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I am an undergrad planning to apply to MA-PhD cognitive neuroscience programs either this year or next. I've decided to try to approach grad school in a way that will maximize my chances of getting a post-doc position that will lead to a tenure-track position. (For example, I've heard that the prestige of a PhD program/advisor matters, so I might have to consider applying to top-10 schools; I would like to consider job availability when choosing my field of study, etc)

Getting a tenure-track position is like winning the lottery, and there are many people who are much smarter than myself but who still end up in industry. I don't want to appear deluded or grandiose, so when asked about my career plans I say, "I hope to stay in academia, but I'd also be happy in industry..."

The only people I have to ask for advice are my supervisors (PI, grad student). They have been generous with their advice so far, but it seems geared towards people who want to end up in industry/teaching/etc. I assume there is a lot more I don't know that is specific to people who would like to stay in/sacrifice for academia, and I would like to ask my supervisors for guidance. I think I would get the best-quality advice if I point-blank said: "I am actually very ambitious, what do you recommend?"

But I'm not sure how to say this without coming across as naive or deluded -- or, worse, stuck-up (which is quite possible, because the people around me are extremely generous with praise and I am extremely socially awkward). Also, note that my PI has expressed that they would like me to stay in their lab for grad school; I don't want to come across as saying, "you're not good enough for me."

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    You can/should say what you wish_for... with, of course, the disclaimer that you know full well that it will be a tough road to get there. Also, it's psychologically much better to admit to yourself what you want, even if/when you know it will be difficult or nearly impossible to obtain/achieve. Don't pretend "you don't want anything". :) Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 3:01
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    FYI… your PI is “in academia” if they are a professor…. Academia is teaching so when you say their advice is for people who want to end up teaching, I find that confusing…
    – Dawn
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 2:48

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The words you're looking for are: "I know it's a long shot, but I'm shooting for an academic position." If you've thought seriously about a backup plan (which is a very good idea...something more specific than "industry"), you could mention this as well. When speaking to your advisor, you could ask something like "What sort of things should I be doing to close the gap between myself and the students who get into top grad programs?"

Do bear in mind that even if they understand the question, your advisor may not have much background working with "elite" grad students, in which case their ability to offer specific advice may be limited.

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  • It's not really a long shot. Look at your university, check how many students they take in, how many people are employed in good academic positions, and you calculate your chances. Then consider that many students, including excellent students, don't want an academic career, that you actually have set down a goal for yourself, that you are willing to work hard for that career, that you know you have talent, it's not that unlikely.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 11:48
  • It depends on many factors, including how you define "academic position," but for an alternate viewpoint, see Is it still possible to get a decent job in academia (specifically physics) nowadays?
    – cag51
    Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 13:18

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