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I am an undergraduate and have been doing some work that is part of a program being done by a research group of this department for around 6 months now.

However, I have developed new interests and I no longer like the project I’m working on now.

Will my professors be mad if I leave the group or are they used to these things ?

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    Do you plan to give some appropriate notice? Jul 29, 2023 at 11:35

8 Answers 8

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Welcome to the academia.SE!

The word "betrayal" is not good to use in a professional environment, certainly not in your current situation. You are just an undergrad, and it is very much understandable that interests change at that age. Your mind is keeping on looking for more interesting things to do. Perhaps, your current assignment was not good enough for the kind of work you wanted to do, or you would like to make a career in.

Now, you might be feeling a sense of guilt, thinking that I am leaving them midway. But, trust me, academia, and any other organization for that matter, is always like this. People get better things, and they move on. So don't be hard on yourself, and discuss this with your current mentor/group. A reasonable mentor will always understand this situation from your perspective.

If you have time before you jump on to the next project, you should complete the current assignment(s) or at least assist/train someone else to complete them. That would be a fair thing to do. But, again, if you really have no time for that and you don't have any official agreement for your current assignment, you should just leave. But, remember, don't burn the bridge.

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Will my professors be mad if I leave the group (I was doing most of the work), or are they used to these things?

The rule of thumb is that hiring an undergraduate is much more for their benefit than for the supervisor's (professor's) benefit. In my mostly-computational field, it usually takes more time for me to mentor an intern (undergraduate) than it would take for me to do it myself. Even setting aside the intern's cost.

So no, I am not mad if an intern leaves. On the contrary, I am pleased: (1) the intern has learned something valuable, so I am proud of myself and happy for them. And (2) I don't need to worry about them going forward, which is less work for me (or I can hire a new intern, which lets me have an impact on an additional person's life).

Of course, your mileage may vary. Not all supervisors are as delightful as I am, and there are some fields (e.g., wet labs) where undergraduates do tedious but useful work, and replacing them is a hassle. But even in this case, you should do what you need to do; your supervisor will get over it.

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  • It's pretty normal for undergrads to disappear from my former grad advisor's wet lab as well, and I think he would have the same perspective. I think a lot of them have a more glamorous view of what extracting and sequencing DNA involves. Nope, just endless hours of moving drops of liquid from one tube to another. But several that stuck it out eventually got funded grad projects in the lab.
    – anjama
    Jul 28, 2023 at 12:30
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People move on from positions and projects all the time - especially students. No-one is expecting you to dedicate you life to a lab. You're at a point in your career where you should be exploring your interests. So don't feel guilty that you find yourself drifting towards something different. No "betrayal" there.

That being said, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about this. The wrong way - ghosting your professor to hop to a more interesting project. The right way - having an honest discussion ahead of time i.e., now, about how your interests are shifting and you would like to switch projects/labs.

You may find that your professor is fine with you leaving now. Or they may want you to stay on and see the project through (personally I think you should do this either way). Or they may want you to stay on just long enough to get another student set up.

The takeaway here is to be courteous and professional. As @Coder said, don't burn bridges.

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  • Seeing the project through also depends on how long the project is, of course. If they’ve been part of it for six months and the project is scheduled to last another five years, that’s a completely different kettle of fish to a project that’s scheduled to end in another two months’ time. Jul 28, 2023 at 11:10
  • Of course, I don't think anyone would expect an undergrad to stick with a project of that length even under the best circumstances.
    – sErISaNo
    Jul 28, 2023 at 15:28
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As others said, it is perfectly normal for your interests to change. Plus, you are at an early career stage and have many different options to explore. I agree with all the other comments above.

What you did not mention in your original question, is whether you ever discussed the expectations with your current supervisor. Did they take you on for a couple of months? For a year? With no end date? If there is some sort of agreement, then I would do my best to honor that. Sure, circumstances and interests may change - but in a professional relationship it is also important that you follow up on things you promised and that could in this case mean until X has been achieved on a project or any time frame that you discussed earlier.

Of course this is not set in stone, if you are slowly growing miserable then you need to discuss that and maybe leaving is better in that case, but don't just drop things because you think there's something better out there or because you don't like it anymore. Most jobs have aspects to them that we don't like and we usually have to do those parts as well.

In either case, go talk to your supervisor and be prepared so you know what you are and are not willing to do. Maybe they will be ok with you saying ideally I want to stop at the end of the month and maybe they will want you to stay for a whole new academic year. If you know your own preferences and boundaries you should be able to negotiate a solution that works for both of you.

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Look, I totally get it. You've been slaving away in this research group for months now, doing most of the heavy lifting. But now you're just not feeling it anymore. The project bores you. You've got new interests you're jazzed about. I mean, six whole months - that's a long time when you're an undergrad! Your attention span has limits.

But you've also got these professors who brought you into their elite little group in the first place. Will they freak if you walk away? Are you gonna burn bridges? Betray them after all they've done?

Here's the deal. Professors expect this stuff from undergrads. One day you're obsessed with nematode worms, the next it's black holes and dark matter. They get that your interests are evolving. You're not married to them or this project.

So have a straight talk with your lead prof. Explain it's been a great learning experience but you're moving in a different direction now. Offer to finish up any loose ends so you don't leave them hanging. Train any newbie who's replacing you. Make it a smooth, collaborative transition.

If you communicate openly and tie up loose ends, you're doing right by them. Don't feel bad chasing your new passions. It's all part of the journey. No professor worth their salt will take it personally or see it as a betrayal. Just be real about why you’re moving on and show gratitude for the opportunity. You can part on good terms.

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You are not really part of the research group yet as you are just an undergrad. (Not unless you are a Schwinger anyway)

So while your supervisor may be "disappointed" - he/she is unlikely to feel mad at you: it's just part of undergrad development.

They will find others to do what you might have done. It's often better to get new blood in from other universities at PhD level.

Your experience to date should stand you in good stead in future career choices.

It's important to make sure that new areas of research will be of enduring interest before we take them on.

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  • Thanks for your answer. As I mentioned in the question, I am an undergraduate student, not a PhD student. Jul 28, 2023 at 21:35
  • Sorry I missed that undergrad status. It would be strange to see an u/grads "part of" departmental research groups. Maybe it would be fairer to say that your project and/or intern/vacation work was part of that done by a research group. Amended.
    – Trunk
    Jul 29, 2023 at 10:41
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No, I worked with 4 different people during my undergrad and ended up doing my PhD with none of them and still will catch up with them when I'm back at the Uni I did my undergrad. So either:

  1. The worst case is that they are disappointed about losing a potential student, but they still will have the professional connection if you continue in academia and may work with you or your new group in the future.

  2. They feel its a betrayal, in which case you have just escaped a bad supervisor.

In either case leaving the group is the better choice if you feel that you want to experience a different field of research.

Take your time to explore different fields and opportunities during undergrad and maybe you'll find the variety of knowledge you have useful in the future, and possibly knowing multiple groups/fields of research may help you to cross-fertilise between them or act to introduce these groups to each other.

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Just leave

(he won't be mad. And even if, that should not be what you base your decision on)

I don't disagree with other answers. But I want to emphasize that there is only one way forward.

You're "just" an undergrad

Even grad students are still "at the bottom" of the chain. Especially undergrads. This also adds that I can, personally, only recommend you to explore: the world is in front of you and live ahead, don't get stuck in habits and comfort, that happens early enough. So enjoy, try out, be curious and have the courage to change and break with things!

That has a name

It's called the bus factor and describes that people just leave. People change, live changes. They may find a partner and move. They have other interests, maybe they wanna be a tourguide in the Atacama desert or a cook. There are hundreds of reasons people come and go.

Academia is about "want", not "have to"

Nothing works in academia if you force someone to do research and be inventive. All of it runs because people want to think. So if someone doesn't want to do what they do, they're of no help. People know that.

Disclaimer

People can always get mad for any reason. You're not letting them cut the line? They're not getting the free upgrade as they got already once? You never know how people react. So a more general advice: base your decision on what's right and wrong, not on how people may react. Once you do that, you're controllable and people can be toxic AF (!)

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