How to Change Advisors in Grad School Part 2

At the start of the year, I posted an instructional article about things to consider when you’re switching advisors, but mostly leaving on a good note with your prior advisor and free to search around. Now, I would like to talk about how to change advisors when you are switching away from a toxic advisor. Many of the tips are similar, but I think navigating the political dynamics is much more complicated.

Step 1: Gather Your Allies

A toxic advising situation means that there is not a clear bridge of trust between you and your advisor. Regardless of who is at ‘fault’ (as a grad student I’m generally biased to say that the student should be given more instruction to succeed, but I can’t litigate the nuance of every bad advising situation), you need to collect people that are on your side. This could be people that advised you in the past, it could be an OMBUDS person, it could be department leadership. A good ally is someone that can speak to your abilities as a researcher, or even a person that understands your needs and why this advising relationship isn’t working out. They may be open to being your next PhD advisor, they may not, but ultimately they are ready to advocate for you as you begin this process.

Step 2: Reflect on What You Need Out of A New Advisor

Sadly, it’s a lot easier to learn what you need out of an advising relationship after you’ve had a bad advisor than to realize what’s good about your relationship with a good one. As you’re looking for a new advisor, reflect on what you need from an advisor to get your degree and get out of there. If you are early on in the PhD, what type of communication is needed from your next advisor? Do you want to meet weekly? Do you need some sort of formal plan week by week for their expectations each semester? How much help do you need to find a topic and form a committee? Can you immediately work with a post-doc or join an existing research project within your new group? If you are later on in the PhD, what remaining milestones need to occur for you to get the degree, and what are your expectations for your advisor in terms of how much they will help you? How accessible are they when scheduling committee meetings? Most importantly, if they are not happy with your progress, what will they do to make sure you’re making progress as they see fit? You don’t want to jump from the one bad situation to another.

Step 3: Reach Out to New Advisors

Professors talk with one another, but they’re not all necessarily buddy buddy. Future professors you talk to may be looped in on what happened in your situation, they may not. Regardless of your situation, you need to walk the fine line of explaining why the past relationship didn’t work out, while also not looking like a ‘vengeful” grad student. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your fault. It doesn’t matter if this was the most clear-cut case of all time that your past advisor wronged you. The academy will always close ranks to protect their own, and if your serious about getting the degree, you have to recognize that any ideas of justice may not actually happen. Try to let go of the anger (as hard as that is), and just focus on what objectively wasn’t working. You want to prove in these conversations that you are still a capable grad student, and that you have needs that just weren’t fulfilled by the last advisor. You don’t have to litigate everything that happened with your old advisor, only enough to contextualize why you need a new one.

Step 4: Consider Asking an Interim Advisor

If your situation is particularly heinous and you need to leave immediately, try locating an advisor that would be willing to take you on for a semester (or the remainder of the semester) while you find a new advisor. If you have already spoken with a sympathetic member of the department administration, consider asking them if they could advise you for a semester. If you feel like your advising situation is so ineffective that you cannot rely on your past advisor to evaluate you or help you get your PhD, an interim advisor may give you some reprieve from the stress of a bad advising situation. When you ask someone to be an interim advisor, you need to layout your plan for how you will find a more permanent home, and still make research progress in light of the situation.

Step 5: Sit Your Advisor Down and Inform Them of The Switch

Only once you have covered your ass should you tell your advisor that you plan on switching. Make sure that you have an interim advisor or a new advisor entirely before you tell your past advisor you are leaving. In this conversation, focus on being professional and curt. You do not need to share any more information than necessary to your bad advisor, especially because retaliation is always a concern. The main goal of this conversation should be to establish you are leaving, and close out any remaining projects or tasks that your advisor needs done.

Step 6: Enter Therapy (If you weren’t in it already)

Leaving a bad advising situation is an immense accomplishment. You recognized your needs, and found a new advisor that is willing to support you along your research process. But leaving the bad lab means you are no longer being harmed, it does not mean you are healed. Grieving the time that you lost to the ex advisor is normal, as is feeling anger and jealousy towards others that have had smoother grad school journeys. If you can afford it, please try to speak with a therapist to sort through your feelings about your experience. Bad advising situations can be traumatic, and you deserve a confidential space to talk about what you’ve gone through.

Miscellaneous Closing Thoughts

One piece that’s not captured in this guide is that it can be hard to trust your gut when choosing a new advisor. You may feel like you did your due diligence in choosing an advisor the first time, and anxious that you may make the same mistakes all over again. You may feel beat-down and unconfident that something is wrong with you, and that you were the problem. This whole process is hard and demeaning, and few people will truly understand how drained, broken, and empty you feel. But getting accepted to grad school means that you have what it takes to get the degree. Other people, especially your past advisor, don’t get to dictate who you are. You get to chose your own path, and if someone wasn’t able to see your value and guide you effectively, that is their loss, because you are going to succeed regardless. Things are tough right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be tough forever. You survived through a bad work environment, and you will survive the process of getting to a better one. Reach out to those that love you and hear it from them if you don’t believe it yourself. I wish you the best of luck with finding an advisor that can communicate clearly and support you in the ways you need.

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