Monday, January 22, 2007

Firing Your Advisor

To follow a thread of this ongoing discussion about advisor-student matches.. there are certainly mismatches that occur, and it can be awkward to undo them.

Important information for the rest of this discussion to make sense: in my field, students work with a particular advisor from Day 1.

Over the years, I have had a few students switch to another advisor, and I've taken on a few who were switching from other advisors. In most cases, it was students who weren't doing well with classes, exams, or research and who thought that working with someone else might give them a fresh start. There are certainly situations of students switching fields/advisors once they get a bit of experience with the science and realize what their true interests are. I also know of a few cases of students switching because one advisor was too busy to give them much time, and another advisor provided a better research environment, and these switches have mostly been successful.

However, from what I've seen in my department, these successes have been much less common than the other kind of advisor-switches (i.e., struggling students trying to stay afloat). I guess we all want to give students a chance, or two or three, so we give these switches a try. From what I've seen, these seldom work out, but it would be nice to hear about some examples to the contrary.


Anonymous said...

In my department a fair number of people have switched labs. Maybe one every couple of years. They were not struggling. Two switched not because the advisor or lab was horrible or anything, just wasn't the right fit for them. The third switched because the advisor was a royal pain. All three are very productive and getting a lot more out of graduate school because of it. A number of others have stuck it out in their current labs and struggle at times to get out of bed because they hate their advisors but got stuck in the mentality "if I switch labs I will be in grad school for even longer". I have seen a couple of post-docs also switch. One because of sexual harassment. The other because the advisor treats people in lab poorly. That person is now in my lab and already on a couple of papers including one in a very high impact journal. All those who switched were very talented. As were all those who voluntarily left graduate school.

Anonymous said...

My friend switched advisors and schools in his first year. His advisor was this big guy, who publishes only in the best journals. But he wouldn't let students do anything on their own.

"I want you to do this. In exactly this way."

"Why what's the point?"

"Just do it, you don't need to know it. I do the thinking, you do the chemistry. And make sure you use that exact reagent for the extraction."

He didn't last long in that group, although that big prof is still successful. My friend recently graduated from a group where people are very independent and he was one of the 18 organic fellows (a pretty big deal that is a predictor of future academic success; even though this person hates academia). So, there is a success story. Incidentally, 17 of the 18 fellows were men, and it caused a lot of letter to Chemical and Engineering news pointing that out (i.e. no equality in the sciences until this is changed).

Another person I know, got kicked out at the end of second year, when it's too late to change advisors. I could see right at the beginning that it wasn't going to work out, so I was surprised that he stayed in that lab that long, but then it all got cleared up. That professor is a bit of a jerk though. He kicks out one student a year on average.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

I know two students in my program who have switched advisors because their first one was a terrible advisor. They were the kind who tell students they're doing it wrong when the answer is not what the PI wants to hear. Both students are doing very well now that they receive actual professional support.

One of these advisors lost all his funding last summer, as a side note.

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

Yep. I did it too. Though, it was a rather odd kind of firing, in that my advisor "gave" me to another advisor. Kind of like trading professional ball players. It was a really bizarre situation, but it has worked out for the best. I'm in my fifth year now, and I don't see anyone kicking me out yet.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm defending this spring with three advisors (one for each of the three main projects that makes up my thesis) and some other folks on my committee. And as soon as I defend my Ph.D. I'm leaving academia. (Strategic business consulting here I come!) Is that a success or a failure?

I think that the advisor hopping was a combination of 1) trying to find some ideal combination of mentoring and scientific brililance and 2) trying to find a subject area about which I felt passionate enough to want to keep working on it for the rest of my professional life. While advisor #3 does a pretty good job at criteria 1, I think I've decided #2 isn't in the cards.

catswym said...

as a grad student, what i've seen of advisor switching has nothing to do with how well the student is doing but rather that the student/advisor just could not put up with their advisor/student any longer.

every one of us knows it can be a struggle to work with a person day in and day out. most of the time most of us can put up with it. sometimes, we just can't.

Anonymous said...

I switched universities after my MS, since university A wouldn't let me pursue the topic of my choice. I also went through about 5 different advisors at University A trying unsuccessfully to find a good fit. When I transferred to University B (after being summarily told that I wouldn't be allowed to stay if I continued to pursue my project), I found a great project in exactly the area I wanted. I defended my thesis 1.5 years after I started, for a grand total of 4.5 years of grad school. University B treated me like the Queen of the Lab, and I subsequently got a tenure-track job straight out of grad school (with help from my 6th and final advisor). I'm three years out now, and I just got promoted (I work in a government lab) to the equivalent of tenured asst. prof. In my case, the advisor I wanted to work for at Uni A retired, and the work moved to Uni B. The transfer was the best thing for me. The best part is watching the folks at Uni A squirm whenever they have to deal with me. :) Sometimes switching is the best way to deal with a bad situation. I just wish my professors at Uni A hadn't been such jerks about the whole thing - they could have been nice about it, rather than putting down my project (which turned out to be really good after all!). That caused a lot of unnecessary heartache and strife until I moved to Uni B. If I ever start advising grad students, I know I can do a better job than they did. Compassion is as important as being a brilliant scientist.

Maria B said...

At Penn State University, switching advisors officially is "possible", but if you try and do it in real life, is impossible in Science graduate degrees, because professors are not willing to take students like these because of political issues and there is no support whatsoever or encouragement even if your grades are great and you are a great student.