Reflecting on changing labs: 3 years later I am happy and thriving

Three years.

Three years almost, to the day, that I severed ties to my old lab. My first lab as a PhD student, the lab that I set all my grad school dreams on, the one that would allow me to do the research and outreach I was passionate about, that would be the perfect fit. I just knew it. The lab, that my first year, was everything I hoped – challenging, inspiring, friendly. Then, something shifted. To this day I still don’t know what exactly, but as I’ve written about previously on this blog*, after that first year, things changed. They got bad, then worse, then irreparable.

Three years later, after recovering from the blow of being told I wasn’t cut out for this, that I didn’t have it, and would simply not be successful – I am thriving. In my new lab, with an adviser better suited for how I work, and the research I am passionate about, I am continually discovering that I am cut out for this, I do have “it” (whatever the hell “it” is), and I AM being successful. And, damn, does it feel good.

It feels amazing to walk in to weekly meetings excited to share what I’ve been working on, and to walk out feeling inspired to work on my next tasks, no matter how daunting they may seem. To walk in to a meeting feeling confident in my ability to admit I messed up, or don’t know something. To be able to discuss my mistakes as learning experiences, to work out how to improve on the next step and make it better next time. To be given suggestions on where to look for answers when I’ve reached a dead end.

It is incredible to have several moments, each week, where I think to myself, “I love my lab” and genuinely mean it. I promise myself I won’t take this feeling for granted, because I know how lucky I am to feel it.

It seems almost impossible that I am talking about graduation next summer, which, in the end, will be a total of 6 years in grad school, and 4 years since switching labs. This time spans 3 departments, 2 universities, and most of Texas. It encompasses two complete from-scratch planned PhD proposals, only one to come to fruition. It includes countless grant applications, published papers, conference talks, and an incredible support system of peers and mentors spanning fields, countries and generations.

Reflecting on this I am in tears. I know that I have been fortunate for the opportunities and experiences in my life that I have been able to take advantage of to get here, but it was not without struggle. I almost walked away. Three years ago, I almost gave up on grad school, gave in to the nay-sayers. I internally struggled, I didn’t sleep through the night for months, waking up with panic attacks and crying through the night. I drank a lot. Only finally seeking professional help to deal with the trauma months later, one of the most important and best steps I made during my transition, something in hindsight I wish I would have done sooner.  Through this, through the shattered illusions of what I hoped graduate school would be, my support system helped keep me grounded. My cohort, my family, and other faculty I had worked with, or been taught by, cheered me on and picked me up. They were louder and more persistent than the nay-sayers, who had long since written me off as a lost cause. My network saved me, I am forever grateful to them all, I tell them frequently and try to give back however I can**.

Three years later and I am thriving.

My dissertation is taking shape, in three years I’ve completed all of my fieldwork, passed my comprehensive exams, and funded my whole project through grants I have authored. I am publishing, presenting at conferences, have created a wide and positive network, am beginning my post-doc/job search, and am gearing up for the final year dash to the finish. I also just took a month off (without my laptop or any work) to travel around Europe with my husband on a once-in-a lifetime trip spanning 6 countries and all the delicious beer, food, and wonderful sights. I am happy, I am thriving, and I continue to be inspired by my work and all its possibilities.

I don’t say all of this to brag about my progress, and the last three years have not been without mistakes, setbacks, frustrations, and difficulties. But I share my story for students who feels stuck, who are scared to start over in another lab, who are unhappy in their situations – so that they know they have options. They have a choice, they are not stuck and they can move on, and that a better fit is out there for them. That a better, more positive experience is possible, and should be the norm. That they can still be successful, can finish their PhDs if they decide they want to. There are positive sides to academia, you don’t have to be and absolutely should not be miserable. You should be happy.  It will be challenging, but in the end you should be happy***.

Changing labs is not something done lightly, but it is an option, and it is not taboo. It happens more than we think, and for me, it is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Changing labs is not failing.
Changing labs does not mean you’re unsuccessful.
Changing labs is not taboo.

You can still be successful.
You can still graduate “on time”.
You should be happy.

If you are struggling with this, you are not alone in your struggle. Reach out to your network, to me if I can be a resource. You have options, and the most important thing is that, through it all, you should be happy. You deserve that.

*Blog post on how and why I changed labs can be found here:

I’ve received wonderful messages form students over the past few years, that it has helped them and I hope it can continue to serve as a positive resource.

**I’ve also written about the importance of support systems in science with Dr. SE Myhre, the piece can be found here:

***Another blog post that may be helpful if you’re struggling: