Hello, I am in my second year of PhD but technically have been working on my project for just one year. Before moving abroad for my PhD, I was supposed to join a particular lab, but after moving I realized that the project I was told I would join had been discontinued. Left with not many options to choose from, I decided to join another lab. My professor seemed very nice and encouraging in the beginning, but the postdoc who works in her lab is very rude and tries to control everyone, even my professor. My professor is a nice person to interact with but is hard to work with. She is very scattered and keeps changing her decisions, throwing me off my timeline and goals and delaying my progress.

For the last year, I’ve tried various means to adapt. I’ve even tried to tell her directly and indirectly that I find it hard to focus without a clear goal. I did not have the liberty to choose my project or come up with a self-designed plan for the topic I was given. Whatever I suggest during our lab meeting is outright rejected by the post doc and my professor doesn’t budge. I feel there is no freedom to suggest things or decide my course of action. It is not letting me develop the skills that I need to learn in grad school. There is too much micromanagement, and it is suffocating me. I feel so depressed and disinterested every time I think about work. I have 3 to 3.5 years left to complete my PhD. I am about to get married and need to plan my timeline with my fiancé as well. I am wondering if switching to a different lab will be a good option. Kindly suggest. I really need help to get out of this frustrating situation.

–PhD Victim

Dear PhD Victim,

This certainly sounds like a very challenging and frustrating situation. While I can’t actually tell you what you should do (change labs or not), here are some thoughts and suggestions to keep in mind that might help inform your decision.

As I’m sure you know, changing labs during graduate school is a serious decision, and, depending on the department, it can have serious consequences for students. That being said, it’s often doable. Departments can differ greatly, however, in terms of the frequency of students switching labs, the general perceptions of doing so (i.e., Is it seen as ok, or is it highly frowned upon?), and the degree of difficulty in changing labs. Therefore, if you’re considering this as an option, you probably want to gather a bit more information about what it would entail and what the culture is in your department. If you’re aware of other students who have changed labs, start by talking to them about their experiences and the process. It sounds like you may have already changed labs once (right at the beginning), so you’ll also want to consider how faculty may respond to a second switch. While the reasons for your switching may have been out of your control, potential advisors may be hesitant to take on a student who has changed labs multiple times already.

Another important thing to consider is whether there are other professors in your department with whom you’d like to work instead and who may have room in their labs for another student. Don’t assume that professors would be willing to accept you into their labs just because you wish to join them. They may not have room, or they may not be willing to risk the departmental politics that could be involved. Consider both the type of research that different faculty in your department do, as well as what you know of their personalities and supervision styles. Ask their students what they’re like to work with to see if it might be a good fit.

The point here is to find out ahead of time whether changing labs is really a viable option for you. This is important because you don’t want to talk to your professor about the possibility of changing first, only to find out later that there aren’t any good options. You might also consult with your department head or another trusted faculty member about your situation to get some guidance on how to approach various faculty, as well as your own advisor.

Keep in mind that changing labs likely also means changing your dissertation topic, so you’ll want to consider how that might affect your timeline. Of course, if you’re struggling to make progress now in the current situation, you might ultimately finish sooner even if you do have to change topics; either way you decide, keep in mind that the change may impact your dissertation topic, so factor this into your decision.

While you’re gathering more information and considering your options, I would also suggest making a list of the specific things that are problematic for you in the current situation, as well as some specific suggestions for solutions that would make the situation workable for you. This will help you feel prepared to have a direct conversation with your current professor about your concerns.

When you are ready, have a conversation with your professor to bring up your concerns in a direct but non-confrontational manner. Speak specifically about what you feel has been getting in the way of your progress or otherwise not working for you. Let her know how these issues have been affecting you. I would recommend clearly expressing that you would prefer to be able to resolve these issues and remain in the lab, but you can also acknowledge that if that’s not possible, you might need to look into changing labs (if, indeed, you’ve determined that this is an option). You don’t want this to come off sounding like a threat, but rather a simple statement of fact of how problematic the situation has become for you. Try to name some specific suggestions for how things could shift to allow the situation to become more workable for you. This will help your professor (a) better understand what you need, and (b) more clearly respond in a way that will let you know whether a resolution is possible.

Be prepared for your professor to respond with some feedback on how you’ve handled things so far yourself, and try to consider what she says without getting defensive (as much as it would be natural to feel defensive in such a situation). Are there things that you could be doing differently that might make the situation more manageable for you but that you haven’t yet considered? For instance, do you need to more clearly communicate with your professor on a more regular basis? Do you need to communicate with her one-on-one without the postdoc present? Do you need to take more initiative in setting your own goals for your project if you’re feeling like the goals aren’t clear?

Keep in mind that even if you do end up changing labs, it’s not in your best interest to burn bridges with your current professor (and even the postdoc). Not only is it likely that the professors will talk—so if your professor feels hurt or offended by your decision, she may say things to other faculty that might make them less willing to work with you—but also the world of any given academic field is relatively small, so you never know when a burnt bridge might come back to haunt you. It’s clear that something needs to change—whether that’s the dynamic in your current lab, management of the dynamic on your end, or the changing of labs altogether, I can’t say. But if you’re almost feeling ready to change labs, there is certainly no harm in speaking honestly (and respectfully) with your professor to see if the problems can be resolved. Then, if they can’t, you’ll know that switching really is the best way for you to move forward.

Best of luck to you with this challenging situation!

–Dana Nelson, PhD

p.s. To read more about some additional considerations to keep in mind, check out this article: http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2000/11/making-switch-strategies-changing-supervisors


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