My advisor left MIT during my PhD

Making difficult decisions with incomplete information
Dec 2020
Cherry
G.
Biological Engineering

It was a chilly November morning in 2014, and two months into my second year at MIT. My PhD advisor called for an all-hands group meeting with required attendance. We crammed into a tiny conference room: all 15 of us, whose lives were about to be turned upside-down. On the screen, my advisor flashed a picture of a perfect,  European city snuggled by a breathtaking panorama of snow-capped mountains. “I have accepted a Full Professor position at ETH Zurich in Switzerland”, he announced, followed by a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation delineating the logistics of his move, from the new lab space (scientific wonderland) to the timeline of his move (within 6 months). My advisor was already a tenured professor at MIT, and obtaining a Full Professor position at a world-class university like ETH Zurich was a formidable achievement. Despite his success, each bullet point felt like a stab in my chest. We shuffled out of the conference room in silence.

Switching to another advisor at MIT was an option. I was early enough in my PhD that starting over would not introduce too much delay. This option would allow me to continue cultivating the friendships and connections at MIT made during my first years of my campus involvement, including at the Sidney Pacific Graduate Community and the MIT Graduate Student Council.

On the other hand, moving with my advisor to ETH Zurich was a rare, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to live and work in Switzerland. This option was riddled with doubts and questions with no answers. What would my life be like there? Will I have a good experience? Would I be compromising my MIT PhD experience, one that I worked so hard to get, by moving to another university?

Back then, this was the toughest decision I had ever had to make in the 24 years of my life. I consulted with friends and counselors (“if you were me, would you move or stay?”) because I craved wisdom, advice, clarity, or any information that would fill the large and scary abyss of unanswered questions. For four months, I lived in the anxious gray-zone of indecision.

In retrospect, one of the biggest personal lessons that I learned is to trust my gut and say “YES” to unexpected opportunities. The ironic thing about making life-changing decisions with incomplete information is that the majority of the unanswered questions (which paralyzed me in indecision) would remain unanswered unless you take the route of many unknowns. I did not know what my PhD life in Switzerland would look like, but if I didn’t seize this opportunity, I could never find out.

So I decided to move.

A practical tip for PhD students who decide to move away with their advisors: do not focus on your impending move during the time leading up to it! After making the decision to move to Switzerland, I made the mistake of leading with that information during social interactions. Eventually, every conversation started with “I thought you already moved” or “When are you moving again?”, and in answering, I was forced to count down the months (“I’m moving in 9 months…”). Friends would sometimes express their jealousy (“You are so lucky. Switzerland is so beautiful”), because they wrongly equated my Swiss PhD experience with their vacation in the alps. As a hairball of complex emotions surged up my throat, I internally struggled to find words to express myself. I ended up nodding silently to let the awkward moment pass.

Despite the constant presence of “the move” on my mind, the year leading up to it was one of the best years I had at MIT. Knowing that I only had one more year in Cambridge, I lived my MIT life to the fullest. I went to hackathons, seminars, club events, and took campus leadership positions. I filled my calendar with social events to create lasting memories with my MIT friends.

As my SWISS flight LX53 gained altitude, I watched Boston get smaller and smaller, marking the start of my 3-year PhD journey in Switzerland. Needless to say, those three years were a period of immense personal growth. When I arrived on the ETH Zurich campus, I was surprised to learn that the lab was not set up to the level that would allow me to perform my experiments. I was in the middle of my third year, which is typically when PhD students accelerate their productivity. Instead, I found myself scientifically decelerating to an almost dead halt. Coupled with my scientific doom, I was also challenged socially. Not being integrated in the student life at the university meant that I needed to be especially proactive in making friends, which placed me in plenty of uncomfortable and awkward situations. I joined a Swiss German choir without being able to speak or understand the language (music is a universal language, right?). I learned to read body language, facial expressions, and social cues like a pro. I learned to be OK with being a fly on the wall at parties as conversations in Swiss German buzzed around me. I spent a lot of time reflecting on how I fit into the world as an individual, and yes, I did this while exploring the beautiful Swiss alps.

I also learned to recognize when I need to pivot my life trajectory. While I cherished my time and friendships in Switzerland, and finishing my PhD there was an option for me, I made the decision to come back to MIT as soon as I felt that my growth curve had hit a saturation point. I pitched my detailed plan to finish my PhD remotely from my advisor, and he agreed. What followed was a couple of wonderful final years at MIT, where I continued to grow exponentially. I realized that while it is important to take opportunities as they come, it is also important for me to recognize when I am no longer moving forward at the speed that matches my energy and appetite. It was time to pivot my life towards a different direction, which for me, was coming home to MIT.