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PhD Students: Should You Switch Labs?

Posted in: PhD Survival
PhD Students: Should You Switch Labs?

Graduate school (PhD training) is full of roadblocks and obstacles that threaten to hinder progress, but your major professor (PI) should not be one of them. If you are frustrated with your progress and your lab environment has become unbearable, don’t throw in the towel just yet! You may need to change labs.

Finding the right student-mentor match can put you on the fast track to an inspiring graduate career, but the wrong match can keep you mired in an unproductive fog.

It takes knowing what kind of mentor you are seeking, knowing what kind of worker you are, what type of lab environment you are looking for, and, of course, what kind of research you are interested in. Ideally, this should have guided your initial choice for choosing a major professor, but we all know that sometimes relationships just don’t work out. Still, the decision to change your major professor should not be taken lightly. But before you take the step of  switching labs, there are several things you should consider.

Universal truths

1. Grad school is HARD. Let’s face it: it isn’t going to be easy no matter what lab you are in. Still there is a fine line between a PI who will challenge you and one who will obstruct you. This really depends on your needs as a student. One thing is for certain, changing labs is not a way to get out a transient slump, but a way to continue forward in the face of an irreconcilable difference with your current PI. It may be that, by staying in your current lab, you will be able to overcome a difficult patch and be better for it.

2. Time. Changing labs will likely set you back at least several months. If you are in a big hurry to graduate, you might consider sticking it out in your current lab. However, if you see no hope of progress where you are, you may come out ahead in the long run by switching.

3. PI’s track record. A good way to estimate your chances of success with a PI is to look at the students who have come before you. How many students have earned their PhDs under your PI? How long did it take? How many publications did they have? Older PIs tend to have more experience in advancing graduate students. If students are routinely graduating with several first author publications, this suggests a well organized and highly motivated group.

4. Funding. Without a steady supply of grant money, a lab cannot maintain the expensive materials and personnel needed to survive. A lack of funding is a huge hindrance to research progress and could leave you stranded without a way forward. In addition, you will likely have to work as a TA to cover your stipend, diverting valuable time from your research. The inability of a PI to employ students and maintain lab equipment is a major factor for switching labs and should be considered when choosing a new PI. Of course, having your own funding from a grant or fellowship is always preferred.

5. Research. You have to love what you do! Switching labs to pursue research that inspires you is a valid choice, but the further from your current field, the longer it will set you back. It is doubtful you will be able to move your current project to another lab, but, if you like your research, try to find a lab engaged in similar studies. However, keep in mind you will probably be seeing your old PI at seminars if your interests remain the same!

Your Needs

6. Mentorship. Do you value autonomy or guidance? In other words, are you looking for a mentor who will guide you at every step, one who is hands-off, or someone in between? This usually depends on how much experience you have with designing experiments and troubleshooting technical problems. When looking for new PIs, it is always best to ask students currently in those labs for their assessment of the PI.

7. Your work habits. Your work habits should fit well with the mentorship style of your PI in order to avoid future confrontations. Are you self-motivated or do you need an extra push to get started? Some students may feel suffocated by a nosy PI while others may relish the interaction. Knowing yourself will help you choose a mentor suited to your working style.

8. Lab environment. Every lab has its own culture and group dynamic and it is important to get to know the other members. Large labs tend to have several post-docs and staff researchers who have become specialized in certain techniques. Their expertise can be quite helpful when getting new projects off the ground. Large labs usually allow more flexibility when designing a project because of the various research paths pursued. Smaller labs are often more narrowly focused, but tend to thrive on a strong team dynamic. You may be forced to become an expert in a variety of techniques and the learning curve can slow your initial progress. However, small labs are often just as productive as large ones and allow you to become a master at many different techniques.

9. Ask advice. Ask people you trust before making your decision. Believe it or not, many grad students have gone through the process of switching labs, or at least have considered it. Other students, your academic advisor, other PIs, and even departmental administrators can offer advice and insight into your situation and will generally have the discretion to keep it confidential.

If you decide it is indeed time to find a new lab, here are some tips for making a smooth transition:

1. Find out who is hiring. Your departmental coordinator may be able to tell you who is willing to take on new graduate students and who is definitely not interested in new students. This can help you narrow your search and give you an idea of your likely options. Other students can offer insight into their own labs and whether opportunities exist.

2. Arrange a new lab first. You don’t want to find yourself without a lab (or stipend)! Get all your ducks in a row before moving forward and always keep the option of staying in your current lab until the last possible moment.

3. Compile and organize your data for your PI. Consider that another student will likely pick up your project so make it easy on him or her. Your PI will appreciate it as well and will be less likely to have any “hard feelings” about your departure.

4. Avoid blowback. You will probably see your PI in the future at seminars and departmental functions, so it is best to leave amicably. Even if you are frustrated, don’t burn any bridges.

5. Hit the ground running. Once you’ve started in your new lab, don’t dawdle! You have to make up for lost time. It may seem like you’ve taken a step back at first, especially while formulating a new project, but putting in the extra effort up front will help you stay positive and focused as you embark on your new path.

Changing labs during grad school is a big, but sometimes necessary, step. Hopefully these tips will help you make the right decision. If you have any tips of your own, please leave a comment.

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  1. Marina on December 8, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    I’ve been in a lab for 18 months.I told my PI I want to change.He has a great project but he’s not organized and rarely gives feedback. I talked to him about my intended move and he said he was fine and at peace with it.Then he goes and talks to the new PI that I wanted to work with and plants doubt on that professor.So the professor was willing to have me in his lab and now the new PI is doubting if I he should even allow me into his lab.Now I feel stuck.What should I do?

  2. Jode Plank on March 17, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Leidamarie – If I were you, I wouldn’t e-mail this question to prospective PIs. I would make an appointment with them and have this conversation face to face in their office. When it comes to disscusions about why you are leaving, take the high road and just say that your personality isn’t compatable with your current PI’s and resist the temptation to list her managerial transgressions. The more professional you appear, the better, and anybody who has been in science as long as the PI you’re talking to has will fill in the blanks. Come into the prospective PI’s office prepared with a CV detailing your undergraduate and graduate courses taken along with grades and GPA, a list of techniques you have mastered at your fingertips, and a good working knowledge of what they do and how you might fit into the lab. In other words, assume it is an interview.

    If you are looking at labs within your department, be aware that the prospective PI might mention your visit to your current PI. You can mitigate this risk by not going to the gossipy PI first, but you can’t completely eliminate it, so set up several interviews in a short period of time and get the whole process done as quickly as possible.

    • LeidaT on March 17, 2011 at 6:24 pm

      Jode- Thank you for your reply. I was thinking that my initial e-mail would be kind of vague but I figured that it would be appropriate to mention at least that I am looking for a new lab as opposed to being a student who doesn’t have a lab at all. Do you think even this is too much. Should I just contact them letting them know that I am interested in their work and was wondering if they were available to talk projects if they have space? Then in the meeting tell them that I am actually a current student looking to switch.

    • LeidaT on March 17, 2011 at 6:25 pm

      PS- My department actually won’t let me talk to other PIs until I have told my PI that I am leaving so I don’t have to worry about the gossip aspect of things I guess.

    • Jode Plank on March 17, 2011 at 8:58 pm

      There is no universal rule, but sometimes e-mails can come off as impersonal, and you don’t want to give a prospective PI the impression that you are looking for any port in a storm. I think it would be fine to mention that you are looking for a new home in a e-mail that is requesting a meeting, but if you do I would pay particular attention when writing these e-mails to make sure that they don’t carry any ‘form letter’ tone to them. I would not ask “Can I join your lab?” or “Do you have space?” in an e-mail.

      Again – there is no hard and fast rule, this is just how I would handle it.

  3. LeidaT on March 17, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Hello all,

    I am just about to start the process of switching labs. I started grad school three years ago but it is a rotation based program so I didn’t start in my official lab until the summer after my first year. At first things in my lab were hard (I work for a new non-tenured PI) but I enjoyed the work and had a good relationship with my mentor. I was starting to have some medical problems at the time but I think we assumed they would clear up and were only temporary. Unfortunately, I went from having infrequent, annoying pain to constant, severe pain. My pain isn’t always enough to stop me from working but it has slowed my progress a little. However, despite my medical problems I still come into work everyday and try to do work. It’s just that I focus on 1 or 2 experiments and make sure I am doing them well and taking into account all variables so that I can get the best information out of it. My PI apparently disagrees and is upset that I am not doing more things and multitasking. She has sent me e-mails accusing me of not trying and of holding back without any valid reason. She has even told me she questions my dedication to the lab. I told her that sometimes I feel like she regrets taking me as a student because a healthier one might have gotten a little farther in the project (even though that is not necessarily true) and she didn’t respond. I’ve been really unhappy and I think the added stress of not having an understanding boss is making things more difficult for me. I have been really depressed and unmotivated. I realized that she isn’t going to change and my medical problems may or may not get better so it is best for me to just find a new lab environment that is supportive of my situation.

    My biggest question is how do you approach these new PIs whose lab you would like to join? I was thinking of e-mailing them but I am not sure exactly what I should say about my situation. Clearly I will have to let the know that I am an established grad student who needs a new lab as opposed to a new student. I am guessing that could be a touchy subject and my wording should be cautious. Any suggestions?

  4. JH on March 8, 2011 at 4:31 am

    JW: I’m in the process of switching labs, and already I feel great. I’ve realized that there can be many subtle ways, especially when they are compounded, in which a PI or or lab environment can be a barrier to your advancement. Your lab sounds very similar to mine, very blah, which wasn’t so bad at first. However, I know of several students who felt the same way about their labs and did not switch. When I talk to them, they sound bitter and depressed. I think those traits start to creep in little by little, and you don’t notice the full reality of it. Now with my decision to leave made, I can already reflect on how much it affected me in a very drastic, negative way. I think for you, and all others, if you’re unhappy in your lab (and it’s a thought you’ve had for some time) leave as soon as possible. The reason doesn’t really matter, nor what others will think. As for lost time, if you’re unmotivated and unhappy, I hardly doubt you’re efficient at the bench. As for those who have yet to choose a lab, you should remember that you will be spending a lot of time in the lab and your happiness should come first.

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