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The first thing I want to do is explain how I ended up with this guy, because given the red flags I often wonder to myself "Why did I choose to work here?". Ok, so for starters I'm in a cell biology PhD program with a focus on neuroscience, and I finished my first year lab rotations. Now, the one guy I liked working with the most couldn't take on anymore students, and the one person I did rotate with who had funding I am working with now. So funding played a part, but at the time of the rotation, when I was just learning some techniques used in lab, things seemed alright. That isn't to say I had some concerns. It took me a while before I could start coming home at a normal hour rather than staying in lab until 9:00 or 10:00 (or sometimes much later) with the PI every night. The lab didn't seem to have direction and I wasn't exactly sure what this guy was even doing as far as his research aims. I chalked it up to my own inexperience or failure to grasp the work, and figured we'd sit down and talk about something concrete I could get started on. That happened over the summer. At the time, everything seemed to be going normally. We talked about a project I could start. Although it mainly involved a new technique the PI wanted to try and not a rationale for why we would use it, I figured I could apply it to some things I was interested in. We had some preliminary discussions and he seemed supportive of my ideas. 

 

Now, just for some background, my PI will talk you up like there's no tomorrow. After getting out of our early meetings he practically had me convinced we would be curing cancer in the next five years. The guy is a great talker and he will make it seem like he can do anything. Unfortunately, this doesn't really translate into actual work. He's a new PI, but he has been at our university for three, going on four years now. He's up for tenure in less than two years. He has gotten no outside funding, and hasn't published anything in the time he's been here. He hasn't published at all in almost five years, that includes things like co-authorships from his previous work. So things have been really hectic, and he's gotten increasingly stressed out. But since he can't settle on any specific questions to ask in his research the lab is basically non-productive. We work every day, but the data we collect is largely for no purpose in mind. 

 

So, coming into this I thought I could get my own niche, ground the PI a bit, and get a project going, but such is not the case. The lab uses some very specialized techniques that I wanted to learn to expand my abilities as a grad student, but my PI is very hostile towards applying these methods towards anything outside his "comfort zone" which seems to be about the size of a broom closet, and doesn't involve anything I'm particularly interested in. My hope was that I could apply this to some other areas of interest, and initially my PI seemed supportive, now hes openly condescending if he even sees me reading a paper related to something that he isn't interested in. 

 

The guy also doesn't create the best work environment. Our only lab tech is leaving, and the only other grad student in the lab is leaving with his masters degree in two or three months. After they leave it will be me, the PI, and a post-doc he brought in last year. The post-doc is very supportive and a very nice guy, but at the end of the day he's not my adviser, and I can't just help him do his work. Oh, and he refuses to bring in undergrads since he thinks they "can't do the work properly" and he has intimidated or yelled several of them out of the lab previously. 

 

tl;dr I found out my PI is a non-productive ass hole after I made the mistake of believing a lot of the bs he talks up. Pretty naive but sometimes you learn the hard way. Basically, I need to know what to do in this situation: is leaving a lab because of PI problems rare? Is it looked down on? Will faculty think its my fault? How do I deal with my old PI and how do I tell him I want to leave?  

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My personal opinion would be that if you can leave...do it now, rather than later. It doesn't sound certain that he'll get tenure at this rate (no publications, external funding or successful PhD students), which means that in 2-3 years time you might have to leave his lab anyway. Leaving a lab isn't a great sign - but I suspect the alternative might be worse for you. 

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I'd find a way to leave as soon as you can. If what you describe is an honest assessment your PI's work, he stand very little chances of getting tenure. Suffering through another two years with him only to have to start over in your 3rd or 4th year is going to be a serious blow to your grad school career. Either way you'll have to find another advisor down the line, so the only question is when and how much of the work you have already done you could salvage when you switch advisors. This will only get harder the more advanced you are in the program. Leaving isn't great but if this person is unlikely to get tenure, people will know about it and they will understand why you didn't stay. I think you'll have a decent chance of explaining your actions without getting into any trouble for quitting. 

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My graduate program has a neuroscience-related doctoral program, and in my experience from that, other faculty in the department are usually not blind to these kinds of scenarios. We had a similar but not quite the same scenario where a tenure track professor in the department had managed to recruit a number of graduate students, but over the course of several years she failed to produce any publications, and the record length of any graduate student staying in her lab was 2 semesters. In her case, she was pretty verbally abusive, and she lost three of four graduate students within two semesters if their coming to the department. The last one was forced to find another lab after two semesters because she was not considered for tenure and left the department.

 

In this case, other professors were really understanding and every single one of the graduate students in her lab was successfully absorbed into another lab. If the situation in your lab is really that problematic and the professor that unproductive, it's better to have to start over now than years down the line. If you really don't foresee the problem getting any better, the longer you wait, the more it will throw you off if and when you do decide (or need) to switch.

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Thanks guys! I really appreciate the responses. I definitely have been turning this over in my mind a lot recently. On the one hand, I feel that I would be better off somewhere else, but on the other I feel like there will be a stigma that I didn't "tough it out" or "make things work" in my current lab. I've gotten input from people who know and have worked with this PI and they've all raised similar concerns about him that I have had.

 

If I did decide on switching labs, how would I go about this? I don't really want to declare that I'm leaving now without another spot lined up, but then I'm not sure how to approach another faculty member about joining their lab if I'm currently working here. 

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If there is a faculty member who is the "Director of Graduate Studies" (DGS) or some similar position, that would be the first faculty member I would go to for advice. But I'd only do this once I was sure about my intention to leave and if I know who I would want to work with instead. Also, there may be other students in your department who did this in the past!

 

Depending on your comfort level with various profs, you could also approach people you are interested in and say something like "I don't think Prof. X and I are a good fit and I'm thinking of going in a different direction with my thesis. I am interested in [stuff about their lab]. Would you have an opening?" etc. If you are not comfortable approaching these profs directly, having the DGS on your side at this point could help make it less awkward. If you'd like, the DGS might even be able to approach the other profs on your behalf, without revealing your identity at first but I'm not sure if every DGS would do something like that.

 

Once you start all this, although you might be able to not have your current prof find out right away, you should expect them to know sooner or later (probably sooner). So, it would also be a good idea to tell your own prof as soon as you feel ready. Again, the DGS can help at this stage. 

 

Overall, when you are sure you want to swtich, I strongly recommend discussing this with the DGS because they know how the department works in terms of funding schedules etc and they can help you navigate tricky situations like this! Good luck!

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I've approached the director twice. Problem is, he really wants me to stay in this lab. His attitude has really been "stay the course" whenever I've voiced my concerns. I'm feeling like the best course of action right now is to approach faculty who I'd want to work with, see if anyone is willing to take me on, and then go to the director and state that my intention is definitely to move labs. 

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Sorry to hear that -- I would have expected that while a DGS might give his/her advice to stay/not-stay, they should ultimately help the student achieve their own goals, not the what the DGS thinks is best. That is, as long as you find someone willing to take you into their lab, the DGS should do what they can to help make the transition smoother. I also think that if you tell the DGS right now that you are 100% sure you want to move labs, then the DGS should be helping you find a new lab / advise you on how to approach the topic instead of leaving you on your own.

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The DGS may have other hidden agendas, like helping the OP's PI get tenure. An important part of that is successfully advising students, and that may be a reason why the DGS would prefer it if the OP stays in his current lab. Although outside considerations should not be affecting decisions and advice, they may be. OP, if you feel that the DGS will not help and insisting on your decision will not convince them, I think you should just go ahead and find yourself a new lab by directly talking to PIs who might agree to take you on. If you have a PI who is willing to have you in their lab, you'll have a stronger position when it comes to dealing with whatever bureaucracy there may be in getting the transition done. 

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Well our lab tech was already working in both our lab, and another (where they will be moving full time). So the PI of that lab knows the situation and said she would help out. I think with her go-ahead I'll get in touch with the DGS again explaining whats going on and stating that I'm set on moving. Previously I hadn't really felt comfortable airing my concerns about this PI because I didn't think it was my place as a grad student to be critical. Now I don't really care since I feel my mind is made up anyway. The way I see it, its between me and the PI anyway. 

Edited by Marius
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Sounds like you have a good plan. It may not be your place to be critical of your PI as a professor/researcher in the department, but you don't need to make statements like "Prof X. is unfit for this department" or "Prof X. is unfit for research" !! However, it is totally your place to be critical about your fit/desire to work with Prof. X and make statements like "Prof X. is an unfit mentor for me" or "Prof. X and I do not work well together" etc. 

 

I think it is incorrect to equate a good professor/researcher with a good PhD advisor for everyone. It's perfectly possible that a professor might really be the best person in the whole field but would be a terrible match as a mentor/advisor for most people! Consequently, you don't have to criticise your professor in order to justify your desire to leave the lab!

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