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I am a 3rd year PhD student and I've already passed my PhD candidacy, but I am not at all satisfied with the degree of training I've received throughout my PhD. I had a stellar undergrad and was offered direct entry into several PhD programs, but I don't think I really knew my subject well enough at the end of my undergrad to be a really successful PhD student. I expected that any lab I'd join would provide an environment where I could learn the routines necessary to complete a research project.

The lab I joined has never had a postdoc and has usually had only 2-3 grad students at any given time, and equipment has invariably been broken. As a result, I haven't had a lot of opportunities to learn from those around me. It seems that it's expected that I learn in a highly independent manner. Somehow, the other students seem to have managed to pull that off, but it appears to be a struggle for them, and it really isn't working for me.

Luckily, I got one high impact publication early on in my PhD, but after that I changed research topics, and I haven't made a lot of progress on my new topic. There seem to be so many obstacles to accomplishing my tasks, both in terms of lab equipment and my personal level of knowledge, that it is very difficult to make any headway on my project. After talking to some friends who went into different labs, I am pretty confident that the lab is the problem. I think I could publish one more paper within a year or two and I suspect they'd let me graduate, but I am worried that I just won't know enough to be an effective postdoc. As far as I understand it, postdocs are expected to be able to set up quickly, figure everything out, and put together a whole project mostly independently. I think the basic problem I've faced is that I arrived with a BSc and was treated like someone with a PhD.

Now I am faced with a decision: do I push through and get the diploma, or do I try to transfer to another lab/school with a better learning environment? Is such a thing even really possible this deep into a PhD program?

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    "equipment has invariably been broken." That's normal. Jun 2, 2022 at 1:03
  • @Potatoman I relate so much. I wish I could change labs but for me it's hard to find labs which provide enough attention to train up the student; candidates are huge in number; and it requires a very complicated referral process from current superviser who is unlikely to support this.
    – user156798
    Jun 2, 2022 at 3:25

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It's possible, and it happens more frequently than you might think. The main disadvantage to you is that your PhD will probably take longer since you will need to build up competence in a new area. But, you may not finish at all if you stay with a lab where you are unhappy. Depending on where you are and the funding situation, taking longer to finish the degree may or may not be possible. Another important hurdle you will have to climb is finding a new advisor willing to take you on. Because you know the professors and the professors know you (at least to some level), and because it involves less administrative overhead, it is probably easier to stay within the same school instead of applying to a new school, if the funding is there. But, that's not to say you shouldn't apply to other programs, especially if you have a specific person or group in mind.

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  • actually, my hope wasn't to transfer to a new area. The lab I was thinking of applying to is just a way better version of my current lab. The research area is quite similar, it's just they have a full staff and good funding. In my current situation, I'm running out of scholarship funding soon, due to having had 2 years of time wasted while our lab moved universities during the pandemic, and I'll soon be dependent on my PI for funding.
    – potatoman
    Jun 2, 2022 at 6:03

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