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.
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!
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.