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When Students Want to Change Mentors


Dear MentorDoctor,A student in one of my classes feels he is not getting the best advice from his present mentor and wants to join my lab. The situation has deteriorated to the point that the student is considering transferring to another institution or dropping out of grad school altogether. His mentor is a respected colleague in the same department. What should I do?--Very Concerned

Anthony DePass: This is one of the more delicate situations that you will encounter as a mentor. I would first ask the student if he has tried to discuss this with the advisor, and if not, why not. I would then discuss possible reasons on his part that could have contributed to the poor relationship (i.e., completion of assigned readings, time spent in the lab, etc.). If it appears that the problem is not primarily on the part of the student, I would ask the student's permission to approach the advisor. I would approach my colleague in a respectful and nonjudgmental manner, and explain that the student has expressed a concern regarding a problem with the working/mentoring environment. I would then ask the colleague of his perception of the relationship.

Once you have ascertained what you feel is the problem based on your conversations with the parties, and your knowledge of your colleague's previous mentoring history, you can then advise the student as to a course of action. You might discover that the cause of the problem lies with the student and would remain an issue even if the student leaves that lab to go to yours, or one at another institution. In that case, making the student aware of his shortcomings and how to effectively address them might be the solution. On the other hand, the problem could be with the advisor and the specific lab environment and might even be one of which the advisor was previously unaware. If a change is still necessary, you can offer to help in facilitating a reassignment. You walk a fine line in keeping the respect of both your colleague and the student.

Isabella Finkelstein: I assume that you have discussed with the student the nature of his/her discontent, if not, you should. I would also speak with the student's current research advisor. If after these discussions you feel a change is necessary, you should allow the student to transition to your laboratory. The fact that the student is not happy in his current laboratory does not negatively reflect on his current advisor. Perhaps the laboratory is not a "good fit." This seems to be one of the most common reasons that graduate students fail to complete their Ph.D. Sometimes a student chooses a laboratory because of high interest in the research topic without considering the personality of the laboratory. The student feels that research is the most important criterion in selecting a laboratory. In fact, your graduate program might have been chosen because of this particular professor.

If not currently practiced it may help in the future to request that students have two or three rotations before a laboratory is selected. It seems in this instance that the change is necessary if the student is going to continue in the program at your institution. I have seen students leave with a master's degree or no degree after 5 years because of a mismatch between student and research advisor. On the other hand I have seen students successfully complete the Ph.D. after changing. Change is not always easy, but sometimes the right thing to do. Good luck!

Judy Jackson: This could indeed be a sticky situation for all involved. However, you hold a wild card of considerable influence over the outcome. What you should do to help the situation requires care and a bit of preliminary work on your part. The following is my advice.

1. Have a conversation with the student and try to:

  • determine if he has indeed been open and thorough enough with your colleague in order for the colleague to give him sound advice. (Sometimes the effectiveness of the mentor relies on how clear the student has been. Sometimes, a student's dissatisfaction is the consequence of having done too little soul-searching, thus disabling the mentor's effectiveness.)


  • determine whether the student's dissatisfaction is actually masking some other problem. For example, is the quality of the mentor/student relationship diminished by unresolved issues that may be based on finances, race, gender, or something else?

  • 2. Take the liberty to have a conversation with your colleague. This may require more care than your conversation with the student, depending on your relationship with your colleague, his/her sensitivity or regard for the student's best interest, and his/her ego. Other important facts to consider are:

  • whether your colleague indeed has the time to be a good mentor.


  • whether the mentor/student "chemistry" just isn't right.


  • whether there is a "disconnect" between the mentor's academic area and the student's academic interest.

  • 3. If what you learn suggests that the colleague and the student are indeed ill-matched, then a reassignment would be appropriate. Please note that the student has the least power in this dynamic, thus the onus is on you and/or your colleague to correct the situation. If the current match was the result of a formal assignment, then perhaps the program coordinator could make the reassignment. This might preclude hard feelings between you and your colleague, as well as possible tension between your colleague and the student. Did you think this would be a piece of cake? Wishes for a good outcome all round.

    James Stith: I am assuming that since the student is in your class and has "confided" in you that you can have a frank and open discussion with him. You should determine that the student is realistic about the type of advice he should be getting from his advisor. Note that I use the word "advisor" rather than "mentor" because these two need not be the same, and in this case, your colleague is clearly not a mentor.

    You should also ascertain if the student's interests are compatible with the work that is taking place in your lab and whether he will be a "good fit." Do you have a meaningful project that he can undertake and do you or senior members in your lab have the time, resources, and expertise to guide the efforts? If all of these conditions exist, then you should have a serious talk with the student about your expectations for his work and offer him the opportunity to join your laboratory after he has had a discussion with his present advisor. This discussion should focus only on the "professional" reasons for making the change.

    It is entirely possible that you will ascertain that your lab (or another at your institution) is not a good fit and that a change of institutions is the best possible solution. It is important that the student carefully assess his goals and objectives and select an institution/department that matches them. You should help the student understand that having to make an institutional change is not unusual and is not a reflection on his abilities or promise. The bottom line is that you need to be open, honest, and supportive. Good luck!