I think I need to switch my Master's project, but am not sure how to start.
November 21, 2006 11:48 AM   Subscribe

[Gradschooletiquettefilter] I'm currently working on an MS in geology. I'm just into my second year. For a number of reasons, I'm pretty unhappy with my current project, and am considering switching, and would like some advice on how to do so respectfully. There is, of course...

I came to this program to work on a different project, and for various reasons that are neither my nor my advisor's fault, it fell through. The 'consolation project' that I'm currently working on is just not doing it for me. I can't get excited about it, I'm not finding it particularly intellectually stimulating or challenging, and I'm starting to think that this particular subdiscipline of geology is not where I want to be, long term. I think that I'd actually rather do environmental work. Fortunately for me, there are plenty of subdisciplines in geology that are environmentally relevant. One professor in my department who does relevant stuff said during a talk that he was looking for grad students. I'm pretty interested in what he does, and actually have about 9 months of work experience that is semi-related. I'm very strongly considering approaching him to ask whether I could work for him. I'm not concerned that I'd have to stay here longer. I'd much rather put in more time on something I care about that would help me land an environmental job, than just get out of here with a degree in something I'm not engaged with. So here are my questions:

1. What is the 'polite' way to go about this? I asked two friends who are grad students at different institutions, and got very different advice. One said to be up front with my current advisor, and to tell her what's going on before I switch, to avoid appearing 'shady'. The other friend said I should approach the other professor, and have a 'door shut' conversation about would he take me on, what would I work on, what's his funding like, and not tell my current advisor about all this until something is fairly concrete with him. Basically, friend 2 thought I shouldn't burn any bridges before knowing that there is something else for me. Honestly, I can see the logic in both positions. I'd been leaning towards telling my current advisor first, as I like and respect her a lot. It's not that I don't want to work with her, I'm just realizing I don't want to work on what she works on. So I'd like to hear your thoughts on what are the best ways to go about making this change while ruffling the fewest feathers.

2. While I think changing to work with this new advisor is what I want to do, I'm a little intimidated by the idea of making such a big change, and I don't want to bum my current advisor out, because I like her. In general, I tend to shy away from conflict, and am not too good at doing things like this. What are some good ways for me to be sure that this is the right decision, and then have the guts to go through with it?

I know this was a long question; thanks much for reading. I thought about posting anonymously, but I wanted to be able to chime back in if people have questions, and I don't think anybody in my dept (with the exception of one good friend who knows my whole situation) reads metafilter.
posted by HighTechUnderpants to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is a difficult question to answer categorically, because so much depends on the specific personalities involved (primarily the current and prospective new advisors, secondarily yours, and also your specific department's culture about this kind of move). On general academic-politics grounds, though, I think Friend 2's approach is less likely to result in bad fallout for you. I would begin by having a tentative, off-the-record, private exploratory conversation with the prospective new advisor, telling him more or less exactly what you said here. If that goes well, get a concrete commitment from the new person that he/she will be your advisor, and only then discuss it with the current advisor. (If you are sure the current advisor will not be insulted, you can broach the subject earlier in a tentative way, in order to avoid burning bridges. This will depend on your sense of how territorial she is.)

In both conversations, do not focus on what you dislike or are bored with about the current project and/or advisor; focus instead on your excitement about the new project, your relevant experience, your desire to go into that field (and about the new advisor, only when talking to him). Stay positive about the new project, and avoid saying anything about your feelings about the old thing if possible. People will be more inclined to help, and less inclined to be insulted, if they see this choice as helping you to find your ultimate field of interest rather than as leaving a project that isn't working out.
posted by RogerB at 12:31 PM on November 21, 2006

Best answer: Agreed with RogerB - this doesn't need to be conflict. It is not personal; don't let it be personal in your conversations. People's interests change; you are still early in your graduate career. Just DO it, switch sooner rather than later.

Talk to both people on the same day if you can manage it -- 1. ask the new person first, explaining that you haven't spoken to your old supervisor yet ("My interests are x. Is there a place for me in your project? I haven't spoken to Old Person yet, and will be going to him immediately if you think you could take me on. I just wanted to touch base with you first.").

2. Then go talk to your old supervisor ("My interests have shifted, and I think New Person's project is more what I'm looking for. I enjoy working with you and wish that my interests didn't dictate a switch -- but they do, and I want to get it out of the way now. How shall we move forward? Of course I will keep you up to speed every step of the way, and will finish whatever near-term commitments I have in your lab.").

3. Then go back and confirm with the new person and start working out details. CC both people on e-mails about administrative changes (eg filling out forms etc).

4. If you think there are likely to be difficult personal politics, talk to your DGS confidentially first to get advice of how to handle it. It is absolutely your prerogative to switch advisors, in almost every program I know of -- so don't be too timid. It is a purely professional situation, and mature people won't be touchy about it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:58 PM on November 21, 2006

Best answer: What is the 'polite' way to go about this? I asked two friends who are grad students at different institutions, and got very different advice. One said to be up front with my current advisor, and to tell her what's going on before I switch, to avoid appearing 'shady'. The other friend said I should approach the other professor, and have a 'door shut' conversation about would he take me on, what would I work on, what's his funding like, and not tell my current advisor about all this until something is fairly concrete with him.

I think both friends were right, for some department (although I have to say, I wouldn't want to be in the second friend's department). If your department is cohesive, the second option will be "door shut" only in the sense of your current advisor won't hear your conversation. Your advisor will probably hear about it at the next faculty meeting, if not sooner. Let me put it this way -- the other professor is likely to be far more concerned about coming across as stealing grad students away, than you are about being rude to your current advisor. After all, he/she may have to work with your current advisor for years, whereas if you're an MA student you'll be gone within one or two.

I think what you should do first is talk to as many grad students in your department as you can to find out if there are any stories about situations like this, what the students did, and what the professors did. This might help you determine which friend's department is most like yours. You also might consider setting up a meeting with the second professor, just to ask about their work -- to set the ground for meeting with them and switching to them in the future, but not to do that just right now. This would be the exploratory meeting that RogerB recommends, but I personally wouldn't say everything you say here right away -- I would just try to ask for more information about the project you're interested in, the professor's work, etc. Who knows, you may find that you don't actually like meeting with them. Keep in mind that your current adviser may also hear about this and realize what is happening, but if they are not territorial, this shouldn't be a problem.

If your department is cohesive and the faculty get along, there really won't be any problem with this as long as you're up front. If they get along, but you're not up front, there may be some bad feelings (but then, maybe not, as they may have more idea of what's going through your head than you realize, if they pay attention to their grad students). If they don't get along, there may be bad feelings either way, but I think they could actually be worse if you aren't up front, because this will only exacerbate any tension between the current adviser and the new one. But for you, being up front might not be the best option in this kind of department -- just keep in mind that you ideally want to have all of your professors as contacts in the long term, and potentially future recommendation writers some day. You will need at least two letters for almost any purpose, probably at least three if you are going to do a PhD somewhere else. For that matter, at least in my department (which is an entirely different field, so may not apply), the MA committee has to have at least two people.
posted by advil at 1:32 PM on November 21, 2006

Response by poster: Hey guys. Thanks much for all the advice. I'll probably try and get this over with on Tuesday. I suppose the one thing I left out was that my current advisor is also the department chair. Not really sure if that changes anything. She's also, though, a really nice person, and I think will be disappointed to lose me, but probably supportive of my doing what makes me happy. I'm currently vacilating between talking to the new professor briefly, then immediately after going to my current advisor, as LobsterMitten suggests, or just talking to my current advisor first. There is one 'personality thing' in the department, but it's two completely non-related profs-not my currrent one, and not the one I'm considering working for.

Thanks very much for your thoughts. If anything I just said changes your advice somehow, or if you have anything to add, I'd love to hear it. But again, my sincere thanks for your feelings on the subject.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 12:43 PM on November 26, 2006

How did it go?
posted by RogerB at 9:34 PM on November 28, 2006

Response by poster: It went really well. I ended up talking to my advisor first, who I expected to be cool and understanding about it; she was cooler than I expected her to be, and even gave me some really helpful advice about finding something new. Hopefully, I'll settle on a new advisor/project within the week.

Again, thanks, and all answers were really helpful.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 5:15 PM on January 25, 2007

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