“Should I stay, or should I go,” how to navigate the decision to leave your current mentor for another.

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  • June 20, 2017

Written by Dr. Candice Thomas


So, you have researched the lab that you joined and labored over it for several months. Perhaps, if you are a graduate student, you did a rotation in that laboratory for a few months. Yet, here you are at the point of asking yourself if you should leave the lab. How did it get to this point? I thought that I had been so careful. I asked all of the right questions and spent time researching whether or not this was a good fit for me, you tell yourself. So, what went wrong? Well, the truth is, it is complicated. At this point, it really is not about beating yourself up over choosing the “wrong” lab but rather what should you do about it. The answer to that question is not as clear as I would like for it to be for you but is really much more like “it depends.” I, like many people do, found myself in this position during graduate school. So I will share some of the lessons that I learned without boring you too much with the details and I will also provide you with some perspective of how it may or may not have impacted my career after the fact. How you proceed is ultimately your decision, so just keep this in mind as everyone under the sun tries to offer you advice on how to move forward.


It was sometime around the end of my third year and the beginning of my fourth year of graduate school when I was trying to figure out if I should just stay where I was, to stick it out, or move on to another lab. Why didn’t I see it coming? Didn’t I spend enough time researching that lab or ask the right questions before I started there? This is where it gets complicated. In fact, I knew exactly what I was getting into when I started graduate school in this particular lab because I was a lab technician in this very lab for a year before I started graduate school. When I interviewed for the lab technician position, I expressed interest in going to graduate school and agreed to stay on as a technician for one year before I enrolled in graduate school. By the time that the year was nearly over, I had become quite interested in the projects going on in this lab and had become very close friends with the other graduate students as well as the other technicians in lab. So, it seemed reasonable that I would do my graduate work in this lab and it never occurred to me to leave. I don’t think, at the time, that my mentor would have really appreciated it had I left to do my graduate work in another lab either. The first two years were fairly typical, I had classes and I came up with a project together with my mentor that I would pursue. I was carving out my own little niche in the lab as I was the first one to really explore cardiac physiology as part of my project. Since this wasn’t really my mentor’s expertise, I had a co-mentor that was the cardiac physiologist on campus. It was after my third year as a graduate student that things became challenging. My mentor was being investigated for something that I will not discuss on this forum but it really made me question whether or not I should or could finish up my degree in this lab. The investigation lasted for several weeks and it turned out that my mentor would be staying though would be under observation for a year. I took several weeks at this point to try to figure out how to proceed. I asked people for advice and I really tried to sort it out in my head. I had put quite a bit of time and effort into my project and I was not really sure that I wanted to start over with someone else in another lab because it would basically mean that I would need to re-form my committee, and start over with a new project. Finally, I decided to speak to my mentor himself and see what he thought. In that meeting, he suggested that I finish up with him and he felt that I could be finished in one year. So, that is what I decided to do. After coming to this conclusion, I became very focused and task oriented. Admittedly, this had not been my strong suit up to this point. So, I decided that I wanted to finish what I started and I wanted… no, I needed to do it in one year. The first several months were uneventful and then suddenly we receive word that my mentor was being investigated for fraud. Seriously??? First the other investigation and now this? Why couldn’t this lab just be like any other uneventful lab?


Now, this is a process that takes some time. The university performs an initial investigation and once they have the results of that investigation, they determine whether a federal investigation should follow. Everyone, including my mentor, sort of kept going about their business during this investigation. I knew that I did not have anything to worry about with my project because I had done all of the work (so much of it did not turn out the way I had hoped anyway) and I had kept good notes on everything. So, I plugged along and things appeared to be moving along at a steady pace for several more months. Until…..


I remember clearly the day that everything turned upside down. I was working from home, typing up my dissertation and had been communicating regularly back and forth via email with my mentor. I would send him a section to look over and he would send back some initial feedback/suggestions and then I would send him another section as I revised what he had returned to me. I finally had put together the first complete draft of the dissertation and sent it to him. The file was huge and I was not quite sure that he could receive it so I was not shocked when I did not hear back from him right away. I sent him a separate email just to confirm that he got it, and nothing. I called his office and he did not answer. What was going on, I thought. He was just there. To me, it was a huge deal, I just finally got the complete draft together. Later in the day, a colleague called me to inform me that my mentor had been escorted off campus and he would not be back.


Perhaps I should have gone to work with someone else the previous year while I had the chance. This is something that I thought about often after this day. I had to re-form my committee, re-schedule my defense, re-work quite a bit of the dissertation, and delay starting my postdoctoral fellowship. But, it did not end up being the end of the world as it turns out.


Now, I have since completed a five-year postdoc, and have moved on from there to my current career of teaching at a public university so I have had quite a bit of time to reflect on this time and how it shaped me and how it possibly changed my career. When I started graduate school and quite honestly for some time after, I thought that I would have my own independent lab at a research intensive university. I wanted to be a good mentor for my graduate students and I wanted to discover something incredible that would put me on the science map. After I graduated and I moved on to my postdoc, I quickly realized just how much I did not know. I realized that I had quite a bit of catching up to do as far as everything from learning how to think critically, how to have a clear vision of the big picture, how to perform so many techniques, how to trouble shoot/understand the science inside and out, etc, etc, etc. I really was behind and I knew that coming in. So, my postdoc was intense, at times very uncomfortable, extremely structured and goal oriented. This was, however, exactly what I needed at the time and was absolutely the opposite of my graduate school training. I landed in an excellent laboratory with a wonderful mentor. This lab was the suggestion of the chair of my department in graduate school and I decided to listen to the advice of others this time (in contrast to my decision to stay put in my lab in graduate school) and go with her suggestion. Lucky for me, it was precisely what I needed and as a result I had so many wonderful opportunities to travel to conferences and meet the experts in the field, present my work and to publish. This laboratory was not at Stanford or Harvard. But, I do not regret that one bit and I highly doubt it would have ended well for me had I somehow gotten into one of those institutions. I honestly just did not have the background for it. My postdoc mentor was a very patient person and it turned out that is precisely what I needed. It took a long time to get to the point where I knew what I wanted to do, and to feel that I was really ready to move on from the postdoc. In the end I realized my love for teaching and I moved on to a public university to teach anatomy and physiology and have never looked back. If you would have asked me if I thought I would ever teach while I was in graduate school, I am certain that my response would have been absolutely not. Now though, I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. I love my job, I love my students, and I am so happy that I was lucky enough to have experienced all that I did because it shaped me into the person that I am today.


If you are at that point where you are asking yourself “should I stay or should I go” there are a few things for you to consider.


1) Don’t be afraid to change labs. Yeah, you will most likely need to change projects to work on something that your new mentor focuses on and this will lengthen the time that it takes you to finish up. But, it could mean that you get really good training out of it. Do you want to do this for the rest of your life? If you do, you will need to have the opportunity to shine. You want to be with someone that is going to help you achieve that goal. If it is not working with your current mentor, it is highly likely that there is someone that will work really well with you. This new mentor could also help you get a really good postdoc.


2) Regardless of your decision, make it quickly. It is very difficult to be focused on your work when you do not know if you are even going to stay in the lab that you are in. The longer you labor over this decision, the less focused you become.


3) It is fine to ask others for their input but ultimately the decision is yours to make. It is so easy for an outsider to look at your situation and tell you that you really should leave the lab that you are in for one reason or another. I am sure that there were several people that thought I was crazy to have stayed in my lab. But, the truth is that only you know your situation completely. Only you know why you want to stay or leave and only you can make that decision in the end.


4) Don’t be afraid to make the “wrong” choice. Chances are, it is not the end of the world either way. Had I left my lab and gone to another lab, maybe I wouldn’t have had the wonderful experiences that I had during my postdoctoral fellowship, I would not have met some of the best friends I have ever had, I would not have met the wonderful person that I married, I possibly would not have discovered my passion for teaching and quite possibly just would not have ended up so happy.


Good luck in your decision, I am sorry that you have found yourself in this position in the first place. I do understand how you feel and you will look back on this moment someday and reflect about how your decision shaped your career and quite possibly the career of others. I hope that you will see, as I have, that it really can turn out for the best.

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