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How to Switch Mentors, Part 3: Actually Switching – Is it Worth it?

Posted in: Survive and Thrive

Grad school is a big investment of your time, with a lot riding on a successful relationship with your mentor.  Unfortunately, you may have realized that the relationship is not working and resists improvement.  You’ve taken the steps to switch to a new mentor.

Now comes the hardest part.

What do you actually say to your current mentor about the switch, and what do you tell others about why you switched mid-PhD?  What are the pros and cons of switching – is all the awkwardness worth it?

What to Say to Your Current Mentor

You’ve lined up a new mentor and are ready to handoff your project.  Now comes the hardest part: telling your current mentor.

The goal here is to be professional and clear – this is not the opportunity to take revenge.  Ann*, a grad student who switched mid-PhD, found it helpful to write out and practice a script beforehand for what to say.  Alison, a postdoc who also switched during her PhD, kept what she said “as professional as possible [by] not accusing any one party[,] but instead describing the situation as bad for both parties.”

Here is an example script:

Hi, [PROFESSOR].  An opportunity has come up for me to pursue my PhD in another lab that will be a better fit for me and my professional goals.  I’ve been asked to switch over by [DATE].  I wanted to thank you for the time and effort you’ve invested towards mentoring me here.

However they respond, be prepared to reiterate that you know that the opportunity will be a better fit.  Avoid negotiating or discussing the ex-mentor’s flaws, even if invited to do so.  After they’ve had a moment to react (and assuming they don’t react badly and unprofessionally, as I’ll describe below), steer the conversation towards leaving smoothly:

I want my transition to be as smooth as possible for the lab and project.  I’ve [updated my notebook, inventoried samples, etc.].  Is there anyone I should speak with in the lab about the project?

What should you do if the ex-mentor reacts badly, swears, and insists that you pack up your stuff, just like Ann’s ex-mentor did?  If you think this might happen, have your backpack, laptop, etc. packed up so you can get your personal things and leave immediately.

But even if your breakup meeting goes smoothly, what do you tell everyone else?

What to Say to Everyone Else

It’s understandable to worry about what to say to others.  Alison was “was very insecure for a while after the switch,” and was “worried that others would judge my switch as a fault of my own.”

Like always, be professional and honest, but not vengeful.  You switched because the lab and mentoring style did not meet your needs as a student.  Emphasize that, despite the setback, you were still highly motivated to continue in grad school and your scientific career.  It’s to your benefit to demonstrate how professional you are.  At the same time, it’s fine to vent to family, counselors, and friends outside the lab.

Is All the Awkwardness Worth It?

Switching does exact a cost.  Both Ann and Alison found that switching set back their PhD progress; Alison had to work extra hard to graduate with her contemporaries.  Ann also switched PhD topics, moving from a topic that she was passionate about to one that was less captivating.  Furthermore, she was given a project in her new mentor’s lab, instead of having the time to develop her own.

However, switching mentors was ultimately worth it.  Alison says that, “I found myself in an environment much more conducive to my needs and in which I thrived as a young investigator.”  Both scientists regained their passion for science, and Ann was making more rapid progress in a happier environment.  Importantly, she was also safer in her new lab, which had a helpful, open culture.

Final Thoughts

Given how important a good mentoring relationship is, sometimes you have no choice but to switch.  While it’s challenging in many ways, many other students have switched and, like Ann and Alison, rediscovered their love of science and their ability to be happy and successful as grad students.

If you’re considering switching mentors – or just curious about the experience – here are some other perspectives.  The blogger at Tenure, She Wrote provides excellent advice on recognizing and coping with toxic mentoring and bullying. Female Science Professor offers the mentor’s perspective on switching.  Finally, UC-Berkeley PhD student Ann Goldstein provides her insightful thoughts on switching at PLoS Blogs: “I switched research groups – and lived to tell the tale.”

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