Monday, July 07, 2008


Sometimes when things don't work out between a student and advisor (no matter who is at fault, if anyone), the student may try working with another advisor in the same department*. This situation typically involves graduate students, but can also involve undergraduate research students. In some cases this is a neutral situation in which the student and advisor mutually and amicably 'divorce'. In other cases, however, this parting-of-the-ways creates a tense situation for at least some of the individuals involved: the student, the former advisor, and/or the new advisor.

The most tense situations are when the first advisor feels that the student has been given ample opportunity to show their abilities, and changing advisors isn't just a matter of exploring new research interests, it's shopping around for an easier project. If the advisor feels the student has demonstrated a lack of ability for Ph.D. research, for example, he or she might be annoyed if another advisor doesn't respect that opinion and agrees to advise the student. Of course the student's point of view might be that the first advisor or research project was deficient in some way, and so they want to try working with another advisor.

The very first graduate student I advised started working with me through an amicable arrangement between her former advisor and me. When I showed up in my first tenure-track position, this student was just starting her second year of the Ph.D. program. She'd spent most of the first year taking classes (and doing well in them) and thinking about what her research focus would be. Her interests matched mine well, and it was fine with her first-year advisor that she work with me. This was an ideal situation. In fact, I think it is by far the best 'inheritance' situation in which I've participated.

The second graduate student I advised started working with me through an amicable arrangement between his former advisor and me. The student said he couldn't get interested in his first advisor's research, but said he was very interested in my work. I took him on as an MS student, though it quickly became apparent that he wasn't interested in much of anything involving science or research. After trying, and failing, to work with me**, he said that he would probably do better if he had an advisor who had the same religious-ethnic background as he did. Remarkably, the graduate advisor allowed him to switch advisors again, but the student continued to fail and eventually left graduate school.

In both cases, the inherited student proclaimed an interest in my research field, but only one was sincere about it. Could I have figured that out and saved myself the stress, lost time, and wasted resources of Student #2? Unless we want to start giving lie detector tests to students, I think not. And even if we did have Research Interest Lie Detector Tests, they would be unlikely to work, as I think that some students may sincerely think they are interested in something, when in fact they know nothing about the topic and are just being hopeful or deluded.

I've also had several other students decide that they would rather work with another advisor than with me. In most cases, the students were failing and in danger of being forced to leave the graduate program. In these cases, no other faculty were willing to advise the students and the students had to leave. In at least one case, however, a failing student was allowed to switch advisors. In that case, the student didn't do any better with his new advisor than he did with me, and had to leave the grad program.

If there is any indication that a student is doing well or could do well with a change of academic scenery (e.g., the advisor and research project), a department has the responsibility to do what it can to help the student succeed. Certainly there are evil and/or negligent advisors, and students should be given assistance in those cases, including the option of changing advisors. If the student is failing or being unproductive, however, in the vast majority of cases this means that the student won't do well with any advisor. I've heard students say "If only I had a more interesting project, I would be more motivated and then I would do better", but in most cases that is delusional thinking.

There may be situations in which a student is locked into a specific project and has to do boring tasks A, B, and C, and nothing more. In that case, perhaps the answer is a change of projects/advisors. In most cases with which I am aware, however, the students have the opportunity to take some initiative with their research and make it interesting to them. If they don't -- and continue complaining -- then it may be an indication that it's not the research project and the advisor that aren't right for them, it's research in general.

* See also Firing Your Advisor (Jan 2007 post)

** This is the student I have mentioned before who, in his first year of graduate school, asked me "Why do you seem to think you know more than I do?" (in reference to my research specialty)


Anonymous said...

Another issue is style of research. Theory vs. experiment. Large group with postdocs mentoring students vs. small groups with more direct faculty-student contact. Building instruments, building codes, analyzing data. I often see students move from one style to another and successfully obtain a Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

Such an intelligent post (again). You're right, in a minority of cases, the student might really hear a calling. I myself started on a theoretical topic in my field and got really attracted to experimental science, found supervisors who could help me do this kind of research and succeeded to finish my PhD (and postdoc) in the new field. But I can only point to one other grad student whose lab/topic change was similarly-motivated and successful (in that at least a PhD was obtained eventually)

On the other hand, in my grad program, many students floundered around, going from advisor to advisor, project to project, only to leave eventually anyway... I don't think this situation helped anyone, not the least the students, whose identity remained "grad student", their mental health affected by the situation, sometimes to severe extent... They simply were running on empty, it just was not clicking... And I think they felt a lot of guilt and problems with self-esteem. They're intelligent, capable people. It just was not the right fit. Not just the advisor or the PhD projects, but research overall...

Anonymous said...

I started grad school at a time that was a terrible one in my life and was one of those awful students you see who just mess everything up. I took a leave, and when I went back I started with a better attitude and a new advisor--because I felt I'd soured relations with the old one too much. I have done very well in the few years since then. I think the key, though, is that I took time away to get my act together. If I'd just switched it wouldn't have worked out so well.

Becca said...

Oh my! This is so terrible. I'm terrified I might be one of those students. I'm now on advisor #3 (and I've been through even more labs, counting rotations). I love the science, I've got a project I'm interested in and I think I can really contribute to my PI's grant, but I still have enough freedom to pursue little things that are interesting to me. Yet while reading this post I was just flooded with a feeling that I'm just deluding myself- and I'm just not fit for this in some intangible way.

Anonymous said...

My husband was one of the rare cases where changing advisers was a good choice for him. Under Adviser #1 (who was also my adviser), he found himself in a strange situation of being co-advised by two professors who hated each other, and awkwardly shoved into a project that was very poorly designed, had no funding, and his co-advisers couldn't even agree on what he was supposed to be doing. When he was given the opportunity to change to a new adviser, he took it and it was the best thing for him. He was very successful under Adviser #2. There was a key difference however, in that he was consistantly a very hard working graduate student under both advisers. It was just that under adviser #2, he was given a chance to do his research rather than being used as a pawn by to warring factions.

Female Science Professor said...

becca, it sounds like you are on track. If you are interested in what you are doing and you are making progress, just keep going.

Anonymous said...

becca -- I'll offer another piece of advise. Set goals, that involve finishing things. That way you know that you're really making progress. The best goal is a completed & published manuscript. Try to get there as directly as possible. Then,, take the opportunity to "pursue little things that are interesting to you." One type of graduate student who doesn't make it (or more generally, one type of scientist) is one who pursues too many things, not completing any of them.

Eventually, as a PI, one actually needs to pursue many things (along with one's lab). This can actually be a difficult transition, but a student who does it runs an absolute risk of not getting anything done.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have had eight doctoral students finish their dissertations with me. Of those, two were "inherited." One of those has left academia and works in some kind of business setting having nothing to do with research. The other has been quite a productive researcher in the 21 years since she finished. She worked in a field a bit different from mine, and I learned a lot supervising someone outside my usual "narrow" specialty.

Anonymous said...

Oh glory! I only take on a certain (small) number of Bachelor Research projects (don't ask, they are seldom real research because there is no time, but the Powers That Be in my country feel that it has to be this way).

I request that people register with me with an exposé the semester before (that keeps out the riff-raff who can't put together even a page of complete sentences). But when my level is reached, I say no. I want to advise properly, and that means the students showing up in my office every week for a small group discussion of what they did the past week, what they are doing the coming week, and a ceremonial ripping apart of what they wrote with my red pen with the whole group watching. Everyone gets a turn. This teaches them to use a spelling checker after the first week of my comments....

My people get done on time and with good results. Strange, that.

But this time, one person moved to another on short notice. Then another one moved. I was irritated, but whatever, two less projects to keep in my mind.

There was one other student who wanted a special deal - do her project on the other side of the world; start late; take vacation before she start; have the second advisor be on the other side of the world. I helped her through all of the administrative hoops, and she attended my thesis group chat regularly (I have one face-to-face session and one chat per week).

Then I remarked that I was going to take (gasp!) a vacation this summer. With my family. And maybe not be online for a few days.

So she went to another colleague, told him that she was having trouble with me, and could she please write with him (still keeping the project that is in my specialty!!). He immediately said yes, without asking me. He can understand having trouble with me...

I was livid - this mentoring is part of our teaching load. I would lose my teaching load equivalent for her, although I had been helping her for ages. And I had turned down two others with interesting projects, because I was booked.

I called her in for a talk and expressed my displeasure. She didn't really understand - she needs to have an advisor right there where she need him or her every minute while she is writing.

I suppose I should be happy that I don't have to do any more hand-holding for her, but it really irritated me that the colleague would say "yes" before consulting with me. Oh well....

Ms.PhD said...

I think this all goes back to the same thing I'm always harping on. Our educational system does not prepare students to make informed choices about research careers.

For one thing, they don't know enough about the lifestyle they're getting into. Many go to grad school having no idea what they're in for.

Almost none have a grasp of what their options are in terms of projects, topics, and the personalities involved.

Undergraduate research is good for this, and I think it should be required before grad school, if nothing else - for exposure to the different kinds of work:

theory vs. experiment (aka dry vs. wet science)

animal vs. in vitro

consistent little experiments (daily) vs. sporadic big experiments (rarely)

in house vs. fieldwork

big machine science vs. low-budget science

and so on.

The other main problem, as someone alluded to here, is that students don't know themselves. Many of them are immature, and many will only ever be followers, not leaders.

Academic science is really a better career for pioneers than sheep.

The sheeply students think they know what's hot right now, what seems cool from reading about it in Scientific American. DOING it is another problem altogether, and they don't realize the hot thing might not be hot forever. Then what do they do? Some think switching to a hotter field is the best way to go. After all, that's where all the other sheep are.

Anonymous said...

.... Many of them are immature, and many will only ever be followers, not leaders. - Ms.PhD

You said it Ms.PhD. I had a graduate advisee, in whom I invested years, switch abruptly midproject from me to another faculty advisor. He informed me when it was done already! Bridge burner.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor, IMHO your faculty peer blew it worse than your student. A decent respect for the opinions of one's peers requires a chat with the peer before a yes to the student.

I suppose an exception might be a situation of supposed ethical wrongdoing by the first advisor. In that case the potential new advisor could talk to the Dept Head instead.

Doctor Achilles said...

A few people in my program have switched labs. There is one lab in particular that seems to have made a career out of taking on "divorced" students. The students who come out of that lab are all very successful.

I have known two other people to change labs as well, both work exceptionally hard and long hours, but haven't gotten anywhere. In both cases, there have been some problems in the lab. But, in addition, both cases have had (by definition) some past problems on the part of the student as well.

I guess the message I have taken from this is: as a student, if you have to change labs, be very careful with your second choice. You want an advisor who has an excellent track record (not necessarily with other divorcee's, but at least with grad students in general). You lose time when you change labs, and so you need an outstanding P.I. to overcome that.

Maxwell's Demoness said...

I am an "inherited" student. Our department requires you to do three research rotations before you apply to your permanent lab but there is still a lot of turnover. Unfortunately, this is because PIs tend to treat rotation students much differently than they do their actual students.

In my case, my rotation project was a wet bench project that I liked where I was entirely supervised by a tech with whom I worked well. My actual project was a dry bench project that was almost entirely computer programming (which I had never done in my life and warned the PI about)that no-one but the PI could help me with and he was very rarely around. I made almost no progress, the lab was very tight on cash so he refused to put me on a wet bench project, and we ended up parting unpleasantly.

Hard lesson learned at the cost of a year's time, but I'm in a much better situation now and working on my first manuscript. It is still kind of weird interacting with my "ex" though, which is more than I would like because I am still really good friends with everyone else in that lab.

Doctor Pion said...

I'm surprised switching isn't more common given that students start with a specific advisor on Day 1. How does that work? Do you have a mixer?

But I came from a small theory group where the working relationship with your major prof was critical to productivity. However, even the experimental students chose the program and only later decided what project to pursue and who to do it with.

If you don't have an REU experience in that specific department, how do you choose a group? Even then you would not have had much of a chance to hear any seminars or informal presentations about the research being done and might not know enough to catch key details.

Our department had a research "course" where you worked informally with a group, with no commitment. Sometimes that evolved into a working relationship, other times it did not, but it did get you involved enough to make a good choice for your first summer.