When I was first looking at switching labs and consulted my age old friend Google, I did not see a lot of relevant results. So, for any other anxious graduate student that is considering switching labs and wants steps and an email template of what to send, hopefully this article helps.
As is said over and over and over again, having a good advisor is the key to success in grad school. Switching advisors can be hard, but the search is worth it to find an advisor that is rooting for you and has similar research interests. If that’s not enough incentive to go through with your search, there’s also that whole issue about not having to pay your way through grad school out of pocket and needing a professor to pay.
Step 1: Research Labs in Your Department That Have Similar Interests
The first step to switching labs is determining which groups in the department would be a good fit for you. Thoroughly investigate what labs in your department are researching, as they may end up doing work that you are interested in and just not familiar with. Also, don’t immediately rule out advisors if you’ve heard bad things through the grapevine, but tread cautiously to determine what the truth in the rumors are.
Step 2: Talk With Students in the Group of Your Top Picks
The most honest depiction of your future advising relationship is going to come from your advisor’s current students. No advisor is perfect, and you probably won’t hear 100% good things. It’s up to you to determine if the flags that the students raise are significant enough that you would not want that trait in an advisor.
When I was first admitted to MIT, I was told by some students in the department that my advisor just doesn’t take in female students, and that I should be concerned. And I was. It was a few years since Ed last advised a woman, and coming from Purdue I was traumatized by sexist bullshit and determined not to deal with it again. Luckily enough, I had my own funding and I was really interested in the work Ed does, so I figured I’d take the risk despite the rumors.
But those concerns never materialized. Ed has been amazing. He’s responsive, provides good direction, and is genuinely interested in both my research and my personal life. And when he found out I was queer, it didn’t matter, which is how it should be. Sometimes the warnings you receive about advisors are more reflective of a past student being burned, and not indicative a broader pattern with the advisor. As much as we like to pretend that academia is objective and impersonal, the reality is that it’s extremely petty, cutthroat, and competitive and people’s feelings get hurt all the time. It’s up to you to determine if the warnings you hear about an advisor are something that happened between one student and the advisor, or a concerning issue with every student (or every student of a marginalized identity).
Step 3: Email The Potential Advisor
A sample draft email that I have sent is shown below. The main things you want to convey are: 1. you are already at the school 2. your funding situation. There’s no point in hiding what your funding is, because it will be the first thing that they ask about anyways.
Hi Professor XXX
My name is Sydney Dolan, I am a second year masters student and a NSF, Douglas, and GEM Fellow in the Engineering Systems Lab. I am fully funded through Summer 2022, and half funded through 2024. My masters work is for the TESSERAE project, where I am developing a CNN-based pose estimation model and a sliding mode tracking controller. For my Ph.D. work, I am very interested in the expertise your lab provides in machine learning and autonomy. I know that you mentioned not wanting to take in students in a past lab meeting I attended, but given my funding situation, I was wondering if you are willing to take on any Ph.D. students at this time. If it would be a possibility, I’d love to set up a time to chat more about a possible collaboration.
Step 4: Negotiating with Potential Advisors
Navigating the discussion with a potential advisor is, in my opinion, the hardest part of the whole process. You need to strike a balance between having a vague idea of what you want your PhD to be with research that is complimentary to your potential advisors interest. In theory, this should not be hard, but each professor has different expectations about the level of detail you’ve thought about your PhD topic. Further, while you can talk with every single student and try to mention research areas you think are similar to what is going on in the group, the advisor could be pivoting away due to interest or funding and you just won’t know until you talk with them.
Step 4ish?: Dealing with Rejection
Step 1. Insist you’re not actually mad about it
Step 2. Stay up late at night staring at the ceiling because you’re actually mad about it.
Step 3. Realize that you need to get back on the horse and email another professor because you don’t have enough money to live in a van down by the river.
Step 4ish??: Discussing Research Topics with Potential Advisor
Read as much as you can physically stand about the field, especially your potential advisor’s recent papers, and take detailed notes. I’m not going to prescribe a “X” papers per day approach, but the more you can read and thoroughly understand about the field, the better off you will be. A screenshot template I have been using for my PhD Topic Search is shown below.
Not every advisor is going to thoroughly question what you already know about the field. Sometimes it is just “are you interested in this” –> “cool you’re in.” Regardless, you’ll be doing research about your PhD topic eventually, so this is good practice.
Step ???: Talking with Your Old Advisor About Transitioning
This one I don’t have absolute state knowledge of the best way to approach. My Masters advisor was great, and he had no hard feelings at all about me lab shopping. When I discussed the new advisor with him, he just insisted that he only wanted what was best for me and what made the most sense for my research interests. Not everyone is as lucky to have such a situation.
If you are wary about informing your advisor of the switch, just make sure your new advisor is fully on-board before informing the old one. One peer of mine knew that his first advisor would not take the news well, so he looked into funding/spoke with potential advisors before his masters was even done so he would not have to figure out the funding gap/not be at the full wrath of the old advisor. MIT AeroAstro provides a one semester stipend for transitioning between advisors, so I would recommend discussing with your department coordinator if there are funding options for you that give you more time to find an advisor.
Step !!!: Balling Out Because You have Finished Your Advisor Search
Have a dreamy trail run to celebrate that this phase of your PhD is done with wooooo ~