Switch-a-roo

Jan 13 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I can't speak for all professors everywhere, but I am willing to bet that the following is a universal truth -- a professor's first graduated PhD student remains very special forever. My first graduated PhD student is now happily employed by a national lab. She married a classmate from graduate school (from another research group); her husband is from here, so every year when they come back to visit her in-laws, I get to see her and catch up. It is always a great pleasure.

I met her in my first semester on the tenure track; I was a typical overzealous, overly-demanding newbie teacher who wanted to cover too much material; many students were struggling. She had no background in my area and was taking the course to satisfy a breadth requirement , yet she was catching on extremely quickly, and by the end of the course left everyone in the dust pretty spectacularly. I was quite impressed, and would have loved to have her join my group, but she had already been working with another group for three years.

The semester ended, a few months passed, and she found me to ask if she could switch to my group, because she was unhappy where she was. I can't remember the details why, I think the project was ill-defined or otherwise unappealing. I was thrilled to have her join my group, but at the same time I was absolutely terrified -- I am untenured, what if her advisor decides to somehow retaliate? I was really scared at the thought of running into him (the former advisor) in the hallways, I talked to my chair and my faculty mentors to make sure they knew I hadn't poached her, that she came to me on her own. I never talked to her former advisor, partly because I had never met him (he's an affiliate of the department), and partly because I was clueless about proper etiquette and very scared.

She was the first student who switched to my group. By the end of the year, I had three more who switched -- one came from my alma mater with an MS, two worked with other advisors in my department but wanted to switch. By then I knew better; each time a student wanted to switch to my group, if I thought that was be a good idea I would tell the student to go talk to the soon-to-be-former advisor first, and that I was going to follow up with the advisor in person to make sure everyone is on board and happy...

Over the years, I have had several students switch to my group. The vast majority of them worked out really well and the switch was a good idea for everyone involved. In several cases, the former advisor actually encouraged the switch because it was clear that the skills and inclinations of the student were simply not a good fit for that group, but the student was generally smart and motivated. In one case, the former advisor encouraged the switch because the student wanted to be a professor in his home country, and doing theory is much less costly and much more likely to be sustainable in said country than relying on expensive equipment.

I have also lost students to other groups; one wanted to upgrade schools, two left with an MS and joined another group in which the style of work and the topics addressed were considerably different. I remember being furious when I had to let the first student go after two years of paying him as an RA; there was no doubt in my mind that he could not stay in my group, but I lamented all the money spent (of which I didn't have much at that point).

But, after some experience, it becomes clear that students switching groups is simply a fact of life. Actually, a student switching groups once is a fairly common occurrence in the physical science fields, because there are no rotations that the students can use to test the waters in different groups like they do in the biomedical sciences. As a professor, I have learned that you win some, you lose some: as long as you are not exclusively hemorrhaging students or actively poaching other people's students (I have never seen this happen, but it would be beyond douchey), I think it all comes out a wash. My initial lamenting over money spent was misguided -- sometimes you lose a student you paid, sometimes you gain a student someone else paid.

To the scared students who are unhappy, but terrified about switching groups: in my experience, professors don't generally think it's a sign of your deficiency if you want to switch groups. If your former advisor is a sane and decent person, s/he will let the new advisor know about your strengths and weaknesses, about how you got along, and why things didn't work out. So if you, as a graduate student, are unhappy, and have really tried to make it work in your current group but it just isn't happening, it is OK to consider switching groups. Just think really hard about where you want to land, because you really don't want to switch the second time if you can help it...

A new student started with me this week. He'd been working with a group in a department I am affiliated with, but, after three years and change, things were just not happening. I have known the student through coursework and have been quite impressed with him, so I am happy to have him join my team. His former advisor gave the switch a wholehearted blessing. I have a great project lined up for the student; he seems energized and excited about it. Things are looking pretty good.

8 responses so far

  • Actually, a student switching groups once is a fairly common occurrence in the physical science fields, because there are no rotations that the students can use to test the waters in different groups like they do in the biomedical sciences.

    This is exactly why we do rotations in the biomedical sciences: so that students and faculty don't waste their fucken time on this kind of pointless drama.

  • becca says:

    "Just think really hard about where you want to land, because you really don't want to switch the second time if you can help it..."
    You really don't, but there is life (and a PhD) after two switches, though I'm the only one I know who's done it.

    And rotations do not prevent the pointless drama, alas (though they may very well decrease it).

    • Spiny Norman says:

      They might decrease it, but as you say they might not. And rotations are part of the reason why typical life sciences students generally take quite a bit longer to finish their grad work than, say, chem majors. The aggregate cost of rotations probably doesn't justify the added time and money.

  • Even in the biomedical fields with rotations, some students end up changing groups. The rotations reduce the problem, but don't eliminate it. Actually, I'm not sure it is a problem, since the mixing of students between groups is often the most efficient means for creating collaborations and propagating information.

  • grad student says:

    of course then there are the cases where students switch because the former advisor is NOT sane or decent...that's a lot harder to navigate

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I'll join in on the rotations don't always prevent drama bandwagon. I had one friend who rotated through a lab, liked the people and the project but the PI was in his other lab in Singapore at the time. She joined and once he returned discovered he was a royal jerk (Spent 3 hours yelling at her in a lab meeting for one forgotten control and all those great lab mates just sat and watched). Of a class of ~60 students (it was a giant interdisciplinary program) I knew 10 people who ended up switching labs within the first two years despite rotations. Most of the time those switches were not nearly as amiable as those you describe.

  • GMP says:

    What I was going for with this post is to say "dear grad student thinking about switching advisors, it's not the end of the world, people do it a lot, usually for the better." I know advisors are not always sane or decent, but if they are not, all the more reason to go work for someone who is. Maybe I am biased, but in my experience most faculty really want to do well by their students, and a miserable student is no good to themselves or anyone else. That is not to say that many faculty aren't scary, eccentric, socially awkward, and all sorts of other things that make it seem like they are out to get you even if they really are not.