Short version: I started a PhD with an advisor who I am no longer interested in working with. Can I still leave this lab and find another lab in the same field (how)?

Long version: I am an American student at an American university. My PhD advisor, who I met during my masters, told me he had two projects and I could be on whichever one I chose. Project A was fully funded and in an area that I was very interested. Project B was not fully funded, would require me to TA, and the research area was not that interesting to me. I specifically told him I would come to his lab if I could work on project A. He agreed and so I worked on this project for over a year. The project is massive and involves lots of other labs from the same field all working together collaboratively. There has not been a time when my advisor expressed disapproval of my work. Recently, my advisor tells me I am going to be working on project B now which can only fund me part time. He also hired a new PhD and promised him he could be funded by project A like he did for me. I asked him why this sudden change. He simply says not to "worry about it" and I will be fine working on project B. So I guess I got baited? Also, since I have joined the lab, my advisor's demeanor has changed from friendly to somewhat aggressive with some of the other students, however he has not targeted me yet. Still, I don't want to keep pressuring him for an explanation because I am afraid that I may get on his bad side.

I would very much like to leave this lab. I don't have any interest in project B and I can't help but feel that my advisor is a bit of a shyster. I spoke to some other faculty about it at the university. They offered to write me a LOR in my applications to other labs. This is because it is highly unlikely my advisor will respond well to me announcing that I am leaving based on how he has responded to other "bad news" in the past. I wouldn't expect him to write me a LOR.

I was also told that there is no way that a new lab in the same field won't know about my history with my advisor, and they likely won't accept me because of it. "A graduate student is not worth crossing another professor". Unfortunately, it's true. When I apply to other labs in the same field they will certainly see my past work with my advisor. He is well known by this community and they will certainly reach out to him.

My question is this: Is there any way I can continue in the field of research which I have already spend thousands of hours studying? Or do I have to completely start fresh just to get away?

I have seen some threads opened up about changing labs (I am sure I could probably find a new lab in a completely different area of research). However, None of these threads seem to have addressed the issue of staying the same field. (Except on Quora which says it cannot be done)

1 Answer 1


It is probably possible, but very difficult and likely disruptive. It may mean changing universities and finding a new supervisor, with the danger that they won't be a lot better, though that may be a small risk. But it may mean moving to a different place and some setbacks in your graduation date as well. It would also be dependent on getting good letters of recommendation in many places, probably from your current supervisor.

There is risk in any choice you make. Consider whether you should just tough it out or jump ship. If you decide to stay, find other faculty members, perhaps in the same lab, who can support you when any difficulties arise. Or even have a quiet talk with the department head or dean, though that has its own risks. It is useful, however, if others at your institution know what is happening, especially if they can exert some influence on your behalf.

Changing institutions will usually imply some setback, but possibly not a fresh start from zero. Good luck.

  • Buffy thank you for your answer. I completely expect to change universities, and yes there was some risk in talking to the faculty, but they seem to support me. It would be very helpful if someone could suggest me some things I may say which will bring a new advisor to trust me. For example, I am not going to bash my old advisor to the new one. I will just simply say that the project changed or something to that effect. I want to be honest, but not look like a quitter or a backstabber which I'm not in this scenario, right? Aug 14, 2022 at 18:00

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