Changing advisors, even disciplines, in graduate school

You’ve heard the old saying, “Don’t change horses in midstream.” But in graduate school, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Changing horses mid-game? Not so bad.

Changing horses mid-game? Not so bad.

Changing advisors part way through your graduate career can happen for several different reasons, but regardless of the cause, treat the change as an opportunity. Although you may initially think it is, it is not even remotely the end of the world. It is tempting to be influenced by external messages and think that there is a single right way to go about the journey of doctoral education, that there is no room for mistakes, and that you have to know exactly what you want to do from the beginning of your education. All three of these tropes are wrong.

I have changed research directions twice in my time as a graduate student, first changing from a Physics lab to a Biology lab to pursue more biological interests combined with physics, and then changing to a Biophysics lab when my advisor in biology left for a tenured position at a different institution. When I changed from a Biology to a Biophysics lab, skills in protein purification and NMR spectroscopy were transferable, but even in the extreme case that you change fields so drastically that nothing overlaps, just having previously gone through the process of learning techniques can make you better at it the next time. I think that these moves across disciplines and labs have improved my capacity to synthesize knowledge and skills, and to be adaptable.

Different unplanned circumstances, such as not getting into a certain lab, an advisor leaving the institution, or your interests and skills changing, may open an unexpected path that you can take with much happiness and productivity. I think it is unlikely that there is exactly and only one field or activity is right for a given person, and changing circumstances can be embraced as a way to pursue new or different interests. I applied to Hopkins excited to study astrophysics; I’m thrilled to now be making a career in protein science.

Dan Richman is a PhD candidate in Physics working in Bertrand Garcia-Moreno’s lab in the Department of Biophysics.

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