Making the switch

My journey of changing labs
July 2020
Liang
L.

A year and a half into my master’s program, I decided to change labs. This may not sound as terrifying, but it means jumping into an ocean of uncertainty.

Unlike many PhD programs at MIT, my master’s program doesn’t have the luxury of lab rotations with secure funding from the department. This means that the natural path for most students is to select a lab where the research is more or less aligned with their undergraduate background or past experiences. That makes sense because professors are more likely to invest in students who have relevant background knowledge and experience. That was my approach as well; I searched for labs focusing on the topics of renewable energy and energy storage that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on. I did this even though I knew deep down that my interests had shifted and that I would rather pursue a new field.

But I stayed in my comfort zone: the pressure to find a research lab that could fund my studies as soon as possible led me to accept the first research assistant (RA) offer I got. At first, I was pretty happy with my choice because the people in the lab were all friendly and helpful, and the professor was really nice. She even went out of her way to let me chat with her students to make sure the lab was a good fit for me before accepting the offer. Everything was good until the second semester into my research. I started procrastinating on research and found myself doing most of the research the day before my weekly meeting with my advisor. I dreaded these research meetings. I had this sneaking feeling that I wasn’t doing what I was meant to be doing.

The postdoc I was working with noticed that I wasn’t spending as much time in the lab. My advisor was the one who broached the topic and asked me if there was anything that was troubling me and if I was still interested in the research topic. That was a difficult conversation, but looking back I am really grateful that she initiated it. I reflected on the research experience and realized that I was not as excited about the research topic as I used to be. I opened up to my advisor and told her that I would like to leave the lab by the end of the semester.

The following January, shortly after leaving my lab, I felt strangely relieved even though I knew I needed to find another RA. I greatly enjoyed the freedom and explored courses in neuroanatomy and other interests without having to worry about research.

The task of finding a new RA in a new field of interest with only a year left in a master’s program was daunting. I chatted with a professor to ask for his advice. He told me that PIs would usually prefer students with more time left in their program, like a PhD student. He was pretty helpful in explaining to me what professors usually look for when hiring grad students. At the end of our chat, he wished me good luck in “finding a miracle”. A miracle? This made the task sound even harder than I thought it was. But it actually wasn’t! I looked for research projects I found myself genuinely interested in regardless of whether I had the right background. A few professors told me they were not accepting new students, but one professor agreed to see me. I interviewed with his postdoc and PhD student, and the PI accepted me for the summer!

After a summer of research and getting the necessary training, the professor gladly agreed to support me for the last year of my master’s degree, despite my lack of experience in the field. I learned a ton, particularly hands-on lab skills I craved. The diversity of projects and people in the lab still amazes me. The PhD student guiding me was incredibly patient and knowledgeable.

In retrospect, I wish I had explored and switched earlier instead of waiting around. I was held back by fear, specifically the fear that I would not be able to find a new lab in a new field. Deep down, I also felt ashamed to switch directions because I didn’t even contribute much to my old field.

Research probably defines most of the academic life at MIT. It is crucial that you find one that you are genuinely excited about. I am not saying that the lab environment and the relationship with your advisor are not important. They are as well, of course! It’s really hard to find motivation to work on something for a long time if you are not passionate about it. It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone, just like I did for my former research. But in the long term, you may become numb and lose momentum. It’s always easier said than done, but it is important to get out of your comfort zone, to challenge yourself, to seize new opportunities, and to have the important conversations.

We often try to limit ourselves after we’ve invested so much in one thing and feel obliged to continue doing it. But we shouldn’t feel confined! It is ok to switch fields and chart a new course even though you don’t have the prior knowledge. If you don’t do it at MIT, then where? Grad school is one of the rare opportunities you have to switch focus. Trust yourself and don’t be discouraged by what other people say or think of you.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” 
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist