Switching Research Groups

Sometimes problems arise in the undergraduate research experience that may make it wise to consider either leaving the research group or joining another lab. Sometimes the problem may involve your relationship with your advisor: it may become too personal (unwanted physical contact, e-mail messages, etc.) or abusive (students expected to perform personal work for the advisor, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality). Other problems may also arise – you may suddenly realize that the research area simply isn’t interesting to you or that it is too challenging. It may also be that the opportunity for gaining hands on experience or exerting independence may be too limited or that you would prefer more assistance and/or direction. Finally, you may simply realize that the timing isn’t right (course load too difficult, too many other obligations). In this section we’ll discuss some of the pros and cons of switching research groups and suggest some approaches to leaving on good terms with your advisor.

If you are having difficulties it is important for you to be honest with yourself and your advisor. Consider whether the difficulties may be on your end of the relationship: exhaustion, lack of interest in the project, dislike of your advisor and/or other group members, or the project may be too challenging. Sometimes students expect their advisor to serve as a friend and mentor. Some students are lucky enough to find an advisor who becomes their mentor over time but that isn’t the norm.

If you are thinking about leaving the group or switching labs, it is important that you discuss your concerns first with your advisor as sometimes the problems are due to misunderstandings, unarticulated expectations, etc. and the relationship may be repaired. Even if you have already made up your mind to leave (hopefully you will keep an open mind), it is important to speak face to face with your advisor and explain your concerns. This is especially important if you plan to later solicit a letter of recommendation from your advisor. Depending on the seriousness of the problems between you and your advisor you may alternately wish to discuss the situation with another trusted faculty member and/or ask him/her to serve as a mediator between you and your advisor. Some departments have an ombudsman for this specific purpose.

Last words: If you do decide to leave the laboratory or switch research groups, it is important to be professional when you make your move. Be sure to cooperate with your advisor in all ways, leaving all research materials (lab notebooks, etc.) behind and assisting him/her in the transition of your project, if required, and not to badmouth your advisor or research group to others when you leave. Although it may be therapeutic, this behavior is unprofessional and won’t win you any friends.