What happens when your lab decides to switch institutions?

Throughout my training, I’ve seen many labs leave my institution and many labs arrive, and I always thought, “I’m glad it isn’t happening to me” …until one day, it did. Toward the end of my second year as a postdoc at the NIH, my advisor took a position at Rockefeller University, and thus, the lab was officially relocating.

So what happens to you when your lab leaves to go somewhere else? Here are some of my experiences along with several others who have volunteered to share their stories. I conducted a small twitter survey with 12 respondents, and the overwhelming conclusion is: You are not alone! Many graduate students and postdocs experience a lab move, and each experience is unique. “It’s easy to get frustrated and feel like you are alone”, one survey respondent comments. I hope this post convinces you that you’re in good company and provides tips and suggestions on how to deal with the situation.

Should you stay or should you go?

The decision to stay or leave is personal and circumstantial and often there are additional complicating factors such as timing in graduate school, the two body problem, or consequences of leaving the lab. Accordingly, survey respondents’ decisions varied, with one-third leaving the institution with their lab, one-third staying at the original institution, and one-third making some sort of compromise.

No matter the final decision, all survey respondents recommend asking your advisor and administrators at both the old and new institutions a lot of questions before making your decision. “Ask about funding, classes, timelines, your official title/benefits at the new institution, their expectations, changes in the lab makeup (number of people, percentage of grad/undergrad students, etc.), opportunities to collaborate with people at both institutions, who’s paying for the move, cost-of-living adjustments, etc.,” recommends Laura Tipton, now a postdoctoral fellow at University of Hawai’i Manoa.

In addition to asking questions, it’s helpful to see how others have dealt with a lab move, what went into the decision-making process, and what advice they can offer.

Go with the lab

For some trainees, the best option is to move with the lab. Many who move to a new location with the lab admit that the move enables them to meet new scientists with fresh or different perspectives, and this can greatly benefit research projects. However, be aware of additional moving pains. Inevitably, you will run into delays as it takes time to get projects up and running in the new space.

Ashley Lakoduk. A technician when the lab decided to move, COMPASS member Lakoduk explains, “I was not excited about the new location, but the mentor was great and I knew it would be worth it in the long run. My advisor promised to help me get into grad school when I was ready, so [moving with the lab] has been very worthwhile for my career.” While this was the right move for her career, it meant sacrifice for her personal relationships. “I was married at the time and brought my wife with me,” explains Lakoduk. “We experienced problems shortly after moving and within a year of moving had divorced. But, overall, I am happy with my decision to move. I was ‘stuck’ where I was, and I wouldn’t be where I am in my career if I hadn’t left my comfort zone.”

Looking back on her experience, Lakoduk recommends: “Weigh your options carefully, but ultimately make the best choice for your career. If you think it will only be transitory, treat it as such. Don’t force your loved ones to follow you if this is a temporary move that will only support your career. Make the best of your decision, and try to be happy!”

Anonymous. This respondent admits: “It’s easy to get angry at the situation, especially when you see your other colleagues progress more quickly as they do not have to deal with these hurdles.” But for this respondent, the move was for the best, “There was no way I could have completed my work as successfully without a working lab. It is logistically and psychologically difficult to do your best work in a dying lab.”

Go with the lab, but remain a member of the original institution

For others, it made sense to move to the new institution with the PI, but stay a member of the original institution’s graduate program. Each institution has different requirements for trainees, so know what your institution allows and what the new institution will require. For example, some programs will not let you stay as part of the program without having passed the preliminary/qualifier exam in the second year. If you switch institutions, some may require you retake coursework or fulfill different requirements. Either way, ask questions and be aware of each institution’s policies and rules.

Mackenzie Howard. “[Having a joint affiliation] meant traveling back once a year for committee meetings, and doing a lot more over email.” remarks Howard, now at the University of Texas at Austin. While it has worked for others in this situation, “Ultimately, this was not a good way to go for me” says Howard, since it made it difficult to establish connections with faculty at the original institution, especially when in the 4th year, his PI decided to leave science altogether. “I immediately contacted my dissertation committee and program head at the previous institution, and outlined what I thought I could do to finish my work. With the move and the delays, my committee didn’t think I could do enough in time to finish (they weren’t wrong).” Howard explains that, although offered the choice of returning to the original institution and starting from the beginning, he ultimately re-applied to other programs with a better understanding of what would be a good fit.

Now having established his own lab at UT Austin, Howard reflects, “Look around at ALL your options. In the end, your PIs are looking out for their own best interests, not yours. You have a lot of options you might not realize, and a lot of other labs at other institutions will be happy to have someone who has a bit more experience, the dedication to stick with science despite adversity, and importantly, more knowledge and focus on what they actually want to do.”

Howard concludes “Do not think of this time as wasted time, even if you have to start over again. You have gained experience and have become a better scientist. It isn’t wasted time if you’re doing what you were going to be doing anyway, which is working in a lab doing cool research, it just means that certain end points (and, yes, pay raises) may come later than you initially expected.”

Laura Tipton. She also decided to move with the lab, but remain a member of the original institution. She explains, “The main deciding factor was that my advisor would continue to have funding for me to continue my research on a topic I loved, whereas no one else at the current institution was doing similar research or had funding to support me.” On making her decision, she adds, “I had the two body problem, but fortunately my husband’s [job] is flexible enough that he could work from home in the new city. That made the decision easier.” Her institution made it as easy for her as possible by letting her attend committee meetings by email or skype. The only requirement was that she return to the original institution for her dissertation defense. She admits, however, that “[email and skype meetings] were probably not as helpful as in-person meetings would have been.”

“Overall, now that I’m done, I think it was the right decision. I was exposed to new ideas and collaborations I would not have had otherwise so it was the best decision for my career,” states Tipton on moving with the lab. However, “For my mental health, it may not have been the best decision as I was miserable living in the new city. Moving caused me to lose my support system, so part of me wishes I had been required to take at least one course at the new institution to get to know more of the grad students there,” she explains.

Molly McQuilken. For McQuilken, who obtained her PhD from Dartmouth, the move was essentially a bargaining tool for finishing her degree. “I was starting my fifth year of graduate school at Dartmouth when we left, and I decided to go to the new institution after convincing my advisor I needed to graduate within nine months of moving,” explains McQuilken. She also admits to the hardships of moving away from her support network and trying to establish a new community so late in her PhD process, but settling on a concrete timeline for defending her thesis was a huge factor in the decision.

Stay at the institution

Other times, the best decision was to remain at their original institution, but that may come with caveats. Often, staying means leaving your original lab and either joining a new lab, potentially losing several years of productivity, or starting a new job/career.

Anonymous. This respondent explained that they were mentored by two PIs, and the one with funding ended up leaving the institution. Through some extra effort, the respondent was able to find funding so that they were fully mentored by the other PI and was able to remain at the original institution without too much disruption to their research.

Ian Street. Another graduate student decided to stay when his advisor was denied tenure because he was so close to finishing his PhD. “I had to find a lab when my PI did move on where I could do some experiments,” explains Street. “I had to negotiate [spending] money on certain things to do final experiments.”

Brian Aguado. Sometimes staying when your lab leaves creates a sense of abandonment. Aguado, who obtained his PhD from Northwestern, decided to stay and finish his PhD at his original institution when his advisor left. “It was challenging being virtually by myself finishing a PhD, but it has made me a more independent scientist,” he states. “Fortunately, my advisor would make occasional trips back and meet with me and two other remaining grad students. He even made it back to hood me at my graduation ceremony”. If staying at your original institution, Aguado recommends: “Make sure you assess where you are in your career, and be open to changing labs or finding a co-adviser to stay at your current institution if necessary. If you choose to stay, make sure another lab “adopts” you so you have access to lab equipment, extra hands to help take care of samples when you are away, etc.”

Part of Brian’s decision to stay was influenced by personal preferences: “I mainly wanted to stay because of friends and family, and love of the city” says Brian. “Mental health is also important—you need a support network to finish a PhD.”

Bill Arndt. In contrast, sometimes the decision to stay at an institution comes from being in a lab that wasn’t the right fit in the first place. Arndt, who was a graduate student at the time, explains: “[For me], it was an unhappy lab situation anyway, so this was a welcome relief and a way out of the lab.”

Anonymous. Family and personal reasons factored into some respondents’ decisions to stay at the original institution. As one person explains, “My extended family is local to the institution where I started graduate school, and a relative was in declining health, then passed away when I was making this decision. My family is a major part of my support network as a student, and especially right after a loss, I was reluctant to move away.”

Compromise—stay and leave

Many of us have come up with unique solutions so that the lab move is not totally disruptive to personal lives and careers. This is my story:

When I first heard the news that my lab would be leaving, I assumed I had two options: stay in the lab and move to the new institution, or leave the lab and stay at my original institution. Fortunately, as is often the case, my advisor and institutions were willing to make compromises on this front. I am a seasoned veteran of the “two body problem” and after 2.5 years apart, I was happily living in the same city as my fiancé when my lab decided to leave for New York. I wanted to stay in my current lab, but also live with my fiancé (Is that too much to ask?!). So my advisor and I have made an arrangement where I can split time between institutions. I do some work at my original institution (in the lab where we have an ongoing collaborative project), and then travel to Rockefeller for experiments, personal interactions, and resources. I was the sole lab member willing to move, and shortly after the transition I obtained a fellowship, so that helped negotiate the compromise. Not to mention, access to lab space and resources at the NIH made the transition smoother while things were getting set up in the new lab. While this may not be the perfect solution (and we are still working on a more practical long-term solution), I am not fully long distance from my fiancé, and I still get to continue being a part of the lab environment I like and doing the research I enjoy. Furthermore, being at Rockefeller has provided me with remarkable exposure to scientists, research, and resources that would not have been available if I stayed.

Final thoughts

Communicate and talk the decision over with others. Open lines of communication with your advisor, lab mates, and new (and old) institutions are critical to help you decide what’s right for you. “Without your mentor’s support for whichever option you prefer, you are likely to face a difficult battle,” remarks one graduate student.

As for what to expect, one survey respondent explains, “Unfortunately, there is going to be a cost both if you leave or if you stay. You can’t get around it. If you stay, you need to deal with the loss of belonging to a productive lab environment. If you leave you will inevitably lose some time setting up both life and new lab workflows.” It’s important to keep an open mind about the experience and make the best out of the new situation.

I recall some advice from ASCB member Dr. Enrique De La Cruz: “You can’t have it all… but you can have a little bit of a lot”. While you may not be able to have everything you had originally planned on by joining a lab, it is possible to make the most of this circumstance and be open to new experiences.

The “right decision” will vary for everyone. Sometimes this requires sacrifices in personal relationships or timing or career trajectory. Importantly, don’t feel as if you are going through this endeavor alone. Taking care of your mental health is extremely important during this time. Many institutions offer free wellness and meditation courses for trainees, in addition to access to therapy, that can be really helpful especially if the decision is difficult or requires sacrifices. If you have any questions, want advice, or just feel like commiserating, please don’t hesitate to respond in the comments or reach out!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Pinar Gurel is a postdoctoral fellow in the Alushin lab at Rockefeller University where she is investigating the role of actin structural plasticity in mechanosensation using cryoEM and other biophysical tools. Pinar earned her PhD in the Higgs lab at Dartmouth College where she studied the mechanism of actin filament severing by the formin, INF2. She is currently the co-chair of COMPASS. Email: pinar.s.gurel@gmail.com. Twitter: @pinar_gurel

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