My professor has recently told me she might need to fire me because I am very behind in progress, unless I switch to a different lab and advisor. Because of the pandemic and everything, I've been struggling and made lots of mistakes. I am also behind in my progress. Eventually, my professor lost confidence in me.

I am thinking of trying one last time to see if I could switch to a different professor. My question is, as I am currently very behind (I am in my third year now but haven't even finished my second year project), is it even possible to switch professor? Will any professor be willing to take on astudent who's behind in progress?

1 Answer 1


Speak to the graduate co-ordinator in your school to discuss your options

Firstly, unless your university has some strange administrative processes, an individual professor/supervisor does not have the discretion to "fire" a PhD student. Removal of a PhD candidate from their program is a decision made by the school after a formal process of milestone reviews and other review processes. If a PhD candidate is significantly behind schedule they will typically receive an unsatisfactory rating in their milestone review and then there will be an opportunity to make a plan to catch up on progress and expectations will be set for minimum expected progress at the next milestone. The decision to remove a PhD candidate from their candidature (e.g., downgrade them to a Masters program or remove them from the program completely) would usually be a decision made by a full panel of academics in the school after multiple unsatisfactory milestone outcomes.

Unless and until the school makes a decision to remove you from your program, your supervisor is under a professional obligation to assist you to try to make the most of your program and to assist you to complete successfully. Rather than presenting you with an ultimatum of the kind you have described (move to another supervisor or I will fire you), she should be working with you to create a plan for successful completion of your candidature and to catch-up lost time to the extent that this is possible. This should include milestones for completion of work and a coherent and feasible plan for completion. Since you are significantly behind, this might include a requirement for applying for an extension of time, subject to having completed enough work to show progress. Hopefully your supervisor is already doing this, but if she is not then she should be --- it is not acceptable professional practice to just give up on an enrolled PhD candidate because they are behind (though it is of course acceptable to go through formal review and remove them from the program under appropriate circumstances).

In principle, it is possible to switch supervisor at any point in your candidature, so long as it is okay with the school. As to whether it is desirable to move supervisor, this might or might not be a worthwhile idea, and it depends on a lot of factors. Moving to a new supervisor might mean that you have to shift your topic or focus area and this might put you further behind. Alternatively, a new supervisor might be able to assist in helping you catch up (particularly in a case where your existing supervisor does not have a favourable view of your candidature). You are correct that a third-year PhD candidate who is significantly behind in progress is not an attractive candidate for a new supervisor, but you should not let this dissuade you from making appropriate inquiries if this is an avenue you want to consider. Some schools have particular academics who are good at taking over bad candidatures and getting them back on track, so you might get lucky.

The processes and expectations for a PhD candidature differ at different universities and schools, so you should speak to the graduate coordinator in charge of the PhD cohort in your school. You should talk to them about a few things: (1) getting clarity on your obligations for progress and the processes for review/removal from your program; (2) your options in relation to getting assistance from your current supervisor to get back on track; (3) options for dealing with any interpersonal conflict or despondency from your existing supervisor; and (4) your options in relation to finding a new supervisor to help you get back on track.

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