I am having troubles deciding between pursuing a PhD in lab that is more bioinformatics flavored or a lab that is more computationally flavored.

What are the risks associated with switch labs after starting a PhD? How difficult? How common?

Currently I have an advisor willing to take me into his computationally flavored lab, but their primary sub-domain is not one to which I am familiar. I would like some assurances that switching labs would be an option 6-18 months into my PhD.

The alternative is to continue taking classes as a non-degree seeking student until I decide on what lab I like. I have no intention on switching universities.

Note, with either lab I can keep the same major. In other words, the difficulty of switching domains is not what I am asking here.

This is located in the USA.

I have read other questions such as:

Hiring a PhD student who left another PhD position

Switch PhD program: how to contact possible PhD advisors when already enrolled in PhD program?

  • 4
    This might depend on where you are and on the level at which you start doctoral studies. In the US, starting with a bachelors (only) it would likely be possible. In Germany, with a MS, maybe not possible at all - or very difficult. Say more about your situation to get answers.
    – Buffy
    Apr 28, 2021 at 18:15
  • 1
    I seek to know how difficult and common it is to switch labs once in a PhD program for 6-24 month. I will see be in a similar domain, so that is not the worry. Apr 28, 2021 at 18:19
  • 3
    Again, place matters. In the US the program may be five or more years in total. In Germany only three.
    – Buffy
    Apr 28, 2021 at 18:21
  • 1
    @Buffy Sorry, just corrected – thank you! Apr 28, 2021 at 18:22

3 Answers 3


The reason it is difficult to answer this is that it can depend to a large extent on personalities. A "new" advisor might not want to take you on thinking about their relationship with the "old" advisor. The "old" advisor might feel insulted and cause problems for you. You might, after a year, have responsibilities to the current lab that will be difficult to transfer. It can be a mess, but it happens.

Rather, I'd suggest that you make a commitment to a lab and stick to it. Your doctoral studies aren't your career and it is always possible to change direction after you finish a PhD, especially if it is within the same field. Changing labs can set you back, leaving you with a "lost" year as well as bad feelings.

But, for a bachelors degree holder starting doctoral studies immediately, the first order of business is passing comprehensives, which requires coursework for most. If you don't need to make a serious commitment to the research of a lab (as is true for most) then switching is generally easy and non-disruptive.

The research leading to the dissertation is to teach you how to do it within your field and how to write scholarly papers. Once you get that, the specifics of how you spend your career are pretty malleable.

That said, don't choose something you hate or you will lose motivation. If you start in something and have an opportunity to move before you finish and it isn't too disruptive, then you have an opportunity. But no answer here will guarantee that such an opportunity will arise. A straight path may be the quick path.


Switching labs at PhD level should be quite the exception and it should only happen if nothing else works. It definitely should not be a planned move.

You'll upset your old supervisor and the new one will be wary of you. If you stay at the same institution, chances are nobody will want to touch you if you do such a switch.

Better to right away come clean to seek a solution that permits you to combine the expertise topics you seek to develop in with all relevant supervisors, upfront.


I have to disagree with Captain Emacs (lol). I just went through a lab switch, and there is a high chance your PI will not respond well (especially if you're their first switcher). BUT My new PI is a joy and went through a lab switch himself so he is very much invested personally in my success. It is the same subject/field of study and his lab is much more focused than my last lab. There was no way my PI was going to let me leave amicably, so I don't know if I would suggest trying to get your current PI on board (many ppl I know experienced similar poor responses from PIs in the midst of trying to switch) but I would definitely try to get your foot in the door at your next place first and foremost and emphasize that it is with the utmost discretion. The admin will not help you switch, so you can set yourself up for success this way by having someone already onboard. You need to decide how important your timeline is though because there are no guarantees. That being said most ppl I know that switched finished in the same time they would have if they stayed (especially if it's the same overall field/subject matter (like chemistry or biology)) [This was at Northwestern where about 50% of the entering class ended up switching for Chemistry).

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