I finished my masters last spring and will be starting the doctoral program in the same department this fall, however, I don’t want to work with the same advisor who directed my masters. There were some definite personality issues there, and their research interests do not align with my own. I’ve identified another professor who has research interests similar to my own, and who has expressed in the past a willingness to work with me. How do I make the change while causing as little drama as possible?

–Changing Chairs

Dear Changing Chairs,

Please recognize that you are not the first person to be in this situation and that there is nothing inherently wrong with you. In the frame of reference that familiarity breeds contempt, as you work closely with various professors, you become more familiar with them as people in addition to their being mentors. The same occurs with them learning who you are. Not all personalities are mutually compatible, and with time, the discordances become evident. With this in mind, you should first evaluate the new relationship you want to establish. It would be worthwhile for you to have several meetings with the professor you are considering as your advisor. Establish the professor’s intent of support and availability. Discuss in some detail your anticipated dissertation topic to ensure that you have the backing you expect. Talk to other students who have had this professor as an advisor. The professor’s intellectual integrity is critical if you are to direct your dissertation and not be caught in the self-aggrandizement that can occur. Reassess where you have been academically and dispassionately judge whether the change is truly in your best interest. Remember that the grass is always greener…

Lastly, line up your “ducks.” Obtain a commitment and establish the options on who the other members of your committee might be. If time allows, you might talk to some of these potentials. Remember that there are alliances and jealousies among faculty that may affect them cooperating with your primary advisor. Since a switch like the one you anticipate can cause reactions among the faculty, try to get the blessing of the department chair. Once you have made the decision, deliver the news personally in the most cordial manner possible. Be prepared to be rebuffed and threatened, and do not be afraid as you already created your new alliance. Whatever the response, a respectful, “Thank you for your time,” is always a good ending.

Above all else, remember that this is your dissertation, not theirs. While you may like the comfort and familiarity of where you have been, this is not the only program available to you. You have options: other subsections or departments, or other universities. Someone who has already obtained a masters degree is a proven entity and is highly desirable.

–Luba Zuk Levy, PhD

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