Moving Students

Jan 24 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

Last week's post discussed the issue of faculty who may or may not be considering moving to another job. Following on this, a reader asks:

What about graduate students who move from one program to another?

My first response to that question is: Well, what about it? This happens all the time. Perhaps the first program was not a good fit for the student. Perhaps the advisor was a jerk. Perhaps there was a family reason for needing to move to another place.

I have had grad students leave after 1-2 years because their significant other took a job in a distant place and they didn't want to be apart. I have had students leave because they wanted to work with a different/saner/easier advisor in another place. Some gave me warning, some did not.

I have also advised students who moved "mid-stream" from another institution. You win some, you lose some.

To those who think that faculty should always tell their advisees that they might possibly consider moving at some point in the future, even if this is just a remote possibility: Should grad students give the same information to their advisors, or does the power differential make the situations different?

In fact, the situations are not analogous for this very reason, but I also know that if an advisor supports a grad student on a grant for a couple of years (or more) and then the student drops the project entirely, even for a good reason (e.g., to move somewhere else to be with their spouse), this can be a big problem for a research group. It would be better if that RA money had gone to someone who would actually complete the project.

Even so, that's the way it goes. These things happen, and we all have to deal with it.

The specific question of the reader who wrote is more complex than the basic question above. In this case, a grad student moved to a different institution, and now finds that it is necessary to interact with faculty at the institution that was left behind. In this case, it sounds like the student communicated well with the advisor and the graduate program advisor, and the move was made not-too-far into the graduate program. If you find yourself in a program that is not a good fit and you have an opportunity to move somewhere better, this is the way to do it.

Unless the people at the left-behind institution are not sane, there should be no issue of "burning bridges". You should be able to have professional interactions with faculty at your old institution.

If, however, before leaving your old institution, you set your desk on fire, defaced your (ex)advisor's office door with a chainsaw, and glued all the cabinets shut in the lab, the people at your former institution may not be so happy to hear from you again.

In the end, I feel the same way about moving grads as I do about moving faculty. Grad students have a right to move, just as faculty have a right to move. It's important to be professional and to communicate the relevant information when a move is definite, but ultimately everyone has a right to make these decisions about what is best for their life and career, even if it is (very) inconvenient for others.

17 responses so far

  • Patchi says:

    Just don't tell the adviser you are leaving that you do not find their research interesting - that seems to be a sure way to burn bridges...

  • ScienceCat says:

    I've had students leave for another institution, citing a better fit, then contact me repeatedly asking for advice, ideas, and time with editing/reading their manuscripts and proposals, and so on. On the one hand, I'd like to be helpful, but if someone isn't my student anymore, I don't have the same amount of time to devote to them anymore. And if they took some of my ideas with them, my instincts to be nice do battle with a self-interest in not being too helpful. Are students who move to another place like young colleagues we should continue to mentor because this is a good thing to do, or should we expect that their new advisor should be doing most of the heavy-lifting for that and we can provide minimal advice and assistance as our interests and conscience dictate?

    • TheGrinch says:

      I guess the reasonable question to ask would be: did you do significant heavy lifting in training the student (who later moved on mid-program)? If yes, then you'd be quite right in providing minimal advice.

  • Anonymous says:

    In fact, the situations are not analogous for this very reason….

    Um, yeah … the situations are *completely different* for this very reason! And I would expect people who were once grad students not to forget this so quickly.

  • Amber says:

    What about when an adviser moves? This past year at my institution 2 advisers moved to different institutions. In both cases some graduate students moved (the further along ones) and some were forced to change labs (one student who is now in my lab). One of the students who moved is so far along in the process that she actually is finishing her degree through this school, so she has to fly back for thesis updates and meet with committee members over the phone. Another student transferred to the new institution and in a matter of months has to meet faculty and select a new committee. The student who transferred into my lab had to put off her comps by 6 months because the research she was doing changed entirely.

  • Science Professor says:

    Anon, sometimes it's not so much a matter of forgetting what it was like to be a grad student (though it's easy enough to do that with time), but of having a different perspective. That can be good (having a more thorough understanding of what is required to run a research group) or bad (having a more thorough understanding of what is required to run a research group).

  • Anonymous says:

    FSP, the “analogous” situation to having a grad student leave is having an employee of a small business resign. It can be very disruptive for those left behind; but it isn’t *nearly* as disruptive as the employee getting fired, which, for a grad student, is analogous to the advisor leaving. But perhaps tenured profs also soon forget what it’s like to be an at-will employee without a guaranteed job.

  • scientist says:

    Having an advisor leave is not like being fired. I have been around for decades and have experienced and seen the departures of advisors and students. Students certainly have their lives disrupted, but there are good ways to deal with this (mentioned in discussion last week). I don't know if I remember what it was like to be a student or not (reminds me of a teenager saying "You just don't UNDERSTAND" to parents who may or may not, depending), but I don't see why students are guaranteed no disruptions (within reason). All relationships, professional and otherwise, can end, for a variety of reasons. In fact, my doctor just moved out of state, without any prior warning to patients; annoying, but whatever. My life has been disrupted by illness, by not getting the grant or job I wanted exactly when I wanted it etc., but overall I would say that my career and life are going well. Isn't this life?

    • Anonymous says:

      Having an advisor leave is not like being fired.

      Care to explain why not? (Or should the fact that you “have been around for decades” and have seen it all be enough for me?)

      When you are fired from a job (not because you did anything wrong), you need to look for other employment. There are “good ways” of dealing with this situation – some companies go out of their way to provide job hunting services to those they are laying off; there are also unemployment benefits; presumably one has savings for just these kinds of things, etc. Sometimes, people even wind up in better jobs as a result of being forced to leave their prior job. But only a blockhead would argue that having to find another job is no big deal.

      No one is saying that students should be “guaranteed no disruptions,” only that an advisor leaving is not at all like a student leaving.

      • Isabella says:

        When the adviser leaves, the students are not necessarily being fired.

        Most advisers actually care for their students and wouldn't just abandon them, but make sure they are taken care of in one way or another. That can mean advising from a distance until the student graduates, or for the student to move with the adviser to the new graduate program. Both of these happened in my previous labs, no student has been fired.

      • Dan says:

        Care to explain why not?

        Having an advisor leave is not necessarily like being fired because there are so many different kinds of support for graduate students.

        My advisor left our university a year and a half before I finished. My funding was from a university-level fellowship, so it didn't impact my funding. I was far enough along on my project that I was able to complete it with the resources that my advisor left at the university. And because he was technically on leave during this time, he was still formally my advisor, so there weren't procedural hurdles to clear in terms of needing to have a new advisor. So although our regular meetings were changed to irregular email exchanges, the whole thing worked out pretty well for me in the end.

  • scientist says:

    Because some students move with the advisor; some stay where they are and keep working on the same project with the same advisor (who maintains contact, visits etc.) or with a co-advisor or with a different advisor. I know advisors and students who are in all of those situations right now. Each situation was worked out after discussion between advisor and student and others to figure out the best plan for the student depending on how close they were to graduation, whether they wanted to move, whether there were other faculty who could help etc. There are disruptions, certainly, but I wouldn't liken any of those particular scenarios to being fired.

    The original post said that an advisor leaving was not like a student leaving. As far as I can tell, no one (including me) is disagreeing with that.

  • Anonymous says:

    (Sigh!) Scientist, are you really this dense? Your answer as to why having your advisor leave is not like getting fired is that *some* students find a way to continue working w/the same advisor? And those that don’t?! Sometimes students even have to switch thesis topics – this is definitely analogous to having to get a new job!

    As for the original post: it asked the question if an advisor leaving was the same as a student leaving. Then it went on to suggest that the two situations were not analogous. Perhaps you agree w/this? My point is that saying they’re not analogous is a *big* understatement – I believe I’ve made that abundantly clear.

  • Science Professor says:

    Everyone's individual experiences will inform their opinion, of course. My experiences have been the same as scientist's. I have not seen students who had to change their thesis topic/advisor mid-stream owing to a faculty move -- I have seen moves accommodated to allow the student to finish their degree, either in the new place or the old place -- not ideal, but not "firing" by any means (actually or metaphorically). But it does happen, even if not in some little corners of academia, and we surely all agree about how bad that situation is in those cases. The problem is when any of us generalize from our own experiences too much.

    Anyway, note that in the post above, I did not ask as an open question whether an advisor leaving was the same as a student leaving. I clearly state that it is not the same. My questions (based on e-mail from a reader) were: What do advisors do when a student abandons a project? and, How should a student who has changed institutions deal with the need to interact with the left-behind institution?

    • TheGrinch says:

      Anon --

      I have seen many faculties move, but I have not seen a single graduate student drop out of the graduate program. So the closest analogy would be that either you decide to change the boss or you move with them. Disruptive, without a doubt, but not quite like the career change or being forced to sit home after one is fired.

  • Another Anon says:


    Your analogy does not work. Having advisor move to another institution is not like being fired, it is more like you work for a small business that is changing the location of its headquarters. You can either move with it, telecommute, or find another job if you like, but you are not fired by default.