Rebooting Your PhD (Is Not the End of the World)

SPRING 2017
Sarah
B.
Biology

In July of 2013, I was abruptly told to leave lab. No warning, no chance to explain myself.

The fact is, a sizable fraction of students do end up changing labs. Sometimes the cause is relatively benign — a professor gets a job offer elsewhere, or you realize you don’t like working with mice after all. Other times the situation devolves into something more dramatic, as in my case. Regardless of the cause, having to switch labs can feel like the end of the world, or at least the end of your graduate career.

But it isn’t.

As I said, these situations are not rare. There’s no need to feel ashamed or isolated when you need to switch labs. The key to moving forward is, in my opinion, open and honest communication with resources on campus.

Where to Turn
There are resources available to you. I found plenty of people willing and able to provide productive advice, be my advocates, and help me find a place where I could flourish.

I found it important to seek the advice of people outside my ex-advisor’s lab. Although I still had good relationships with some former labmates, their perspectives were limited. They weren’t professors, nor did they have training to deal with situations like mine. The same went for my classmates and friends. Although they provided great support emotionally, their advice was strongly colored by their personal experiences and opinions.

For me, the best advice came from professors in the department, the department head, and MIT mental health professionals.

Right after my dismissal, I gravitated towards a professor I profoundly respect and with whom I had a great relationship. He is not a particularly soft-spoken man, and he made no effort to sugarcoat the situation. Instead, he told me what I needed to hear: the barefaced truth. He listed my options clearly and without judgment. With his help, I made the decision to stay in graduate school.

As in many such situations, I was then asked to meet with the head of the program to have a Discussion About My Future. I was, quite frankly, terrified. I was terrified that he would believe my adviser instead of me. I was terrified that I would be kicked out of the program. And he was a person who had the power to make those things happen.

I made the decision to be completely honest — a decision I appreciate to this day. And, to my surprise, he let me tell my side of the story. He listened to me. He believed me. And he had no problem with me continuing in the program. He talked to me about potential advisers, how to avoid dramatic situations in the future, and the logistics of what would happen next.

Finally, I talked with a psychologist on campus. MIT has great mental health resources. In the case of a traumatic event — like being kicked out of a lab — it is common for advisers and advocates to suggest their students go to mental health. My initial reaction was antagonistic. How dare they intrude on my personal life? My mental health was my business and I hated that that other people thought they had a say.

However, I have to admit getting that psychological support was extremely helpful. Even though my psychologist didn’t understand my situation as well as a professor would have, he was able to provide emotional guidance. In a situation where everyone seemed to have their own opinion about what was best for me, he was able to help clear the waters and help me identify what I believed was the best course of action.

In retrospect, I can appreciate the perspective of those people who insisted that I visit MIT mental health. I understand that they were doing their best to help me out of a difficult situation, and in it’s never a bad idea to seek help when you’re hurting the way I was hurting.

I didn’t feel the need to contact resources beyond those listed above, but I should mention there are a plethora of other options. I’ve compiled a brief list of helpful links that you can find at the end of this blog.

What to Do Next
First and foremost, I gave myself time to grieve. And of course I had moments of panic and shock and guilt. I acknowledged them. Accepted them. And then tried to realize that’s all they were — moments.

I had the luxury of not making a major decision right away.

The first thing I did after leaving lab was to take a break. I went on a brief vacation to relax and clear my head. If you have the ability to do this, I highly recommend it. I didn’t want to fall headlong into the first lab that responded positively to my panicked emails! That would have been a recipe for recreating a bad situation.

Then, when the time came to face the situation, I was able to do so calmly and carefully. I made myself a comfy nest in the living room, complete with overly sweet cocoa, and began to make lists. I listed things that I knew I wanted in a lab. I listed things to avoid. And, ultimately, I listed all the professors that I was interested in working with.

It was a long list.

But a few days and many mugs of hot cocoa later, I was able to narrow it down and progress into the Time of Many Emails. And, eventually, I set up meetings with several potential advisers.

Deciding on a Lab (Again)
The next step was the interview with my potential new adviser. I made a few key choices in this domain.

First, I wanted to be honest. I acknowledged the situation in my former lab. I talked about what went wrong, and what I would do to avoid such situations in the future. After all, professors talk to each other. There is no way my new advisor wouldn’t figure out that something had gone wrong in my previous lab.

Second, I knew I needed to be realistic. I thought long and hard about how many more years I was willing to devote to graduate school. Was I looking for a short project so that I could still graduate in five years? Was I truly willing to start from scratch again? In my case, I was willing to start from scratch- and that decision definitely colored the sorts of projects that were discussed.

When the interview went well, I had the opportunity to interact with the members of the lab. I made sure to ask questions about the social dynamics in the lab, as well as observing them in action. I attended lab meetings, chatted with graduate students and post-docs about their projects, and was even able to do a brief rotation.

As you can probably guess, this was the lab I ended up joining. It’s a lab in which I felt comfortable establishing a more positive social dynamic; a lab where there is camaraderie between lab members and a sense of shared purpose.

Closure
The last thing I did was revisit the projects from my previous lab. As much as I didn’t want to, I sat down and documented every project I had worked on. I included all the data I had, as well as my interpretations and opinions about future directions. I made it clear that I was available for consultation on those projects in the future.

I did this despite my former adviser, not because I thought I owed him something. Just because our relationship had suffered, there was no reason for the research to suffer. Just because we’d clashed didn’t mean I shouldn’t get credit for the work I’d done.

I did not feel that my former adviser had treated me with respect, but I responded responsibly and with respect for the greater mission of scientific research. And it made the situation feel somehow like a victory. Besides, it gave me a sense of closure about the whole experience.

Overall, switching labs was certainly a challenging experience. At times it was a struggle to see it as an opportunity — but that’s exactly what it was. It gave me the opportunity to find an environment where I could truly flourish.

On-campus Resources

REFS
http://refs.mit.edu/

Conflict Management@MIT
https://studentlife.mit.edu/conflictmanagement

Graduate Personal Support (GPS)
https://odge.mit.edu/development/gps/

Mental Health & Counseling
https://medical.mit.edu/services/mental-health-counseling#resources