If you’ve been in or around the world of academia for long enough, you’ve probably heard the analogy that joining a research group is like getting married. I’ve even heard research rotations explained as akin to dating. So, at the risk of stretching this metaphor too far, that would make leaving a research group the academic equivalent of divorce.
It's not hard to find statistics that say that nearly 50 percent of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, but finding numbers on academic “divorce” rates seems nearly impossible. In one sense, logic dictates that this is because it is far harder to quantitatively measure the splits that occur between graduate students and their advisors than those that occur between spouses. This is in part because every graduate program is different. Some have students already paired with an advisor when they arrive on campus. In others, this connection doesn’t happen until the end of the first year. Still others require research rotations, offering students the opportunity to “test drive” multiple research groups before joining one long-term. Some programs have official paperwork connecting a student to an advisor (an academic marriage certificate, if you will), but many do not. As a result, it is understandably difficult to keep records of the divisions that occur between graduate students and advisors.
But I propose an additional reason that finding the numbers on academic divorce is difficult: It’s something we don’t talk about. Changing research groups is as taboo a subject in many parts of academia as religion and politics are around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Splits between students and advisors are often messy, and we don’t like to face the reality that they exist. But this attitude has created an unfortunate stigma which implies that if a student decides to leave a group, he or she must have done something wrong. To stray from the typical path seemingly necessitates that the student must have made some unforgivable mistake. The transition from one group/advisor to another is far harder than it ought to be because the change is too often viewed as confessing failure or admitting defeat.
During my second year of graduate school, I found myself in a situation necessitating a change of research groups. However, I felt overwhelmed by the idea. I had given no previous thought to this option because leaving the lab I had joined was a process that I had deemed impossible. The first time that a friend suggested I might consider switching groups, I basically blew him off. I said things like, “My program isn’t set up for that,” and “I couldn’t handle the social stigma that would come with that.” Instead, I did my best to ignore all the signs which indicated that a change was necessary and to buckle down and work through it. In my head, regardless of how bad things got, changing research groups simply wasn’t an option.
Until it was.
When I finally admitted that I needed to make a serious change, I began searching for options. A key part of that search involved listening to the stories of others. I called a friend who had decided to leave graduate school before finishing her program in exchange for a job opportunity in her home state. But it took me far longer to find someone who had successfully changed research groups who was willing to tell me their story.
During a meeting with one of the administrators in my college I asked, “Is there someone who has done this before, someone I could talk to?” Over the next few days, I repeated this question to the chair of my department, to other professors, to another administrator, and to older students in my program. But the answer was always the same; no one was able to give me a name or contact information.
My search for a success story had come up empty. But I still longed to hear the words of someone who had been in my shoes and made it work. So I turned to Plan B – I stretched beyond the walls of my department and my college. A close friend in an unrelated program had mentioned a colleague who had been through a transition similar to the one that I was experiencing. I had asked him previously if he thought his colleague would be willing to talk to me about her experience. When my friend seemed hesitant to ask her, I let it drop. After my search came up dry, I asked again.
In this conversation, it was evident to me that my friend couldn’t fathom what I stood to gain from talking to this student. “She’s in a different program,” “The process isn’t going to look the same for you,” and “I’m not really sure how you think she can help,” were all ideas I heard in response to my request. But even though he still didn’t understand, my friend was willing to do what he could to support me.
Several days later, I found myself sitting across from a girl who I had never met but who seemed to understand my story better than even my close friends. She shared with me her story, which was remarkably like my own with one major exception – in a sense, her story had found a happy ending while mine was just past the messy climax. This conversation, more than any other experience during that time, gave me hope. With conscious and unconscious pressures telling me that switching research groups was (at best) a bad idea or (at worst) impossible, I had finally found a concrete example that demonstrated otherwise.
I won’t say that my academic life has simply been smooth sailing since then, but even with all the difficulty of changing research groups and the aftermath associated with that decision, I have not regretted it for a minute. When I was in a situation that was not the right place for me, I took the necessary steps to change that, and I would encourage anyone else to do the same. If you’re feeling stuck – in your research group or in your current project or in anything else – you’re only stuck as long as you label the way out as “impossible.”
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll offer some concrete advice for surviving a limbo period – academic or otherwise. I’ll share some of the best (and maybe some of the worst) advice that I was given during my time between research groups and add some from my own experience with the hopes of helping anyone in a similar situation navigate a path to success.