I switched research groups – and lived to tell the tale

It’s that time of year again. New graduate students are frantically wandering from lab to lab, trying to figure out where to spend the next 4+ years of their lives. If everything goes well, they will find a research group with a healthy mix of interesting science, supportive peers, and a good mentor. If they make the wrong choice, they will join the ranks of the disgruntled—those unhappy souls whose passion for science has been obliterated and are simply counting the days (or years) until graduation.

Disgruntled graduate students are a pitiful breed. I know, because I was one of them. They dread greeting the first-years. They resent seeing so much fresh-faced optimism. “How dare you have hope for a bright future, when mine has been completely drained out of me?” they ask. It happens for a variety of reasons, but they inevitably end up wondering whether they were cut out for science in the first place. Maybe they start thinking about going to law school instead, or maybe they spend their days dreaming about starting a farm.

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Lots of people choose to leave grad school, but it’s not the only way out of a toxic research environment.

This post is for those people. I’m here to tell you there is another option. You’ll kick yourself for not having thought of it sooner:

You can continue your graduate training in another lab.

Hopefully, this was already obvious to some of you, but it was very much not obvious to me as recently as two years ago. I had learned to take my PI affiliation very seriously; it was the first piece of identifying information I offered to anyone I met professionally, more fundamental to my identity than my home state or my career goals. Then last year, I left my group of three years and joined a different group. My graduation schedule has not been delayed, and my professional ambitions have not been harmed.

Since I switched, people have been coming out of the woodwork to tell their story and get my advice. They are unhappy and feeling stuck, but eager to hear about a potential solution other than a) suck it up or b) leave grad school. So here is the advice I give them, based on my personal experience, as well as many conversations with professors, students, and recovering academics. Not everyone will agree on how difficult group-switching is or should be, but it’s time we admit its existence and talk about why and how it happens.

Four simple things to remember about switching research groups:

1. Your happiness is important

I can’t think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound super trite, so forgive me: You are a person and a scientist. No matter how objective and rational your professional persona may be, you also have subjective desires and irrational motivations, because you are a human being. This means that if you are miserable, you will not produce your best work. (For more on the factors that keep graduate students motivated and productive, I recommend this piece [PDF]and all the rest of Uri Alon’s Materials for Nurturing Scientists.)

A lot has been written online about the pain of being an academic trainee, and in particular the heartache that comes from having a horrible mentor. For just a taste, see this recent post on the blog Tenure, She Wrote. The author describes her experience with a bad boss during her first postdoc, and she gives great advice on how to cope with the situation and how to avoid it. Unfortunately, coping strategies are not enough for some grad students. We have to be in the lab for many more years than a postdoc, and we depend heavily on the PI for a recommendation afterwards.

Another disadvantage for grad students is that we are often brand new scientists, still trying to carve out an identity as an independent thinker and researcher while still technically being a student. This makes it very easy to interpret any research outcome as a direct result of our own abilities. When things go badly, we lack the experience and confidence to identify external factors that could be to blame.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean you should throw away your lab key at the first sign of conflict. It does mean you should take your own concerns seriously. Take an honest look at the root causes of the conflict, and don’t assume that the problem is you. You deserve the chance to succeed, and it is well worth your time to investigate whether or not your current environment provides what you need.

And finally, even if you don’t believe me that your research will suffer from your unhappiness, research should not be your one and only priority. Life is too short to spend years of it unhappy, especially when you have other options.

2. Shit happens

There are many reasons people find themselves considering a group switch. Maybe your interests changed. Maybe your PI moved across the country. Maybe you discovered that the group atmosphere was not a good fit. No matter the circumstances, there is no reason to think that a graduate student must remain linked permanently to a single PI.

Part of the problem here is that scientists tend to view careers as deterministic. We structure our ambitions to match our primary role models, i.e. our professors, and we hope that our careers will take the same shape as theirs. But for the overwhelming majority of grad students, that’s not how things work out. Your career is a state function. It doesn’t have to follow a direct path or take place on a certain schedule. You should assess your situation at every step along the way, reconsider your goals, and change trajectories if necessary.

“Grad students resist switching advisors because of the fear that this will blow a hole in their research career and lead to a massive increase in time-to-dissertation. In reality, many graduate students who switch end up becoming more productive and time efficient,” says Dr. Peter S. Fiske, author of Put Your Science to WORK! and CEO of PAX Water Technologies, Inc.

Think of career planning as making the most of your reality, rather than imagining what could have been. The time spent in your first research group is asunk cost: you can’t go back and change it, but you also don’t need to beat yourself up about it. What are a few years when viewed in the context of an entire career? If you learned something, about science or about yourself, then your time was not wasted.

3. You can have a friendly break-up

For most people, the conversation where you tell your PI that you want to leave is fraught with anxiety and fear: fear that they will react negatively, fear that they will refuse to support you, fear that you will end up in a worse place than you started. Even if this is not the first difficult conversation you’ve had with your boss, the stakes may feel a lot higher this time. But if you ride out the awkwardness, the relief you will feel at the end is so worth it.

On the other hand, you may be salivating at the thought of marching into your PI’s office and saying everything you’ve been holding back all these years. As satisfying as that may seem in your fantasies, I urge you not to do it: PIs don’t change their behavior just because someone tells them they are wrong. If that worked, you would have already done it and you wouldn’t need to leave the group. Plus, the scorched earth policy makes things a lot more difficult for your next PI; faculty members are colleagues and they need to maintain good working relationships with each other. No one wins if you sever your professional connection entirely.

So how can you exit gracefully? Here are a few helpful phrases you can use to get things started:

  • “I’ve had difficulties fitting in with the group.”
  • “I’m not satisfied with the progress I’m making towards my degree.”
  • “I’ve been wondering if there’s another group that might be a better match for me.”

If you’re truly undecided about what to do and you think your PI might be able to offer some advice, you could simply present the problem and ask for advice. Your PI might even be able to suggest a new group, based on your stated reasons for leaving. But if you’ve made up your mind about leaving, don’t be afraid to say what you want. Be agreeable but firm, or else you’ll have to come back and have the whole conversation a second time.

“When a student is having trouble, we talk about it and look for a solution, and sometimes the best solution is for them to continue their graduate education or career somewhere else,” says Bob Bergman, Professor of Chemistry at UC Berkeley. “I hope that in the future, graduate students will view transitions between groups or other professional environments as a more normal occurrence that some people need to take during their professional development.”

Ultimately, a good mentor wants you to succeed, either in their group or someone else’s. If you think your PI will punish you for discussing your concerns, then that is all the more reason to leave. Do you really want to depend on someone like that for your future career moves?

4. You’re not alone

I hope that my advice will inspire some people to find their way out of a bad situation. But as LeVar Burton would say, you don’t have to take my word for it: there is probably someone in your department or university network who has been through this already. Finding and talking to these people can reduce the feeling of isolation and also help you sort out the logistical details—when to break the news, how to find a new group, etc. Your department should have a faculty member designated as graduate advisor or something similar. Ask for a confidential meeting with this person to assess your options.

“Some of the most encouraging conversations I had were with my graduate advisor and department chair,” says Sebastien Lounis, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Group in Applied Science & Technology at UC Berkeley who switched research groups mid-way through his fourth year. “They reaffirmed the importance of finding a healthy research environment and helped walk me through my options. I met with each of them several times during the process.”

And finally, once it’s all over and you’ve switched, don’t be shy about your story. Tell others what happened to you, taking care to be diplomatic. Insulting your old group will not win you any friends, but speaking honestly about your experience may help others realize that they are not stuck. Graduate students really can “vote with their feet,” and simply understanding that fact may be empowering for some.

A final note

Any first-years reading this may be unnerved at the realization that things can go so very wrong, depending on what group you join. But don’t despair! My message to you is this: though your choice of group is an important decision, it is not carved into stone. And there are resources out there that can help you avoid disaster and choose a good research mentor the first time around. I like a lot of the advice on this page by the NIH. The three factors they mention (research program, research environment, and mentoring style of the PI) should all be given serious weight in your decision.

Talk to the PI and the group members as much as possible before you decide to join. Face-to-face communication tells you much more than email. Try to scope out what your project would be ahead of time. If your department has rotations, or short-term summer research, take advantage of those to get a glimpse of what your life would be like as a student there. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. With any luck, you will make a great choice, and you’ll be smiling when it’s time to greet next year’s incoming class.

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