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Graduate Matters

The hard task of switching supervisors during graduate studies

Two grad students discuss their unique experiences of having to switch supervisors.

BY EMILY M. BARTHOLOMAY & ALEXIS GARRETSON | JUN 29 2021

The student-supervisor relationship is paramount to the success of graduate studies. It is important to give this relationship its due diligence by critically assessing a potential supervisor prior to committing to their research group. It must be fostered by managing expectations between both parties. Many universities have gotten on board helping to facilitate these relationships and thus ensure the success of both students and supervisors alike. However, sometimes life has other plans for us, and it might become necessary to switch supervisors while completing grad school.

In this interview, Alexis and Emily share their experiences of switching supervisors while completing their graduate studies.

Why did you decide to switch supervisors and institutions?

Emily M. Bartholomay.

Alexis: I was living apart from my partner in a different state and I was very unhappy. Additionally, it was financially hard to support two households in different states. I had the opportunity to return to the lab of a supervisor I had worked with previously that was in the same city as my spouse. Although I was nervous about how it would set me back in terms of graduation and completion, I wound up only having to add one summer semester. I had a good relationship with the new supervisor and was excited about returning to research work I was happy about.

Emily: During the second year in my doctoral program, around the time of spring break, my advisor announced to everyone in the lab that she would be leaving the university in just over a year. Naturally, I was shocked, angry and worried about how this would impact my graduate studies. Since my advisor was leaving academia altogether, there was no option to follow her to a different university. Rather, I was faced with the decision to switch advisors or start the application process all over again. Given how competitive PhD programs are, I was not willing to put myself through that stress again. It was an easy decision for me to find a different lab to join within my department.

How did you go about this transition and how long did it take?

Alexis Garretson.

Alexis: I started thinking about the transition in the spring, floated it to my new supervisor and discussed it with her over the summer. Once I had all the details sorted out, I let my supervisor know. At that point, it was the end of the summer. If you’re not sure that the new lab and institution will take you, I would wait to let the old supervisor know so that if it doesn’t work out, you still have the option to continue with your current lab if you need it. I was incredibly privileged to have my own external funding, which made it significantly easier to transition from one lab to another, but this is not the case for everyone.

Emily: The main factor that went into my decision to find a new lab was the topic of study. At this point in my training, I had an idea of what I wanted to study for my dissertation. I reviewed the research interests of the faculty members in the department and tried to find the faculty member whose research interests most closely aligned with mine. I ended up scheduling a meeting with my new prospective advisor, explaining the situation, and describing why I was interested in joining her lab. We set some limitations on what she would feel comfortable supervising for a dissertation, and we discussed who else I should have on my committee to ensure that we had an expert for each variable of interest. By the end of the semester, we agreed that joining her lab made sense, and I started the process of getting all my training in order. By the start of the fall semester, I began working on ongoing projects in the lab. I ended up successfully proposing my dissertation within a year of starting in the lab, and I started data collection shortly thereafter.

What would you recommend to students considering a switch?

Alexis: Use your network, think about who you’ve worked with and who they know. The individuals who have mentored you and supported you in the past will be able to advise you on this important decision and help you find a new academic home.

Emily: I think the most important thing to consider in transitioning is how the move will impact your life and future career opportunities. For example, for me to drop out of my program and reapply, I would have wasted three years of my life in a graduate program with little to show for it. I would have also been faced with potentially making another move across the country, developing a new social support network and adjusting to the culture of a different program. For me, finding a new lab meant that I would not have to face these stressors. While I was devastated at the opportunities that would be lost with my advisor leaving, I decided to focus on what skills and expertise I could gain by switching labs. This growth mindset has been immensely helpful for me, as I will be leaving my program with such a wide variety of skills. While I don’t have any resources to recommend per se, the most helpful thing in my decision was considering my life goals and how this change could offer me opportunities to which I otherwise would not have had access.

What is your biggest takeaway from this experience?

Alexis: Think deeply about the pros and cons. If it’s a short program, like a master’s, consider whether it is worth extending your graduation timeline by switching institutions or whether you can stick it out until the end of your program. Also consider whether the challenges you’re facing are with the institution and sort out whether the problem is with academic structures (which might not vary from supervisor to supervisor) or unique to your current situation. Sometimes, it might be best to stop entirely rather than just simply switch. There is a lot of shame in academia around changing programs or leaving a program early, but graduate school is all about discovering and learning. It is OK to decide that you want something different.

Emily: The most important thing to keep in mind with the prospect of switching advisors or universities is the impact that decision will have on your life. I experienced a lot of difficult emotions when I learned that my advisor was leaving, and I know several other students in a similar position who have felt the same way. The emotions you experience when learning that your plans will be changing against your will are normal. However, it is important to make the best out of your situation. Talk it out with a trusted friend, family member, fellow student, supervisor or therapist. Remember that you know yourself best and trust your gut. While this was a position I was not happy to be in, I am thankful for all the support I received from my friends, colleagues and the department as a whole. I no longer struggle with the emotional turmoil that I experienced initially, and I am thrilled to be working on my current line of research!

Some useful resources to consult might include the following:

What is your experience with student-supervisor relationships? Comment below!

ABOUT EMILY M. BARTHOLOMAY & ALEXIS GARRETSON
Emily M. Bartholomay is a PhD candidate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale studying adult clinical psychology. Alexis Garretson is a PhD student in mammalian genetics at the Jackson Laboratory and Tufts University, where her work focuses on computational biology and evolutionary processes.
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