In the fall of 2022, I successfully defended my research proposal and earned my status as a Ph.D. candidate. The whole process was brutal, but that’s a topic for another time. In short, it was a months-long endeavor that helped me to truly realize how little I knew – even about my own research topic. It was emotionally and mentally exhausting, and left me feeling totally burnt out. However, the benefits of completing your candidacy is that you have a clearer idea of how to move forward, you learn a lot about your field, and you have the endorsement of a committee of professionals who believe in your project. I was riding this upward wave going into the spring 2023 semester.
After months of writing in circles, I hit the lab each morning excited to get back to the bench and generate data. I finally felt like a scientist again…until mid-January. That’s when my advisor sat us all down with a somber look on his face and told us that he was moving the lab to another institution over the summer.
Maybe you have been in a similar situation, or maybe you will be (do not ignore the “you never think it can happen to you until it does” cliche. It’s 100% true and it’s exactly how I felt.) Regardless, you can probably imagine the powerful onslaught of shock and panic that my lab mates and I felt in that first moment. I will admit that my first reaction was not supportive, but instead I said, “This is my worst nightmare”. Although that reaction was admittedly harsh, it wasn’t far from the truth. Based on my observations and interactions with other graduate students, tales of advisors departing an institution mid-degree are top-tier career horror stories. Although this was a very recent experience for me, I want to share my “tips and tricks” for how I got through the situation.
Process, Process, Process.
In the days following the news, it felt like I cycled through the entire range of emotions nearly every day or two. I would wake up feeling excited about the idea that my life was about to change one way or another only to be hopelessly panicking by lunch. By the time I got home, I would be so mentally numb that I couldn’t even talk about it with my husband.
I’m a stereotypical type-A worrier. For me, just knowing that I had no idea what was going to happen shook me to my core. It was the worst part. If I had to give myself any advice, it would be to take some time to stop and process the situation. If you’re anything like me, you hate not being in control. I had to realize that there was absolutely nothing I could do to ameliorate the situation. My mentor was leaving whether I liked it or not. For weeks, I lived in limbo. I went into work not knowing if the project I was working on was still mine or not. If you find yourself in this type of situation, know that it’s okay not knowing exactly what you’re going to do about it. One of the only things that will help you to see the circumstances clearly is time. Adjust, reset, repeat.
Utilize University Resources.
The great thing about being a graduate student in 2023 is that your institution probably has mental and physical health resources available to you for free. My university has a satellite office of mental health services in the building where I worked that offers free short-term counseling, workshops, and other resources for students. I am usually apprehensive about these types of options (the type A in me tells me that these things are a waste of time when I could be generating data or drafting a manuscript), but I eventually revisited my counselor and asked for a quick session to help navigate my time in limbo while retaining my sanity.
There will probably be weeks of working through your options, collecting information, and allowing yourself some time to “sleep on it.” This is an advantage. It’s stressful, but it’s an excellent opportunity to invest some of your time and energy into things outside of your career that you care about. This will also distract and calm your mind so that you can make a sound decision when the time comes. Although this goes against my workaholic nature, I made myself slow down to focus on my hobbies and invest time in my personal life. For me, this meant slowing down my normal routine to allow for extra time in the evenings to spend time with my husband, read a book, go for a walk, or do nothing at all.
There are also things you can do during your workdays to brighten them up a little. During my working (and non-working) hours, I listened to the Broadway musical “Hamilton” on repeat. I was fuelled by the notion that if a poor, orphaned teenager could become one of the most important and revered figures in American history, I could get through this. If rapping founding fathers don’t hype you up, find something that does! Although this was one of my sillier coping mechanisms, the message still stands. When navigating a stressful, life-changing situation, it’s important to slow your mind down and allow yourself to really enjoy the things that make you happy.
Lean On Your Support Systems. Hard.
Without the support of my loved ones, my circumstances would have been much more unbearable. My patient husband talked me through the dread, tears, and other emotional states I found myself in. My parents called and texted nearly every day not just to ask for updates, but to offer comfort. We all have a friend, loved one, spouse, parent, sibling, or mentor that we lean on. If you don’t have someone who can physically be with you, the odds are that your institution can help with that, too. If your university is like mine, it will have student support groups, some of which are even specifically for international students. Your peers are another great source of support. My mentor’s other students and I spent a lot of time together in our small, windowless cinder block office space asking each other what our plans were. For a long time, we all had the same answer: I have no idea. We bounced ideas around and tried to help each other figure it out, but mostly we just listened to each other. We offered empathetic ears to bend, but mostly it was comforting just to know that we weren’t alone.
Get To Work.
Now it’s time to decide how to proceed. Although you will undoubtedly want some advice from your support system, this is something you will have to ultimately do on your own (or maybe with a spouse/partner). I had a few different options. If I left with my mentor, I would have to decide if I wanted to be a “visiting” student and receive my degree from my original institution or transfer to the new institution. If I stayed, I had to find a new mentor with a new project or find someone who does research similar to mine and create a hybrid project (My project was so niche that this wasn’t a valid option for me, but that’s not always the case).
Make a list of priorities. When you first heard the news, what were the immediate concerns that popped into your head? Those are most likely your top priorities. For example, my top three were:
1. I didn’t want to be separated from my husband.
2. I wanted to finish my Ph.D.
3. I wanted to finish my degree as close to my initial graduation date as possible.
Moving forward, don’t be afraid to reach out to other mentors. I talked to several, all of whom were very kind and helpful, even if it was apparent that I wouldn’t be a good fit in their lab. Of course, if you have already decided to move institutions with your mentor, now is the time to start connecting with their administration and brace yourself for a logistical marathon.
A few good things also came out of “my worst nightmare”. I found a new mentor at my institution whose work was adjacent to mine and who wanted to help me with my professional goals. My circumstances also forced me to really think about what I wanted for my future. I was in the perfect position to bow out early with a master’s degree and move on with my life. A master’s degree is no small accomplishment, but I ultimately decided to honor the work I had put in so far and persevere. If ever you find yourself in a similar situation, I encourage you to examine your goals and ultimately let them guide your decision. In the words of the great Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Do not throw away your shot!”