One often reads stories along the lines of "I was told I wasn't suited to a career in academia; now I'm a professor at < Big Name University >". At the same time, given the structure of the academic job market, many people who desire an academic job will never get one. I am sure many of us can think of individuals who made big sacrifices in an unsuccessful pursuit of an academic career, despite never really being a competitive candidate. Equally, we can probably also think of people who succeeded, against our prior expectations.

Given all the above, what should an advisor do/say when confronted with an early career researcher (graduating PhD student/junior postdoc) whose career goals appear incompatible with their current trajectory? How do you support and encourage your advisee, while also being realistic?

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    Incompatible how, exactly? You've described two separate issues: the chanciness of the job market and the quality of this person's CV. No one has any control over the first, but they do over the second. Nov 18, 2019 at 10:34

2 Answers 2


Honestly, without putting down.

Explain the weaknesses of their approach or profile, explain what they would have to change in your opinion to get where they want and explain what they can do if it does not work this way. The point is not discouragement, but letting them understand what their options are. Some people are able to rise far above their original level, just as some never exploit their possibilities.

Whatever you do, you can not go wrong if you understand that the choice remains theirs and yours is only to show them the map.

  • This is the optimistic positive answer but I fear the advice OP feels would be needed is 'you need to do much stronger research and produce more and better papers in order to have a chance' which is not really useful as advice.
    – quarague
    Nov 18, 2019 at 13:15
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    @quarague Actually it is, if OP explains in which respect the papers have to be better. The answer is also not so optimistic (I do not consider painting the future in bright colours) as attempting to be a fair assessment of the possibilities. Nov 18, 2019 at 16:15
  • I might be seeing this way to negative, but I was more thinking in the 'I don't believe you are good / smart enough to ever become a professor' direction than something like 'change these two bits in the paper to make it better'. In analogy, if I asked for advice how to become a world champion marathon runner, telling me to practice and train is correct but no matter how much I do it, it will probably not b e sufficient.
    – quarague
    Nov 18, 2019 at 16:21
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    @quarague My life experience is that I have seen multiple people going up so many levels of mastery through sheer willforce that I would never say anything like "don't believe you are good enough". I do not see why one should outright discourage people. If you do not want them as project or PhD students, that's fine, as it is your resources you have to consider here, but it is not the teacher's job to decide how OP wishes to invest theirs, especially if they are still young. Nov 18, 2019 at 17:14

Advise the researcher of their options beyond their current trajectory, discuss the differences between trajectories, and establish what they really want. (Just because a research says they, want a permanent academic position in five years and professorship ten years after, doesn't mean they've thoroughly considered and understood what this will entail!) The advisee may themselves favour a different trajectory once they better understand their options.

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