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How to Switch Mentors, Part 2: Planning and Preparing to Switch

Much of your success and happiness in grad school depends on an effective relationship with your mentor.  Despite your best efforts, sometimes the first relationship doesn’t work out, and you need to switch mentors to succeed in your program.  But how do you prepare to change mentors mid-PhD?

Step 1: Write it all down

Before doing anything else, list what convinced you that you cannot successfully continue your PhD with your current mentor.  Write these key points in simple, professional language that you would use with a colleague, not a friend.  List how, and for how long, you’ve attempted to improve the relationship.

Now, write down your objectives.  What is your ideal scenario going forward?  Who would you rather work with?  Where would you get funding?

Step 2: Consult other professors, your program manager, or department chair

Who do you trust in your department to help you identify a new mentor?  Be prepared to meet with multiple people to find the helpful ones.  Seek out a trustworthy professor from your committee or classes, or your program’s manager.  Don’t be afraid to approach the department chair!  Ann*, a graduate student who switched mentors, was pleasantly surprised when “the chair said he [the department] would pay for a five-week rotation” for her with a new mentor.  Furthermore, if your department is based in a School (e.g., the School of Medicine), then the School’s advisers and staff might be able to help.

Remember to be honest but professional: your goal is not to badmouth your soon-to-be ex-mentor (no matter how justified).  Your goal is to demonstrate that you are professional while handling a difficult situation, and that you are so motivated to continue and succeed that you will switch labs and start afresh, rather than quit.   Use your written list and objectives, and take notes at your meetings.  Practice what you’ll say with a friend or counselor beforehand.  Bring Kleenex and water with you in case you become understandably upset.

Step 3: Line up a new mentor

Now that you have advice and help, it’s time to arrange a new mentor.  Be ready to approach multiple professors; Ann emailed and met with two potentials before settling on one recommended by other professors.

Approach the professors first on your ideal scenario, and ask to speak with them privately.  Explain to them succinctly and professionally that despite efforts to improve it, your current situation is not meeting your needs towards progressing in your PhD, and you would like to discuss the possibility of joining their lab.  Do they have space, funding, open projects?  What timeline do they have–would you need to start immediately, in a week, a month, a semester?

 Step 4: Prepare for a graceful exit

While arranging a new mentor, prepare to leave your current lab.  Even if you can’t wait to leave, be professional.  Just envision a hapless new grad student kick-starting your dusty project!

Update your lab notebook.  Organize your computer and data files.  Label and organize your supplies and samples.  Ann made it a point to “leave careful notes” detailing the state of her project, which were much appreciated by the next student.

Your colleagues might notice your organization efforts.  It’s fine to tell them that you want to get your system in order; this is true, and avoids the whole tangled issue (especially if your current mentor doesn’t know you’re leaving).

Just remember–your goal is to be professional, not vengeful!

Step 5: Use your support network

This is a challenging time, so make sure to take care of yourself.  Alison, a postdoc who switched mentors during graduate school, recalls “I was very worried about what others thought about my decision…[and that they would] judge my switch as a fault of my own.”  However, she discovered her friends and significant other were very supportive.  Similarly, Ann found support from her university’s free Counseling Center.

Try to avoid discussing your switch inside your current lab and program until it’s official.  But do reach out to friends and family, and let them know you’re going through a tough time.

Just remember that this is a stressful period, and that it’s natural to be questioning yourself.  Alison notes “In retrospect, I think most people were very understanding of the fact that sometimes things just don’t work out between mentors and students.  I also think most people understood my decision and respected the fact that I wanted to continue in graduate school even if I had to start in a new lab.”

Next steps

Switching mentors is challenging, but planning can make it go more smoothly and professionally.  In my next article, I’ll cover how exactly to tell your current mentor you’ll be switching, and what to say to colleagues and other professors.  I’ll also go over some of the challenges and advantages of switching experienced by Ann and Alison.  Until then, how did you go about switching mentors?

* Names changed by request.

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