It's not me, it's you...
May 6, 2008 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm currently finishing my MS & am in interested in going for a PhD, just not with my current advisor. Without getting into drama & gossip, I will not be able to maintain my sanity doing a PhD under him. How to ask someone else?

Another professor in the department is in need of a PhD student, and I've been eyeing him, mustering up enough courage to ask him for a position. How do I go about this tactfully? What are the graduate-school politics that I'll have to deal with? Am I committing academic suicide by thinking to ask another advisor?
A research buddy told me to simply ask the professor that I'm interested in and my current advisor not needing to know anything until the last minute.
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posted by anonymous to Education (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My suggestion (as an Asst Professor myself): Tell the other professor that you would love to work with him for the PhD because you are very interested in his work/would like to change your field. Let him either discuss it with your current advisor or decline.

DEFINITELY frame it in terms of the new field/opportunity and NOT in terms of any drama and gossip.
posted by JMOZ at 1:43 PM on May 6, 2008

Changing advisers is really normal, and happens all the time. Sometimes because of personality issues, often because of changing interests, funding, etc. There is always the chance that someone will be weird about it, but mostly everyone is an adult and they are happy if you are happy and doing well. Particularly if the change makes sense in terms of your dissertation project, it should be fairly non-controversial.

Definitely talk to the prospective adviser first, and leave all references to drama completely out of these discussions. You also might want to speak to someone (DGS, or perhaps the department chair) about what the process is for moving from the MS program into the phd track. Sometimes it is as simple as a professor saying "yes" and agreeing to fund you, plus a little paperwork; other times you will need to do a full application and all that jazz, complete with letters of reference, test scores, etc, even if you started the MS the year before. A really good DGS or chair could be a nice intermediary between you and the two advisers, but not all of them are that great at those kinds of mediations. And like I said, changing advisers is generally just not that big of a deal, especially if you do it before you start the phd (it gets trickier if you change advisers late in the process, for obvious reasons).

(That said, I have heard of, but have never experienced first-hand, departments where professors treat phd students as status items, to be hoarded, traded, or discarded. If that is what you department is like, leaving would probably be the smart approach.)
posted by Forktine at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2008

How do I go about this tactfully?


it REALLY is as simple as that.

Am I committing academic suicide by thinking to ask another advisor?

Are you kidding? I work in academia (albeit in the UK), and if there is one thing I know, it is that in order to succeed you CAN'T be afraid to step on anyone's toes. Initiative is the keyword here. Give me a straight-talking, forward thinking student any day.

What are the graduate-school politics that I'll have to deal with?

Politics/Schmolitics - university departments have better things to worry about than PhD students and who their supervisors are. If I can be blunt, as a PhD student you are close to the bottom of the faculty hierachy - they are not going to lose too much sleep over your opinion of your supervisor. Besides, if he is a douche then you can be sure they are already aware of it.

A research buddy told me to simply ask the professor that I'm interested in and my current advisor not needing to know anything until the last minute.

Wiser words have never been uttered.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:29 PM on May 6, 2008

This previous question covered a fairly similar advisor-switching situation, so you can read through the answers there and at least some of the advice should apply.

I'd reiterate (1) that you should talk to the prospective new advisor first, and (2) that presenting the switch as exclusively due to a shift in your research interests, and just seeming positive about the new project rather than negative about the old one, is the right way to avoid giving offense.
posted by RogerB at 2:40 PM on May 6, 2008

As others have mentioned, just ask. Changing advisors after one's MS is totally normal and there's really no need to be secretive about it. But please talk to the advisor you want to work with in terms of how his work excites you and how you think you'd be a good fit in his lab. Don't say anything about not getting along with your first professor. If he agrees you can just inform your first professor about it as a fait accompli and I don't think anyone would think it strange.
posted by peacheater at 2:57 PM on May 6, 2008

Well, there is some small danger that Current Advisor might be crazy enough to get vindictive on your ass and talk smack about you at conferences, or say something bad or damning-with-faint-praise about you if asked by a member of a search committee.

Assuming this guy isn't your DGS, I would make an appointment to have a confidential discussion with your DGS. If you do not trust your DGS to maintain confidentiality, you are in a nest of vipers and are already fucked eight ways from Sunday. Your DGS will know if Current Advisor is a vindictive asshole, and should offer you reasonable advice.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:59 PM on May 6, 2008

I changed advisors midway through my Ph.D. because my research interests changed. Essentially I had a break up talk with my original advisor where I did an "it's not you, it's me" and offered to be available to help transition the workers in his lab.
posted by mcroft at 5:52 PM on May 6, 2008

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