Changing Labs: It’s Not You, It’s Me…Actually, It’s You.

At one point or another many of us consider changing thesis projects, whether out of frustration, failure or downright boredom.  However, for some of us simply changing thesis projects is not enough to resolve the issue we’re facing.  In these cases, the last hope may be the nuclear option – changing labs.  Students grappling with the decision to join a new group face a number of potential consequences including adding time on to their degree and facing potential political fallout from the decision.  Therefore, many students are left to wonder, Is it really that bad?  Maybe it’s me?  Am I the only one dealing with a situation like this and is it bad enough to change labs over?

As it turns out, changing labs probably isn’t as uncommon as we think.  In fact, we each probably know at least one person who changed groups from our graduate school or department.  Like spotting a roach, for each student we saw that made the switch there were probably many more we didn’t see that were considering it.  Of course every lab and every situation is different, but we were wondering if scientists thought there was one reason that may warrant more serious consideration of changing labs than others.

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What situation would cause you to consider changing labs?

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Other reasons you’d consider changing labs?

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8 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. @deray28

    wrote on March 28, 2011 at 11:45 am

    A year into my PhD I changed labs due to great conflict with the PI. It was frightening to take the decision but I don't regret it one bit. I'm in a much better place now.

  2. Chris B

    wrote on March 28, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Can you change this voting to select as many options as appropriate? I am sure that many factors contribute to any person's decision to switch labs, rather than just one of these.

  3. Nick F

    wrote on March 28, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    Not to be a jerk, but I feel like the dead end project is the worst. If you don't see yourself getting a couple papers and a decent dissertation out of your project you HAVE to leave. Conflict with lab members or the PI, or atmosphere, or loss of interest- I would suggest sucking it up if you can. This are things you're going to run into in the real world so you should be able to handle them. It might even be good to have some sort of adversity to talk about in an interview (or to your kids). Of course there are exceptions, but is taking a step back because you're bored with a project worth it? Side note- the lack of funding is another key issue- if you can't float it financially you have to bail.

  4. Chris B

    wrote on March 29, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Nick,
    From my own experience and having watched many students struggle with this question, I can tell you it is intensely personal and unique to every individual.

    I have watched people work their way through a dead-end project to come out the other end with a respectable paper, and stand in front of their thesis committee and defend their work incredibly well, being able to answer every questions experts threw at them about what they did, why they did it and why things didn't work as expected. It certainly didn't hurt them in the long run to go through adversity as a graduate student.

    On the other hand, I have also seen students struggle with projects, and make a decision to leave the lab because the project is not working. I will note that every time I have seen this, the relationship with their advisor and the lab culture have always been issues as well, so (as I said earlier), to me, none of these issues exist in isolation.

    The long and the short of it is, the issue of the project is one that is unique to every person and their individual personality. Adversity in projects is nothing new in science; 9 out of 10 experiments go in the FAIL column, and I strongly believe that too much easy success as a graduate student can give misconceptions that don't prepare you for the long haul in science

  5. Weary Postdoc

    wrote on March 29, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    So how would you do this as a postdoc? I've moved to a new city, started a new job, and because of a combination of many of the above reasons I need to leave. Now what?

  6. Chris B

    wrote on March 30, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    @wearypostdoc:

    Sorry, I don't know of any other way to say this, but it's time for that life-changing decision. Are you ready for the long haul that academic career progression has become? Or is it time to walk away from the bench?

    Many of the folks I know who have gotten offers from different sized schools this year are averaging two postdoc appointments for a combined total of around 5-9 years out from their PhD. Two postdocs are becoming a 'norm' of sorts, so don't think that you are alone in this, and don't think that it will be a barrier to a position (unless you go out of your way to make it one). If you are determined to stick it out in academia for the right reasons, you'll make it. Unless your weariness is coming from a sense that perhaps academia is not for you any more?

  7. alan@benchfly

    wrote on March 30, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    I think Chris B is right- it's time to ask some pretty tough questions. If you want to continue on the academic path, it sounds like finding another postdoc is in order. Without knowing why you need to leave the current job, landing in a postdoc that you'll be happy and productive in should be a top priority. Unlike grad school, you're not 'toughing it out' just to get the degree. The postdoc is more of a career springboard, so if you're not happy or don't seeing your current position enabling a successful launch, then it's probably time to move on.

    Biochembelle wrote about her experience changing postdocs in an earlier article that may help: http://www.benchfly.com/blog/lessons-from-a-recov

  8. Leaving Graduate School Early: Get Outta Town or Hang Around?

    wrote on April 18, 2011 at 11:44 am

    […] some of us the pursuit of the PhD may necessitate changing labs, but as @deray28 points out in the comments of that article, finding a new lab can be a very […]

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