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I Changed Research Groups and the World Didn't End - Part 2: Limbo

During my first week as a graduate student, I was inundated with resources from about a week of orientation sessions. Among the stacks of papers that I accumulated that week was a hardcopy of this mentoring guide published by Rackham. I remember thinking it looked potentially useful and briefly thumbing through it. But instead of being closely studied, the guide ended up in the middle of a stack of other papers which I had accrued at the same time, and my busy grad student life went on. As a burgeoning Ph.D. student, I had no concept of the real importance of good mentorship.

Nearly two years later, after changing research groups, I rediscovered this guide. This time I read it cover-to-cover. Since then, it has become one of my favorite resources to plug. (Seriously, go read it. I mean, come on, it’s full of Ph.D. comics.) In addition to other helpful advice and resources, the guide offers a chapter on changing advisors. In the middle of this section, the authors offer the following advice: “Before you make any decisions about discontinuing the relationship with your current advisor, approach another suitable faculty member and inquire about the prospect of serving as your advisor.” Although this may be the appropriate path for some, it doesn’t fit every situation – and it didn’t fit mine.

In the wake of the decision to cut ties with my former research group, I found myself in an excruciating limbo period while I struggled to find another group and reevaluated what I wanted to do with my life and career.

From my experience, here is some practical advice for a time of limbo:

1. Talk to a counselor. Really. Even if you’re not sure what you’re hoping to get out of the sessions. Talking to family and friends can be helpful and encouraging, and a solid support system is critical, but there are different benefits that come from talking to someone removed from the situation who is trained to help people deal with difficult circumstances and emotions. If you’re a University of Michigan student, you have access to many resources through CAPS which are free and confidential. (There’s even an embedded counselor at Rackham!)

2. Get away for a few days. I can’t guarantee much about limbo, but I feel confident telling you that a limbo period always lasts longer than you want it to. I kept telling myself that I would get things figured out, have some idea what I was doing, and then take a break for a few days. Eventually, I realized it was going to take time to work out the details and decided to take a few days off to take care of myself. I had already put in a lot of effort towards moving forward but thought that a few days away from it all might give me some perspective. Sure enough, my responsibilities were all still there when I got back, but I was more prepared to face them.

If possible, spend a few days with family or friends who live out of town. If not, find an excuse to ride a train or bus to Detroit or Chicago or pack up your car and spend the weekend at a campsite. But make sure you set a definite time for coming back – especially if you don’t have classes or other ties to keep you on a fixed schedule. If you’re worried about motivation, give yourself a concrete reason to want to come back. Schedule a movie night or a game night with friends. Make dinner plans. Buy concert tickets. Whatever it is, the trip back will be easier knowing there’s something to look forward to on the other end.

3. Keep yourself busy. The decision to leave my lab had given me what we all daydream about – more time than I knew what to do with. But I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. In a season of transition, having extra time on your hands often feels more like a burden than a blessing. I quickly realized the importance of finding productive things to do instead of wallowing in negativity. For me, this included picking up some old hobbies that I always claimed I didn’t have time for. I found that activities that kept my hands busy were best: knitting, sewing, coloring, playing piano, baking. Try to limit the time you spend in front of a screen. Get outside. Get some exercise - even if it’s just a short walk or bike ride. Pick up a new hobby you’ve always wanted to try. Do something to keep your mind and body busy.

4. Figure out what you want. Okay, this one sounds obvious. But it’s also probably the hardest. Limbo periods are times for self-reflection.

Talk to as many people who have been in similar situations as you can. Look for people who have made a variety of choices. Use your network. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to reach out to people you might not know. Talk to professors, administrators, other students - especially if you can find ones who have been through a similar experience, even in a different field. In Part 1 of this series, I mentioned my search for another Ph.D. student who had been through a similar experience and my difficulty finding one. This search ended in a face-to-face conversation with someone I had never met before, and that turned out to be one of the most helpful experiences during my transition.

Got some advice of your own for successfully navigating a time of limbo? Feel free to share in the comments below!