Is changing university during your PhD a good idea? The first few months of your PhD are very intense. You start getting familiar with your subject and research the different topics in depth. You know the main authors in the field and even more important. You start enjoying what you do.
At some point you start designing your own experiments, you feel a part of a group, you attend you your first conference, and you know everyone and feel at ease with your PhD.
Suddenly, your supervisor wants to see you at an unexpected meeting. “I’ve done something very, very bad” you think. She/he has decided to move to another university.
Now the question is: should you follow him and consider changing university during your PhD?
Your Supervisor Changes University During Your PhD
I started my PhD in 2012. And then, when I was in the best moment, my supervisor communicated me her intention of going to another University. She wanted to move her research and the group to a new place.
For a PhD student this is shocking. Yes, it is, indeed. A sentence that makes you feel on the brink of ruin. That changes your plans and maybe the life you were expecting for the next few years.
I haven’t been more surprised in years. I was speechless, sitting there in her office, while my mind was quickly running thousands of thoughts. “If that’s the best for the group, I go”, “Yes, exactly, we will do whatever you consider is the best for the group”, “We are going to have our own lab, that’s much better for our work” and things I heard during this meeting.
She wanted to move, and it was perfectly understandable. Her career had been brilliant so far, and she just needed to keep growing. From her point of view this required specific facilities and work spaces. And she was luckily offered all this in another university.
Although everything sounded very exciting, there was a mistrustful something in my mind. Changing university during your PhD means starting again in a new place. It means new lab, new office and new facilities and of course new people, experiences and adventures. Who wouldn’t like this? Well, I was not convinced about it.
Something was preventing me from being happy about moving to a new university. I had developed a proper life since I moved to start my PhD. There were scientific aspects as well. I knew everyone in my faculty, from administration to colleagues and academics, and I knew who to asked for whatever I needed, the facilities, the campus.
There were personal and social reasons: I had already made friends; I knew interesting places in the city, from supermarkets to discos. “Could I leave this all?”
On the one hand, I was quite engaged with my project by then. I loved the research itself and our approach to it. I found a passion on it and I was certainly enjoying. I wondered whether I should follow my project wherever it goes.
On the other hand, there were reasons linking me to my current place. I did not want to move to another city and move to other flat. I did not want to leave behind everything I had built for months.
My thinking by then was something like “What if I go? If ok, I assume I am going to change my life and start again. Get used to a new city. Learn again about it, make new friends. I love my project and I think this could be a success if I cling to it.”
But also: “What if I don’t go? I would need to drop the project, or maybe change it and be supervised by another person here. I might make my supervisor angry, she could hate me forever. She had offered me a PhD and I was going to disappoint her.”
This all was certainly confusing me. But somehow moving felt as the path to follow. Less complication, no angry people. Everything running smoothly.
So… what do I care more about?
I felt absolutely overwhelmed about this question for a month. I felt forced to decide something that was not fair (I had already decided to start a PhD in here!). I didn’t encourage myself to look for the answer because I did not want to find it.
It sounded horrible to leave my life, but it sounded even more horrible drop the project I was passionate with. Whichever decision, I thought, was going to take a part of my happiness.
I got very unmotivated and started wasting work hours with stupid excuses. I even stopped liking my PhD, this one that was bringing me such a mess.
Moving was imminent. People in my group started organizing the logistics. I even started a list of consumables I was going to need in our new lab.
And then I realized I hadn’t decided yet whether changing university during your PhD was what I wanted or not.
I needed to make a decision.
Changing University During Your PhD 101
Long story short, I decided not to change universities during my PhD.
I swapped my project and changed supervisors. This hasn’t been a trauma for anyone. I am happily working now in a new PhD project which I am enjoying as I did with the other one.
I am of course missing things, but I did what I thought was best fitting my necessities.
It is not an easy decision but I made it. And it was not the end of my academic career (so far) or my social life. So let me talk about the steps that drove me to my decision of not changing universities in the middle of my PhD.
1. Talk Openly To Your Boss And Colleagues
First I went to speak with the head of the department. I needed to tell someone about my concerns, and I already knew him, as he supervised my master’s thesis. So he somehow came up as a reliable person to talk to.
I guess I was at the same time looking for some advice and for someone to decide for me. Or at least someone to ease the way. He told me to find out all the options. He could not take the decision for me, but he let me know there were solutions if I was feeling uncomfortable about moving. I can say now this was a wise advice.
I had a few chats with post-docs in my group and in my department. They gave a much closer opinion and told me to look for whatever benefitted me the most. They told me not to worry about anyone but myself. And that no one was expecting me to take a decision based in other’s opinions. But mine.
2. Meet Alternative Supervisors
I made a list with all the academics conducting researches that might interest me. These were alternative supervisors that I could contact by email. Not only the ones doing similar stuff to what I was doing, but people whose style of supervision I knew would suit me.
This is very important, because I already knew which things I needed from a supervisor and which others annoyed me. My own experience guided the search for the ideal person this time.
Then I went to talk with them all. Fortunately, the head of the department had already made them aware of my situation, so they were not surprised when I popped up in their offices.
Honestly, I did not like any of the new PhD projects they offered me. At the present I don’t think this was a real perception, but my frustration about the idea of dropping my beloved PhD. This was a mistake, because it took me longer to decide what I wanted to do.
Going to these chats with a more open-minded vision would have been of help for me. Because the reality is that you can fall in love and get engaged with more than one science. So don’t go predisposed.
3. Find Out All The Scientific Options
After all those talks, I found three real options. The first one: moving and keeping my project. The second one: not moving and swapping projects. The third one: not moving and try keeping my original work.
The first one sounded easy. I go and renounce to some things I like from here. No more consideration is required. The second one sounded hard. I don’t go; I disappoint my supervisor and start a project in a thing I am not going to like. The third one sounded like the neutral one. I don’t go, so I am still happy, and I don’t make anyone feel upset.
The last one looks like the best one, isn’t it? False.
Your supervisor would not be completely happy about his or her money staying with you (this depends on the grant you got).
A potential new supervisor wouldn’t be completely happy with you using his or her lab conducting research that may be very different to his/hers. I would have not considered this option if I knew what I know now, because it only contributed to confuse me more and distract my attention from the real options.
Don’t waste time looking for romantic solutions. Whether a decision has to be made, it will be unpleasant. So don’t do it longer.
4. Figure Out The Bureaucracy
I also contacted the administrative staff, including the postgraduate tutor and secretary. They gave me insights on real PhD change possibilities, such as delays of transfer and thesis submission deadlines. It is essential to make sure you will be able to delay your transfer time if you change your project.
I had been 6 months working in my project by then, so was time for me to almost start thinking about writing. I made sure I was not going to submit a report by the time I was first meant to, otherwise that could have been a ruin.
Not only that, but the administrative staff helped me solving questions such as “what happens with my grant if I go or not?” and “how long would be my contract if I stay?”
5. Visit The Target City And University
For me, visiting the city to which I would move was crucial for my decision. I didn’t like it. At all. It looked disorganized and dirty to me. The university campus was not delimited, so it was more like a part of the city. No green fields or sport facilities as there were in my university. A road that seemed a dual carriageway crossed the campus.
Ok, I prefered my original place, which conditioned my judgement. So I gave it a second chance.
My supervisor was going to have a few meetings in her new university, so she asked the post-docs to join her. But not the PhD students. I insisted and she was happy I wanted to join them.
It is necessary for you to know where you will be working. You need to know the new department and get an idea of the people and academic environment in there. So even if I sounded rude or busybody I did not care. I needed to make sure I liked it or not.
And no! I didn’t like it.
The group was going to get its own lab, which was brand new at the top floor with views, in the refurbished part of the faculty… which is good. But apart from this, the rest of the building was quite old and all the facilities distributed in different floors (in 5 floors!). PhDs used two massive offices with non-individual desks. Quite different compared to my faculty.
All those reasons might sound stupid now. But think about it. It is the place where you are going to live for the next 3 or 4 years. It is not trivial being happy there or not.
Doing a PhD is a hard issue, and being ok with the city in which you live, and the lab in which you work is more than necessary. So carefully think about it and weigh what things you could or not renounce to.
6. Evaluate Scientific Pros And Cons
One of the first things I noticed when we visited the new faculty, was the lack of facilities that I needed. And those were more than a few. My future faculty didn’t have most of what I needed. So I would have been looking all around the campus for the equipment I was using by then. That meant that my project was going to change in any way.
Compared to my faculty, in which I had mostly everything I needed around in the same building, it was not a good idea. It does not matter when you are not busy, but from time to time, time is gold. So I could not think about preparing my samples in a lab and then do a 10 minutes’ walk everyday to do my experiments.
I was also worried about how the group was going to work in a new place. Moving a group is never an easy task, and it requires time and adaptation. It also involves setting up a lot of new equipment and training in a lot of new facilities.
By the time when the moving was expected, I would be submitting my transfer report. I wouldn’t have been able to fully concentrate on it or to give a helping hand with the moving.
“But what if I stay here and a new project ends up being such a pain? What if it’s not as interesting and exciting as my current one? What if I stay and regret it?”
You shouldn’t forget that most of the academics are there for a good reason. And they are more or less suitable for you and your personality, but no one is stupid. All they are able to direct your work and to help you to do a good PhD. They all are getting grants, so they must conduct interesting research.
Do not decide that your current project is better in every sense before giving a chance to other options. I started a PhD in something very fundamental and ended up swapping to a much applied project. It horrified me at the beginning, but I managed to not to die.
I must recognize I did not start this PhD as motivated as I started the first time, but I quickly got engaged and felt a part of a research and a group again.
Whatever you decide, doing good science depends mainly on you and your ability and smartness to choose what is going to bring out the best of you.
7. Evaluate Non-scientific Pros And Cons
Of course this is not all about science. There many non-scientific reasons to do a PhD in a certain place. In the mean time you are doing a PhD you make friends, start relationships, discover restaurants, pubs, nice walks, a nice bench in which read a good book… It does not matter what is what you love, it is important.
I made the mistake of considering this superfluous. I even thought at some point I was being stupid considering this personal stuff at the same level of importance than science. I was not.
Whatever you like about the city in which you live, your flat or your bed is a part of your happiness. What is stupid is to forget about it. It must be weighted as it deserves, as it is heavily condition whether you are going to feel comfortable with what you do.
Friends don’t stop being friends because you move cities. I agree. But when you have previously moved from another country and those where your friends when you were completely alone, it feels like you are leaving a part of yourself.
How Do You Make Your Decision Then?
- Talk to the largest possible number of people. They can give you advice and different points of view. Don’t forget that they do not have the absolute truth and they cannot decide for you.
- Consider all the options even if they don’t look the best at first sight. Use your experience during the time of your PhD to decide which of these suits you the best and suits the way you do research.
- Visit the place to which you could move. Critically compare it with your current one and look for rational pros and cons.
- Think about the quality of the science you could develop either if you move or not. Keep in your mind that this is not about the science itself but what would bring out the best of you and your skills.
- Weight you personal preferences with the same balance. No one is expecting you to be a cold person. Analyze what makes you happy and what you could change or not.
- Do not be afraid about what your supervisor is going to feel or say. That she or he was moving to another place was not in your contract when you started, so you need to decide if you are still agreeing with it. Even if you supervisor gets upset about your decision do not feel bad, she/he will move on. And besides that, your supervisor made her/his own decision without asking you, she/he decided what was the best for her/him. So make your own without caring about others.
Someone told me in the middle of my distress “academia is not like that”. Indeed. It is true.
l small things add up, and people choose the best for themselves. Personal decisions are acceptable either they come from your supervisor or you, so carefully think about what is the best for you. And that is the best advice.