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Making the Switch: Strategies for Changing Supervisors

Julie Lakefield, * a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster University, began her Master's degree in a shiny new lab with a keen, young investigator. She soon discovered that her personality was incompatible with her supervisor's. She knew something had to be done about her work environment if she wished to leave graduate school with a degree and an inkling of self-esteem. After trying to work things out to no avail, she made the drastic decision to change supervisors.

Graduate students change supervisors for numerous reasons. Lakefield had grown tired and emotionally exhausted from her supervisor's constant derision and abusive remarks. Albert Ler, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University's department of cognitive and neural systems, left his former lab because of similar reasons. "I just couldn't work with [my supervisor]. It's that simple. It's a combination of her personality and poor professionalism." Tamara Adamek, a Master's candidate in the department of neuroscience at McMaster University, changed labs because her supervisor did not make good on mentorship and collaboration opportunities he promised to her as incentive for her to join the lab.

While changing supervisors might seem like an easy solution, there are risks inherent in the process.

Some things to consider before changing

There are many advantages to changing supervisors when the student and supervisor's personalities and expectations do not mesh. However, there is never a guarantee that the grass is greener on the other side. Lara Timely* changed supervisors for a short time, but then returned to her original lab. There, she wrote up an M.Sc. instead of finishing up her Ph.D.: "The decision to switch allowed me to figure out whether I was unhappy with my lab and supervisor, or whether it was a simply a bad student-department fit. Moving to a different lab and finding that it didn't suit me any better ... gave me the confidence that my decision to leave with a Master's was in fact a good one."

Students typically start new projects from scratch when they change labs. This can create problems if the funding clock keeps ticking. In anticipation of this, some forward-looking universities or departments have policies to deal with "the switch." For instance, the department of neuroscience at McMaster has such a protocol, which restarts funding when students make the switch. This policy requires the former supervisor to write a letter of support for the student's change. Fortunately for Adamek, she and her supervisor maintained a moderately amicable relationship that enabled a smooth execution of the protocol. However, not all departments have a protocol in place. "It would've been useful to have a suggested protocol for the move. When there is not one in place, this can leave you feeling alone," comments Lakefield about her department at McMaster, which did not have such a program.

How to Change

The University of British Columbia's Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth makes several recommendations regarding conflict resolution prior to changing graduate supervisors. These suggestions focus on an open dialogue between the student and the supervisor during which each identifies problems and discusses potential solutions.

Some students may not feel that they can have an open dialogue of that nature with their supervisors--in fact, that lack of open dialogue may have been what caused the student to want to change labs in the first place. In this case, the student should look to alternative ways to make the switch. Lakefield recommends having a place to go before you leave the lab. This may involve some covert arrangements behind the soon-to-be former supervisor's back, but in the end, it protects your own interests. Both Ler and Lakefield found a sympathetic ear in a departmental head who facilitated their transition. "Have someone who you can turn to--a departmental advisor, or chair," suggests Lakefield. Ler was advised to first receive evaluation on his progress report, then tell his former supervisor that he wanted to leave. This strategy highlights the notion that timing can be important when fear of retaliation is present. Finally Adamek advises, "If you are miserable, make the switch, you have nothing to lose. It's not worth staying of you are devastated."

The power differential between the student and supervisor cannot be overlooked when planning a strategy to leave the lab. That power differential is caused both by the influence that a professor has within the department (and with the supervisor you may want to make the switch to), as well as because at the end of the day, that supervisor is often the one with the checkbook. In Adamek's department, supervisors fund their own students, which complicates the process: The new supervisor must be able to fund the student in addition to being a better fit. This departmental policy led Adamek to investigate alternative solutions like changing research topics before making the move. In Lakefield's case, the department funded the student, which made it a whole lot easier for her to move. As long as she stayed in the department, her funding was assured.

After the Change

After a student leaves the lab, he or she must consider how the relationship with the former supervisor will continue. Because Lakefield had already invested 1 year of research in the lab, she opted to continue working on a project with her former supervisor. She regrets the decision: "It would have been better to sever ties." Adamek felt the same way. It was understood between all parties that the former supervisor would not remain on her thesis committee. But severing ties can leave you dangling. For Timely, who opted to go back to her original lab after finding the grass no greener on the other side, severing ties would mean that she would not have been able to return. But perhaps the best of both worlds is to have a third party intervene. Ler's departmental chair was sympathetic to his desire to change and mediated the dialogue and process. All ties were severed with his former supervisor and he was protected from potential backlash and political consequences.

Once word gets around that a student leaves a lab, the student must decide how to manage the situation. Both Lakefield and Adamek agree that it is important to be honest, but diplomatic, when answering questions from colleagues or prospective students wanting to work with the former supervisor. Lakefield cautions, "Don't be antagonistic, don't burn the bridge, don't create enemies. If the person has power in their field or department, they can make things very bad for you."

* Names changed for anonymity.

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