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At my undergrad I was living only with research in my mind. I had great professors and I did very well academically, maybe overperformed is the right word. Then I did Master's also decently. I didn't have a single doubt that I want to squeeze everything from myself to get a shot at being a professor and doing research all the time in the future. Starting with phD my interests started scattering, not professionally but just my curiosity went hungry at other disciplines (that I'm not ready to seek professionally just as a hobby). It's good to have hobbies but intellectual energy is very limited so I started doing less research. More and more often I doubt if I want to stay in academia. Maybe I should try industry after phD.

I'm still doing good with my phD, my advisor is very helpful and eager to get me to postdoc. And this is a problem. Because I don't exclude academia I don't mention to him that I'm doubtful. If I share my doubts, I will get less support and will not have as good chances in academia after phD. But by not sharing my doubts I'm knowingly misleading my advisor, since my background and current position (and SoP from 3 years ago) assert that I'm a research person. My advisor's time and energy are also limited so this information would definitely clear up things in a long term for him.

Is it ethical in academia (mathematics) to not speak up about your future plans or concerns? I know that staying silent is selfish and beneficial. But somehow for the greater good of a community I feel sharing it even though it could jeopardize my postdoc. We have very good human relationship with my advisor and this puts an additional pressure.

Am I overthinking it?

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    When I did my PhD I had no doubt in my mind that after my PhD I intended to go into industry. Why would I try to hide that from anyone? Not that my supervisor cared one way or the other. Jan 31 at 8:09
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    @MichaelKay I'm glad you had a supportive supervisor. But PhD supervisors can and sometimes do treat students differently when they reveal that they are not interested in remaining in academia after graduation. Presumably, this what OP is trying to avoid.
    – Max
    Jan 31 at 15:46
  • I'd only answer if directly asked. Don't make any lying or misleading comments, however. This could go a number of ways, but you want to make sure you get your PhD and any needed support (e.g. RA work, etc.) until then. Jan 31 at 23:17

3 Answers 3

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There is nothing unethical or wrong about your feelings, nor about any action you take or don't take in deciding to speak to the advisor or not or in your career choices. Your life is your own. It isn't even particularly unusual to have doubts along the way.

However, I suggest that you do talk to your advisor, and perhaps other professors, about your future options. They may have some interesting and helpful things for you to consider. They may have had similar feelings in their own past. You aren't on a treadmill.

As an undergraduate there was another math student with a tremendous potential in my department. He wound up as a musician, not a mathematician, and maintained a strong relationship with our mutual mentor and professor.

Of course, you should first make a judgement about their personality. There are some who it might not be best to discuss doubts. But if they are ethical then there should be no negative repercussions about your future. You may need help to work through doubts. You may need help to find an alternate path. Worry about it isn't as likely to make progress as speaking to someone experienced.

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    "There is nothing unethical or wrong about ... any action you take or don't take." This is obviously not true. And even if we are only talking about career choice, there is such a thing as wasting your talents. But I agree that PhD students do not have an obligation to choose a career in academia.
    – toby544
    Jan 30 at 21:11
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    @toby544, edited to clarify.
    – Buffy
    Jan 30 at 21:42
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    Note that the OP seems to be actively "knowingly misleading" the advisor and letting them think the OP will be pursuing a post doc when they seem increasingly sure they won't actually do so. That is both dishonest and unethical. Choosing not to share is one thing, it is indeed the OP's life. However, sharing, but choosing to share misleading information is a very different thing.
    – terdon
    Jan 31 at 15:08
  • @terdon I'm not sure that I won't do postdoc. Some days it feels 90/10 pro-academia. Some days it feels 30/70 pro-industry.
    – anonym
    Feb 1 at 5:06
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    @hallundbæk I don't agree with that at all. I think we have responsibilities towards each other.
    – toby544
    Feb 1 at 18:53
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"Honesty" is not the same thing as uninhibited openness. It means you should not actively say things that are untrue; it does not mean you have to say every possible thing you can. For example, being an honest PhD student does not mean you have to tell your advisor your favourite music, your email password, or what you had for lunch.

Thus, there are other standards that you use to determine what you do tell your advisor, and in this case, you should be thinking about what you'd like your supervisor to do. That is:

  1. List all the options you are considering post-PhD -- and the likelihood of each.
  2. For each option, write down what you think your advisor must or can do to help you, and how long each action will take. Do you need:
  • Introductions?
  • Letters of recommendation?
  • Help exploring new fields?

Now you know exactly what to tell your advisor: everything they need to know so that they can help you in your future career path. All the best!

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  • Honesty is not the same as saying truths. You can even say truth and be dishonest in it. (I.e. - are you cheating on me? - haha, yeah, of course sarcastically). Here, second character tells a truth, but dishonestly. I believe that the best definition of honesty is doing your best not to mislead on purpose. But you are right that it doesn't imply telling everything you can.
    – anonym
    Feb 1 at 5:12
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In short: yes, to both questions (title and end of your question).

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    Short but not so short: - share openly your doubts with your advisor. - no one cares what you have been, not even if you were the bright bachelor star, not even if you could have been the next Erdős. Life is too short, especially to carry the not-existing burden of not fullfilling your math potential. So stop caring about it yourself ;)
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 30 at 19:46

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