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How to break up with your advisor

Feeling unhappy and lost? It might be time to break up with your advisor and go back to dating! 

A Ph.D. is a long-term commitment (longer than many marriages), you might need to date for a bit to understand what works for you. 

Which is totally fine, I promise, as long as you follow ONE golden rule:


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Never burn a bridge. 

I switched research groups three times before joining my current group. Two of my ex-advisors are on my Ph.D. committee. I am part of a really great group of people now led by an awesome advisor.

Even in an ideal research group, grad school is really hard.

In my humble (and biased!) opinion, the grad school experience is not worth going through unless you have found an advisor/group/research combination that clicks for you and fills you with that much-needed motivation to return to school day after day, maybe night after night, for several years (5.5 years average in the US), to work the hardest you have ever worked on something.

If you don't think you have met your match for a research group, then keep looking.

What to do with your current group? Well, most importantly, again:

Never burn a bridge. 

You might want to switch for a number of reasons. I hope it is something like: you don't feel passionate about the research or that you don't like the particular advising style. 

Hopefully, it is not more traumatic than that.. although, it can be sometimes and in that case, I am sorry and I hope you get help. 

Actually, whatever the situation, get help! Talk to someone - seniors, classmates, administrators that you trust, other professors, counselors.

Share your experience to evaluate your experience.

I think it is possible to leave a group without making enemies. Or at least, it should be. 

Everyone is a professional here. You are. The professor is. 

So, don't feel like you have to stay with them if you think it won't work for you in the long run. 

If it doesn't work for you, it won't work for them either. So, you would be doing everyone a favor by making a graceful exit.

Especially, if you are on TA or department fellowship and the advisor does not pay you yet.

First and second-year grad students in my department are often in this situation. They are not paid by the advisor.

In some ways, they provide "free" labor to the advisor and yes, they are learning and getting experience, but this is also the time for both the student and the advisor to figure out whether they want to commit to each other for the long haul. 

If you don't think you want to commit to the group, it is best to switch while you are still "free" to the advisor.

You want to move to the next group and give them some of your "free" time.

I have learned it the hard way that few (not all) advisors are happy to string you along when you cost them nothing.
  • They don't really care about you or your Ph.D. 
  • They were never that interested in helping or teaching you in the first place or in advising in general. I know, weird, since it is, at least, part of their job to be an advisor/teacher. 
  • They are typically hard to get a hold of, hard to set up appointments with or get feedback from on your project. 
  • They probably never gave you much direction or resources. 
  • They might not have introduced you properly to the rest of the group. 
  • They might have failed to mention the other student they took on from your year that is your competition. 
Sigh.

Personally, I like to always be very respectful, professional and cheerful towards my advisors (actually towards any colleague.)

Professors are very accomplished, busy, often stressed-out people and there is almost never a reason to be anything but respectful to even the worst of them.

I like to write a nice breakup e-mail to such advisors. Something like the following:

Dear Professor X,

I am so thankful for the opportunity to work in your research group. However, I feel your group is not a good fit for me in the long run. I really appreciate your time and help. I learned a lot from this experience and would especially like to thank A, B, and C for their mentoring.

I have documented my work so far in my lab notebook and backed up all my files on your group's server. Please find attached a note/presentation summarizing my work so far. I will be more than happy to meet with the next student who would pick up this project.

Please let me know if you would like to meet with me at any time to discuss anything. I hope to stay in touch!

Thanks again for everything,

Oindree

In my experience, professors will then ask to meet to discuss the experience, make sure everything is OK between you two. Again, be very professional and nice.

When you know you are going to exit, make the exit as graceful as possible.

Who knows, the whole thing could be really positive. 

For example, maybe something like funding or availability of positions didn't work out, but the advisor and you really liked working together. 

Now, you have a professional contact in the department. I strongly believe in staying friends with all my ex-advisors. 

If they cannot be your advisor, the next best thing is to be on your committee! 

So if you get along with your ex-advisor, ask them to be on your committee. 

Maybe they can write you a recommendation letter some day. 

Maybe they can introduce you to a different professor or research group that you really want to get in to. 

Maybe you can write a paper with them.


picture by oindree banerjee taken in bath uk, used in blog how to phd, how to break up with your advisor


Hopefully, the possibilities are endless for you and I wish you all the best! 

I am happy to answer any specific questions related to a switch. Do put them in the comments!

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