Graciously Backing Out of an Undergraduate Research Position
March 15, 2011 10:06 AM   Subscribe

What is the most gracious way for me to back out of the undergraduate research I said I would take up for the upcoming fall semester, given that I've spent two semesters working in the lab already? I don't want the people I worked with to have a bad impression of me because of the fact that I demonstrated so much interest in and commitment to their field only to quit prematurely.

Short background: I entered college as a double major in Fields A and B, not because both fields would be useful for my career, but because I hadn't yet decided which of the two fields was really the one for me. Second semester freshman year, a professor in Field A invited me to join his research lab after being impressed by my performance in his introductory class the first semester. I hesitated because his particular subfield of Field A was not my favorite, but I accepted the invitation because he was my favorite teacher (a really wonderful teacher) and such a leader in his field that the opportunity to join the lab was too good to pass up.

I continued in the Field A research lab for a second semester, the fall of my sophomore year. Despite my great experience in the spring semester, the fall semester experience turned out to be less rewarding because I could not come up with my own research project idea, hard as I tried, and the prof did not want to provide me too much direction. One of his grad students, though, was very kind to let me "tag along" on his own research project. The grad student made me feel very included in the research project, even going so far as to spend several hours introducing me to his computer programming software.

At the end of the semester, I told the prof and the grad student that I hoped to return to their lab for a third semester to finally begin my own research project (related to the grad student's) after my semester of study abroad in Europe. That seemed like the best possible arrangement at the time. However, during the winter break before my study abroad, I was doing career research and had a series of epiphanies. Though I won't elaborate the reasons here, I finally realized that the best plan for my future was not graduate school/research in Field A, but rather K-12 teaching in Field B. Whereas I had been filled with anxiety thinking about my future in Field A, I was filled with excitement and satisfaction thinking about my future in Field B. But in order for me to graduate with a teaching degree in Field B, I will have to drop my major in Field A entirely.

Now that I am currently studying abroad (the study abroad experience, incidentally, is related to Field B), how can I best go about informing the prof and grad student who worked with me that I do not intend to return to their lab in the fall, despite what I previously told them? Will sending them one combined e-mail be enough, or should I send individual e-mails, or do I need to do more? How can I properly express my gratitude to them for taking me under their wings? Where can I find the balance between giving them too much vs. too little information about the reasons for my change of heart about continuing to work in their lab?
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total)
So, are you currently abroad? If not, you should probably be talking to them in person, since you've already said you're going to do it. But I think the most important thing is to tell them sooner rather than later. If you must do it via email, I would just lay it out as simply as possible. Say you're grateful for the opportunity and the experience, but you've decided to major in Field B and you're not going to be able to do both. The end. They might think you're flaky, but there's not much you can do about that. Tell them soon, though! Someone else might want that research opportunity!
posted by mskyle at 10:17 AM on March 15, 2011

I would send them both individual emails simply explaining that you've decided to drop the A major and so won't be able to help out, but overall you have nothing to apologize for--the whole point of undergrad is to let you experience a variety of things before deciding on a career path. I strongly doubt that you'll be screwing anything serious up for them. If it makes you feel better you can use the passive voice and appeal to forces beyond your control ("I won't be able to continue in field A"), but you don't need into get to much detail.
posted by nasreddin at 10:18 AM on March 15, 2011

Gah! "don't need to get into too much detail."
posted by nasreddin at 10:19 AM on March 15, 2011

You can even just tell them that you've decided you need to focus on your schoolwork this semester. Your supervisor is not going to be crushed.
posted by auto-correct at 10:19 AM on March 15, 2011

The explanation that you have given us is perfectly lucid, and I would see no reason not to send it to the interested parties.
Failing that, it is always acceptable to explain that you had to change your plans because of an important horoscope reading that you had.
posted by grizzled at 10:24 AM on March 15, 2011

I wouldn't worry *at all* about this reflecting poorly on you unless, say, you'd secured some funding for yourself and they'd already started spending the money, or if you were cutting out several weeks into the semester.

Personally, I'd probably mention that I'd decided to switch my major to "B" Ed., because that provides a reason for not continuing research which doesn't have anything to do with the quality of mentorship provided. Thank them for the previous learning opportunity with whatever specifics you'd like, and if you are proud of the work you did with them, don't discount them if you want to ask for a letter of reference in the future.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:42 AM on March 15, 2011

This happens all the time with undergrad RAs; a simple factual statement thanks them for the opportunity and saying that you have to focus on other school work will suffice.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:49 AM on March 15, 2011

As soon as possible, in person if you can, and later, after this is all worked out, stop by the lab with beer and/or food to say hi and thank them again for mentoring you and ask how the projects you were working on are going.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:07 AM on March 15, 2011

(If you're under 21, I recommend the food.) Technically the snacks are unnecessary, of course. The point is that there's no reason to be ashamed over this, and you shouldn't worry about stopping by later just to be friendly. Labs are used to their undergrads being predictably flaky, honestly.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:12 AM on March 15, 2011

Well, also, this isn't a flakiness situation, since the asker has clear, convincing, and well-articulated reasons for backing out.
posted by nasreddin at 11:34 AM on March 15, 2011

This is actually kind of the whole point of the internships, you get to try out working in that field in a relatively low commitment way to see if it's right for you. We get interns and summer students where I've been working and sometimes they find out that, actually, this isn't where their career lies. Then they go do something else. Everyone considers that to be a win because it's better to find out then than start a masters or PhD degree that ultimately isn't going to work.

So definitely send the email soon and tell them you've decided to change majors so can't work with them again (I'd send one to both of them both individual is fine too), and also thank them for giving you to opportunity to work in their area as it was surely helpful in your making the right decision. You have nothing to apologise for, the system is doing what it should.

Then go and have a fabulous teaching career!
posted by shelleycat at 12:50 PM on March 15, 2011

You have no obligation to keep working in that lab. It is far better that they find someone else who is more excited about the field that you would be and might continue with them in the long run. This is completely normal, and basically expected of undergrads. Especially someone who is a good teacher will be glad that he was able to provide a teaching opportunity - you got to see what research in that field was like and you decided it wasn't for you.
posted by lab.beetle at 4:16 PM on March 15, 2011

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