For some people, “changing advisors” is a dreaded, taboo phrase. They get the picture of you and your advisor going through a bad breakup and assume that you don’t belong or that you need some serious consoling. As a survivor of changing research groups, I can assure you that there are major advantages of making such a switch. However, surviving this process is all about your hustle.
When I first visited the Louisiana State University campus I was already admitted as a graduate student in the Chemistry Department. I decided to schedule a visit to get a glimpse of what to expect. I interviewed with many professors but I enjoyed talking to just one of them (I will use pseudonyms). This particular professor, Dr. Interesting, had some amazing research for some analytical chemists in his polymer group and was interested in having me on as a student. I emailed him during the summer before I arrived at LSU to reaffirm my interest in having him as a research advisor. During the first semester, like most programs, you have to thoroughly interview professors and select the top research groups you are interested in joining. We have to fill out a form ranking our top 5 and top 3 choices so that the department is aware of who we would likely be joining.
I had two names that I was interested in, but Dr. Interesting was DEFINITELY the advisor I wanted most. However, I still wanted to interview with everyone since I wasn’t able to talk with each professor during my initial visit and I did not want to miss any opportunities. When I met with Dr. Golden, she wanted to know which professors I was speaking with. She had already accepted all of her students into her group at the time, so she offered to be on my committee. When I showed her my list she made strong recommendations on which names should be removed from my list. She insisted that I not join Dr. Interesting’s group and instead suggested only women. Because she was a professor, I thought, “Man, if she is saying this, she must have my best interests in mind!” After her recommendation, I decided to talk with Dr. Interesting to let him know that I was interested in someone else and would enjoy having him on my committee—I still wanted him in my corner.
After the interviewing process, I submitted my paperwork and became a research student under the direction of Dr. Machine. When I first met Dr. Machine, she was interested in having me in the group and assured that even though I did not have any experience with polymer synthesis she would train me and have other graduate students help me with the basics. I also had a fellowship so being in her group just made sense. Everything was off to the perfect start! I was in for quite the surprise.
After spending time in Dr. Machine’s group, I realized that I made a horrible mistake. I worked non-stop, seven days a week from 7am to 1am and sometimes even later. My fiancé and I lived together but I never saw him (how does this even work?!). When I did see him, I just wasn’t myself. Everything seemed so gray to me and I hated my research because it would never work. I had actually inherited the project from a post-doc who could not figure it out. Remember when I mentioned Dr. Machine’s promise to train me? Well, the training never happened and my post-doc was too busy wrapping up her work because she was leaving to take on another position.
I waged a constant, internal battle fighting my belief that I simply wasn’t good enough to be a graduate student and that I had chosen the wrong field. I talked to people about my experience and they advised me to reevaluate my choices. I knew that graduate school was supposed to be a stressful time but I never expected the level of misery that experienced. I would literally cry at my desk each day before the workday started. There were even times when my fiancé had to pick me up during the day just to take me to the lake so that I could let out everything I was holding in. Then one day, something life-changing happened.
It was the summer before my third year and I was preparing myself to take my general exam. My fellowship was also ending which meant Dr. Machine would have to put me down as a teaching assistant. I met with her about the upcoming semester and everything seemed to be going well in her books. About a week later, she called me into her office to talk. In the meeting she asked, “Have you thought about mastering out?” As soon as the words escaped her mouth my body felt like it fell to the floor as I tried to keep my composure. She finally realized that I was not making much progress with my research and suggested that I consider other options. I told her how unhappy I was and that I would probably be more comfortable somewhere else and she agreed. We talked about joining another group as an option for me. Even though I was experiencing major pressure, we did not end on a bad note. She supported my decisions and agreed to support me when I selected a different research advisor.
After our discussion, we met with the graduate coordinator and explained the situation to him. The graduate coordinator told me that the situation didn’t mean that I did not belong; it only meant that the research I was doing was not a match for me. His response was what I needed to hear but I still felt like a failure.
I decided to take on the option of a course-work master’s degree while applying to jobs and interviewing professors within my department and other departments. I had to put my hustle shades on because I knew that anything to get me out of LSU was going to be the best thing that could happen for me. This meant I was attempting to finish my master’s degree in one semester. Yes, in one semester! During this time I interviewed many professors within chemistry, toxicology, coastal biology and food sciences but received rejection after rejection due to lack of funding. I also competed against other first year students that needed to be placed in a group and my fellowship ending was also a factor in their rejection. To add insult to injury, I was receiving rejection letters from jobs as well. This put me in a perpetual state of fear and exhaustion. Even with people cheering me on, I still felt like my acceptance into grad school was the biggest mistake anyone could ever make second to my faith in myself.
In November, I successfully defended my master’s defense, but I still did not have a clue about what was next. All of my mentors were in my head trying to keep me inspired and moving in a positive direction. Oh, and did I mention that I suck at making decisions? As my mentors asked me questions, I was waiting for them to tell me what I should do. They kept saying things like, “You are an adult. You have to decide the next chapter in your life” and “I can only make suggestions.”
Just in the nick of time, at the end of finals, I received two offers: one from Dr. Golden in the Chemistry Department and one from Dr. Food in the Food Sciences Department. If I were to join Dr. Golden’s group, they would reactivate my status as a doctoral student and I would not have to start over as a first year graduate student. If I joined Dr. Food’s group, I would basically have to start over since the requirements in the Food Sciences Department were different. I decided to join Dr. Golden’s group.
After enduring a chaotic semester and multiple set backs, I began to get my stride back. Since then, I have traveled to conferences, won awards, become a Ph.D. candidate and helped many other students who encountered similar experiences. Although I do miss some of the characteristics I had in my previous advisor, I am a little happier than I was before. I feel bittersweet about my decision because Dr. Golden is overcoming her own obstacles. I can say, however, that my experience in Dr. Golden’s group has equipped me to deal with barriers more effectively.
The process was not an easy one for me but it can be done as long as you’re willing to put in the work. Only you can determine what is best for your life. It is okay to make mistakes and I can definitely say that I have learned from the ones I made in grad school.
Ashley Taylor is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Louisiana State University. Her interests outside of science is community outreach. She teaches ACT prep for Upward bound students, Baton Rouge chapter of the 100 Black Men and teaches math for k-5 grade students.
Follow her on Instagram @maheemahee