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A guest post by Kimberly McCoy

In 2014, with two years of my Ph.D. program completed, I moved across the country to join my advisor and the lab. The intent of this blog post is to share my experience and the thought process that led me to my decision. 

Because I was only in my second year, I was in a position to stay at my previous university and join a new lab. My advisor made the actual move December 2013 while I stayed in our old lab until August 2014. Lab members slowly moved to our new university between those times, me being the last to join. Since this was right before my qualifying exams, I could have found a new Ph.D. advisor and project, likely without adding time to my program. Everyone else in the lab was further along than me, which made their decision making process different.

I was in a location that I loved and in a region where my significant other could do his work. I did not want to move to the new geographical location. In fact, I had vowed never to move (back) to that part of the country. On the other hand, I would be moving to a better university, one where the research excitement level was not on par with anything I had seen. And, I could not imagine conducting my graduate research with another mentor. I felt I had really lucked out in the lab that I joined. I didn’t think I could live with the idea of letting the opportunity of studying with my mentor pass. 

So I moved. I had plenty of ups and downs but those experiences may be best saved for another post. Below is a list of questions I’ve compiled that I think are essential to answer if you’re faced with the prospect of moving during your Ph.D.

- Where are you in your program? For a Ph.D. program, if you’ve been in the program 1-2 years, switching labs would be the least painless. 3 years, it becomes difficult. 4 years, it’s not advisable. 5 years, it’s about impossible (unless you can keep your project).

- Can you/do you want to Master out?

- Were you looking for a way out? Is the prospect of spending X more years “married to” this person/this project daunting? Maybe this is a hidden opportunity.

- Is there someone else in the department that interests you? (and has funding and will accept another graduate student?)

- Do you have the option to transfer or stay a student at your home university while still moving? – My lab members and I had the option; 2 chose the former, 2 chose the latter. Transfer can have hidden down sides, like new fee scales and hierarchy systems, or additional requirements. My lab mates that moved but didn’t technically transfer had to fly back to our old university to defend. They also didn’t get face-to-face interaction with their committee members.

- Will you be reimbursed for the costs of moving?

- Can you stay in your old lab space after your advisor leaves? For how long?

- Will you enjoy living in the new location? Can you visit first?

- What does your significant other think about the move? Will he/she have work? – This was the hardest point for me. My SO was as reluctant as I was to move to the new region, but he didn’t have the incentive that I did. For the last 1 ½ years he’s been moving back and forth for his work. This will continue for the next 1 ½ years until we leave. This has made the process much more difficult.

- What is the new research area atmosphere? Is it a better institution? Unless you’re moving from the state school to Harvard, it doesn’t make much of a difference. However, the atmosphere can make all the difference in the world.

- Were you asked to come? You need to know that you’re wanted. My advisor sat us each down one by one and told us he would like us to come with him. If this isn’t the case, you need to initiate that conversation.

- How would you feel if your lab continued their work and you were not apart of it? For me, this was a big one. I loved the research and couldn’t imagine not being a part of it. This is what ultimately drove me to move.

For those just starting graduate school I recommend asking your potential new advisor some of the questions I did:

- Are you actively looking for a new position?

- If you go while I’m here will you take me with you?

Additional pros and cons:


Not many people get the opportunity to see how two universities operate. As with most hobbies, professions, or life skills, the more experience the better.

This is an opportunity for travel-a chance to expand your culture.


The move will take away from your research time.

You will be leaving a community of people that you have come to trust and rely on. Moving means establishing a new community.

There is not a one-size-fits-all answer.  There are too many factors to suggest you choose one option over the other. But hopefully this list will give you some sort of method to the madness. Good luck!


Kimberly McCoy is a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University studying bio-inspired nanomaterials. Using a nanometer-size protein cage as either a vesicle to encapsulate catalytic cargo or as a building block for creating biologically based crystals, she explores ways to create functional, biodegradable materials.

She currently contributes to Indiana University's new science blog called ScIU: Conversations in Science at Indiana University, which is set to launch this fall. A blog run by graduate students, the initiative aims to be informative and professional, as well as accessible to nonspecialists and nonscientists. Kimberly also has a personal blog called The Traveling Scientist, dedicated to her achievements and struggles in graduate school. 



Twitter: Kimberly@travlinscientst

21 Jun 2016

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