I thought it could never happen to me. I had been so careful, so strategic when choosing which graduate school to attend and which labs to join. But the bombshell came in my fourth year: my advisor announced she was moving the lab to another institution.
I ended up relatively lucky and – so far – with minimal scathing from my lab’s move. My interdisciplinary PhD program required us to have two advisors, so I stayed and continued my dissertation work with my other advisor. Many of my former labmates, however, chose to move and rebuild the lab in a new city.
How often do graduate students and postdocs find themselves deciding whether to move when their mentor does? As far as I can tell, no one keeps track of how often faculty move or, more importantly for early career researchers, how such moves affect advisees’ careers. From interviews I conducted with graduate students who have experienced an advisor move, I’ve learned that some advisees end up relatively unfazed while others drastically overhaul their research plans or even leave academia entirely.
In case your advisor moves too, or if you just want to give yourself another thing to worry about when you can’t sleep at night, here are some pros, cons, and pro-tips that I have learned from my experience and from interviewing other graduate students.
Should I stay?
Pro: Not having to move! Does anyone actually enjoy the process of moving? It’s awful!
Con: You will lose access to lab resources including, but not limited to: equipment, research animals, testing space, server space, and helpful lab personnel. You may have to rush to finish experiments with smaller sample sizes, graduate with fewer experiments than originally planned, or leave with a Master’s degree instead of a PhD.
In my case, reviewers asked for more data after my advisor’s ethics protocols were closed and another lab had moved into her former space. I had to scramble to get a new protocol approved and hunt down a new testing space within my resubmission window.
Protip: To save a good deal of stress and hassle, submit papers as soon as possible, ideally before your lab leaves.
Con: You will miss out on your advisor’s mentorship.
Protip: Decide whether you will continue collaborating with your departed advisor or cut ties and join a new lab. If you choose the latter, be flexible and willing to adjust your research plans. Ideally you will have preexisting relationships and collaborations with other faculty members that you can leverage in your hunt for a new lab. A graduate student who joined a lab she was already collaborating with advised, “Be productive, and other people will want you.”
If you continue working with your advisor after he or she leaves the institution, discuss your mutual expectations for this new long-distance relationship. Schedule regular Skype meetings so that you both stay accountable to each other.
Con: Skype makes online meetings easy and convenient, but you will miss in-person interaction. Face-to-face encounters too casual to warrant a scheduled video chat (e.g. quick questions, discussing a talk you just attended) are still important for research progress and your career development.
Protip: If you can afford it (or if your advisor will pay for it), go visit your lab in its new location, plan lots of meetings and use the time to recharge your research motivation.
Con: You will miss your advisor’s funding.
Protip: Your department and director of graduate studies should help you. As one graduate student who joined a new lab noted, “Don’t panic as long as you still have funding.” This may mean taking on extra departmental services, such as teaching or grading, but that is better than having no funding for your research. If you want to attend conferences to present work completed with your departing advisor, ask him/her to leave some conference funds behind for you.
Or should I go?
Pro: You came to graduate school to work with a specific person, and moving allows you to maintain this relationship and continue the progression of your scientific research. A graduate student who moved with her advisor noted, “You save the time of orienting yourself within a new literature and figuring out how a new lab or a new advisor works.”
Con: Moving can be expensive, and your new home may have a higher cost of living.
Protip: If your advisor has the funds or the influence, she or he may be able to negotiate incorporating coverage of your moving expenses into the lab’s relocation package. Ask if this is possible. Determine if your stipend or salary will change at the new institution. If it is less than what you currently make, ask your advisor if s/he can match your current pay. Graduate students should also negotiate, or get the advisor to negotiate, coursework and TA requirements at the new institution.
Con: Setting up a new lab takes time and may delay experiments. There may be staff to hire, protocols to submit, equipment to order, and new institutional red tape to navigate.
Protip: Ask your new colleagues about the best practices for navigating a new bureaucracy at your new institution. After all, complaining about bureaucratic inefficiencies in a shared system is a great ice-breaker.
Con: Making new friends may not be easy. As one graduate student told me a year after his move, “I am still the ‘transfer student’ to anyone I don’t know well.”
Protip: Your social circle and academic network have theoretically doubled. And don’t be afraid to put yourself out there to make expanding your network and friendships a reality.
We want to hear from you!
Tell us if your friends or colleagues have experienced an advisor moving institutions. If you have any stories or advice to share, please leave them in the comments below.
Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons