What if you get more work every time you meet? What if your supervisor keeps changing their mind about your thesis project? These fears, which may be based on past events, can stop you from communicating openly with your supervisor, and can lead to misunderstandings that could delay your graduation date.
There following 7 steps will help you to make your meetings more efficient and to come to an agreement regarding the direction of your research and your graduation requirements.
1) Have a clear agenda for every meeting – Your supervisor’s time is very valuable, and he or she will be impressed if you come prepared for every meeting with specific questions. Also be clear on your desired outcomes, such as “get constructive feedback on your study design” or “finalize the draft of a manuscript”.
Better yet, come with a proposal if you need to resolve an issue. If you take the time to brainstorm about solutions before your meeting, you are more likely to come up with a plan that will help you to keep your research and thesis on track.
2) Stick to the facts and avoid emotions – It can be hard not to get emotional if this is the 10th meeting you have about the same study, or you feel like you have been treated unfairly. Unfortunately, getting emotional will probably derail the conversation. Your supervisor might get defensive, angry, or frustrated, and this could jeopardize your relationship temporarily, or even permanently.
Remember that the role of your supervisor is to guide you to finish your thesis, or at least sign off on it so you can graduate. During your meetings focus on solving problems, and stick to the facts and not your emotions about the particular situation.
3) Listen to your supervisor – Listening is probably the toughest communication skill, especially if you have a strong opinion about a certain topic. A common cause of conflict is that students feel like their supervisor’s expectations are unreasonable, or they expect them to do their “pet projects” before they can graduate.
Regardless of the source of conflict, you cannot resolve it effectively unless you hear your professor’s viewpoint. They may have a good reason for asking you to do a pet project – maybe they need the funding so they can keep you as a student, or to develop an exciting collaboration with a prestigious colleague.
4) Brainstorm about mutually beneficial solutions – Come to your meetings with an open mind. Even if there is a serious conflict between you and your supervisor, there may be a way to resolve it so that everyone benefits. In Sofia’s case, the collaboration led to another publication, and more marketable skills that helped her to get another job offer eventually.
If you listen to your advisor, stay calm during meetings, and demonstrate that you have an open mind, it is likely that you can come up with a solution where both of you can benefit.
5) Negotiate – Using the “pet project” example, let us assume that your supervisor will not let you graduate unless the project is completed, even though it is not related closely to your thesis topic. You realize that if you want to complete your thesis and the “pet project” by your graduation deadline, you will need to work unreasonably long days and there is a good chance that you will not be able to finish your thesis on time.
Even in such a seemingly hopeless situation, there may be a way to get the pet project done and finish your thesis by the deadline. Sofia, for example, trained another student so they could work on the collaborator’s project after she graduated. While the training was initially time-consuming, eventually the other student took more responsibility as Sofia got closer to her defense date.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, can you negotiate to get help from someone else? Can you negotiate to only complete part of the project, and then hand it off to another student? Can you ask for an extension on a “soft” deadline (e.g. due date for a manuscript) so you can meet a “hard” deadline (e.g. due date for a grant proposal)?
Once you realize that your supervisor’s requests are not set in stone, you can think about creative ways to get your desired results without having to work longer hours (which is the default solution most students turn to) or delaying your graduation date.
6) Get important agreements in writing – Had Sofia put the agreements from her last committee in writing, she would have realized that completing her collaboration was part of her graduation requirements. Some students feel that getting agreements in writing is too “formal” or that it conveys a sense of mistrust.
On the contrary, putting your agreements in writing benefits everyone involved, and it does not need to be a formal contract. A good habit to develop (in graduate school, as well as in your career where you paycheck depends on your performance), is to follow up every meeting with an email where you summarize your agreements and your action plan moving forward.
You can then ask your supervisor and anyone else involved (committee members or other researchers on the project), to send you back a quick email to confirm that they agree, or to give them a chance to comment. This will avoid the typical “I thought you meant…” type of miscommunication that is so common at the workplace.
7) Always follow through on your end of the deal – Trust is the basis of a long-term professional relationship. When you meet with your supervisor, prioritize your action item list and set some approximate timelines. Be sure that you keep your commitments, and if for some reason you are not able to, let your supervisor know as soon as possible. In order to build trust between you and your supervisor, you need to demonstrate that they can count on you to follow through on your commitments.
Developing a relationship where you have honest communication between you and your supervisor can take time, especially if you had conflicts in the past. In some instances, where your supervisor’s personality is not a good fit for you, it can be especially challenging to reach agreements.
Nevertheless, as you must have your supervisor’s approval before you can schedule your thesis defense date, you need to open communication and clarify your graduation requirements (which will probably change over time). If you do not get the support you need from your supervisor, or you think their requirements are unreasonable, your committee or department chair may be able to help you.
Many universities also have counseling deans or ombudsmen who mediate conflicts, and they can help you to reach an agreement with your supervisor or thesis committee.
Did you encounter any unpleasant surprises as a result of miscommunication or lack of communication in graduate school or at the workplace? Please give specific examples as we have readers from all over the world who are looking for inspiration.