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Changing labs - help?

  1. Jul 18, 2013 #1
    Hello everyone,

    I'm in a bit of a predicament. I am a rising junior and I have realized that I would really like to transition to a different research group sometime in the near future. I have already received several offers from this research group in the past and have taken a graduate level class with the professor.

    There are several reasons why I would like to change labs. The first is that I have realized that I am not an experimentalist - after having done two experimental projects and one computational project, I have realized that I enjoy and am much better at computational work.

    The other reason why I would like to change labs is because my current lab is not a good fit. The professor is an amazing professor, and is arguably the best professor in his field in the world. I feel incredibly lucky to be working with him. Because of his fame, he very rarely takes undergraduates. I work in the lab for between 10 and 15 hours each week unless equipment has not arrived. I do not feel that this is enough for my professor, but my courseload and other requirements makes it difficult for me to work longer hours, so I feel that I am letting him down. Furthermore, I was awarded a prize to do a research internship off campus with another eminent professor. I accepted this prize and completed the internship, but I know that my professor here was unhappy with this decision as he expected me to spend 14 weeks working on campus, rather than six. I understand where he's coming from, and it definitely makes sense as most of the lab group are postdocs/visiting professors. However, I would like my undergraduate years to be a time of exploration, and would hence like to be able to focus on my coursework and accept REUs off campus to learn different skills.

    I'm hoping to stay with this group until we finish this project. However, we have no data and it's been almost a year. I'm considering changing labs in October if there are no signs of progress. If we do have some results, I will stay until the project is done.

    I was wondering if people could provide advice about how to change lab groups without disenfranchising my professor. I'm not sure whether he'd be able to write me a positive recommendation, especially given that he's not used to undergraduates and I'm of course less knowledgeable than a graduate student, and that I didn't spend all of my summer here. However, I would love to stay on favorable terms with him, as if he does write me a recommendation, it would go a long way.

    Any advice would be welcomed.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 25, 2013 #2
    I have a similar dilemma. I have been working with an excellent professor, wonderful grad students and on a lot of fun projects. I am a physics major and my current situation is in the "best" experimental physics lab setup in our school (the best funded, the best equipped, blah, blah, blah). Everyone who has ever worked in this professor's lab has gone on to accomplish really amazing things. I am not unhappy there.

    But, I have a possibility of working with a professor in the astronomy department. He is a professor with an exciting and "luscious" project. I like him better personally, am more excited by his project, and am seriously considering his lab work. I would NOT switch to an astronomy major. Astronomy is not even an undergrad major offered at my school.

    So, a few considerations. Firstly, I will still be a physics major and my reputation and continued "good will" with the physics department is important to me. Secondly, the physics lab work would more closely relate to what I expected to be doing, and continue doing, in physics. Thirdly, I am in fear of pursuing astronomy as a career or vocation...not exactly as broad an opportunity as physics IMHO.

    So, bottom line. Has anyone ever done something like this and how did it affect you in the long run?

    Thanks in advance for your kind advice, as always. :D
  4. Jul 25, 2013 #3


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    The first thing I would point out is that just because you do undergraduate research in a particular subject you are not in any way tied to that subject for graduate study or a career. Sometimes you learn that particular area isn't for you. Sometimes you develop an interest elsewhere. Sometimes you have just grabbed a hold of whatever opportunity you could get at the time.

    The people on graduate admissions committees are well aware of such issues.

    The second thing I would point out is that what matters if you want to change is how you do it. Consider the project that you're working on and the goals you have with it. Are there any clearly defined end-points? It's very reasobable to approach your professor and say that you would like to continue on the project until you get (a) (b) or (c) done, but that you want to explore other opportunities. Exploring opportunities is what your undergraduate degree is really about. So rather than simply quitting - define a reasonable end point and do your best to work towards it.

    What you need to avoid is getting yourself into a situation where you dred going into the lab, stop going, are miserable while you're there, or are unproductive out of a misplaced sense of duty to the project. Such situations are not going to lead to a positive learning experience or decent reference letters anyway.
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