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I am going to save the whole backstory and just get into my question.  I am a first-year PhD student, and I came to this university because my PI's research is a perfect fit.  I came out over the summer to begin research early and get into the swing of things, but this is undoubtedly NOT the lab for me.  I'm miserable and it is a horribly toxic environment.  I have contacted both of my previous PI's and they agree that I need to change labs.

 

My question is, how do I go about doing so?  As soon as word gets back that I'm looking into funding available in other labs, my PI will fire me on the spot.  He also would not give a good reference once he learns I am leaving.  There is also no departmental staff that I can inquire to about departmental support in the case of funding lapse- there is only 1 staff member who hasn't quit, and they would tell my PI if I asked about anything.  I don't know what to do.. I feel like I'm forced to make this decision blind.

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I am in a fairly similar situation as you are, so I can tell you what i have heard from other people, and the course of action I have decided to take. However, from what I understood, it also depends on the academic/administrative system of your school/department, and how they handle the process. Some schools care a lot about their students and will try to support you in whatever decision you take, while others leave you to the mercy of your advisor, so if they oust you, the school will also not care. 

So the two important things to note here are -- 
1) Does your advisor or anyone around them have an idea that you are finding it hard to fit in? 
This can be both good and bad. Ideally, I would suggested (and this is what I did as well) that your advisor should know that all is not going well with you. You don't have to go and tell them they are toxic, but rather try to attribute everything to the situation or to a difference in personality. For e.g, in my case my advisor had gone away on a different appointment, and he didn't have any other lab student behind, so I put everything around how I feel alone, and need other people around me. If you want to focus on the match between you and your advisor, mention how you think your working style is different from theirs, instead of saying how they toxic they are. And you need to maintain this in front of everyone else. 

2) Do you have a potential backup option?
This is probably the most important thing. In an ideal situation you want to have enough rapport with another faculty member so that you are in a position to ask them to take you in, before you let go off your current advisor. One way to get there is to try and collaborate with other faculties on your work. You bring them on to your work, and then slowly transition over to their side. If you are taking a class with someone else, that can also turn out be a potential opportunity.

Finally, the important thing is to engage with the school administration. In my school, there is an ombudsperson who usually helps students in such situations. In some cases, they will talk to the department and arrange for additional funding opportunities for you (for e.g., TAship) so you can take that time to switch your advisors without worrying about funding for a short time. 
Even if you think that the school can't help you with it, it is important to let the admins know that you are facing issues -- once you are sure that you want to switch. This is important so that the school knows your side of story if your advisor decides to take any action against you. The only situation in which you may want to avoid doing that is if there is no way to ensure that the school will maintain the confidentiality of your matter. 

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15 hours ago, GeorgiaTechPhd said:

I am in a fairly similar situation as you are, so I can tell you what i have heard from other people, and the course of action I have decided to take. However, from what I understood, it also depends on the academic/administrative system of your school/department, and how they handle the process. Some schools care a lot about their students and will try to support you in whatever decision you take, while others leave you to the mercy of your advisor, so if they oust you, the school will also not care. 

Thank you so so much for your response and advice.  I don't have any aligned backups, as I can't really contact potential labs without risking him finding out, but I honestly think he will fire me once he knows that I will leave anyway.  I may just bite the bullet and start asking around.  Best of luck to you in your transition!

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Hello,

I was in the similar situation one year ago, and I changed the advisor after 5 months lab work. I explained it was because I got new research interests to the people around me, but it was actually because I didn’t like the previous advisor and the lab people.

Do your department have any administrative staffs or coordinator staffs who can give advices to grad students? Or is there any professor responsible for first year grad students? If there is, the first option is to seek advices from them. It’s not uncommon for first or second year students to switch their advisors. So they should get used to engage that situation.

If not, in my case, I investigated potential lab’s publication and talked with potential lab mates without talking my situation to any friends or current lab mates. This was to make sure that the potential  lab could fit me. Then I sent an confidential email to the potential advisor to tell I got a new interest to your research so I want to change the laboratory, and asked if he can afford to take me. I asked the potential advisor to make it secret because I didn’t  want my current to know it. After that, if the potential advisor said yes, you can start some paper works to switch advisors if any.

 

I hope it can help you, and I hope your situation becomes better!

Edited by Mana4989

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Hi Misslitty, I am currently going through a very similar thing, I hope things work out for you!

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