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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. Emily Crow on May 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    I switched labs about 6 months into my research, and I’m surprised and pleased to find that it really hasn’t slowed me down. No lab situation is perfect; for me, it was a question of figuring out what issues I could tolerate, and what problems I found impossible to deal with.

    Regarding your question, Rory – when I left my first lab, I typed up a one page summary of the work I’d done (complete or in progress), including a list of all the strains and plasmids I’d made, and where to find them. On my last day, I handed my PI this document and my lab notebook, and made sure he had my email address in case there were any follow-up questions. In my experience, they will appreciate that you made the effort and not be too picky about the format.

  2. Rory Macneil on May 20, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    I agree, a practical article with lots of useful advice. Re your point 3, Compile and organize your data for your PI, if you’re in a relatively decentralized lab which doesn’t have a common format or repository for data, do you have any suggestions on the best way of getting your data in a form the PI will find convenient?

  3. Richard Myers on May 18, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Great points, Jode. Research doesn’t necessarily “fail” because of the researcher, it could just be the project. A well designed project can do wonders for research progress and the researcher’s self esteem. I happy to hear Harley King is prospering in a new lab. It is amazing what a new environment can do.

  4. Jode Plank on May 18, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    I think this is a great article, Richard. While I agree that the decision to leave a lab shouldn’t be made lightly, the one thing I’ve seen occurring more often are grad students staying in labs when they should have moved, because they thought that they would lose all the time they had already invested. I think it’s important for students in this position to realize that the experience that they’ve gained in the old lab will allow them to get a new project in a new lab up and running in a fraction of the time that they spent on their first project. Factor in the unfortunate role that luck plays in the amount of time it takes to finish a project, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there was little to no difference in the total amount of time it took for students in their second labs to defend compared to students that didn’t change labs.

  5. Harley King on May 18, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    A couple of weeks ago my PI brings me into his office and says, “I just don’t think things are working out. Please find another lab.” I was floored. I was incensed. I was disappointed. I was everything. I felt like a failure and contemplated gathering my credits from the dusty floor and finding a job. I’m glad I didn’t.

    I found a lab a week and a half later. My initial reaction towards my PI was anger, but I believe he had my best interests at heart. I really like my new lab. Switching labs was a great move.

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