Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What happens when a PI leaves for industry?

An interesting question from the Chemistry Reddit:
Hey! 
So, I was wondering if any of you can give me some solid advice as to how I should proceed with my current situation. 
Basically, my research advisor is leaving this July for a full time job in industry leaving his entire lab to fend for themselves. 
I am currently working on a project that I was going to use for my undergrad thesis defense this Fall, but I'm not sure if I can finish my project before this July. 
So, should I go to another lab this Fall and finish this s--t show of a project or just start completely new and defend in the Spring, new project and all? Thanks!
This is an interesting and rather unusual question. Most of the time, advisors leave research institutions, and the choice that graduate students face is: do I stay or do I go?

In this case, the advisor is taking no one with them -- now, then, what should happen? One hopes (just as in the case of more tragic circumstances), the department usually steps in and takes care of the students. Undergraduates are probably less looked after than graduate students, but I don't know.

Readers, any experience with these situations? 

15 comments:

  1. been here, done thisMay 19, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    1) if you're an undergrad, you're scott free. Either choice you make will likely be a fine one for your efforts in the future (applying to grad school or industry position or whatever else)

    2) regardless of your standing, the answer to your question is a big pile of "it depends." Ask around to other professors for whom you'd work, and see what they think - whether its worth continuing what you're doing now or switching projects. If you're actually close to something good, professors might let you keep going towards you reach some milestone with it. (publication, or finishing the program). If you're far, welp, that sucks, but you're probably going to have to change gears.

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  2. been here, done thisMay 19, 2015 at 11:09 AM

    oh also - look out for YOU. The department may or may not. If they do, good. If they don't, don't be totally surprised. Be proactive about figuring out your next move - don't wait for someone else to figure it out for you.

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  3. I'm with been and done. A few details for consideration:
    What are the resources for sticking with it verses change, in terms A) help, knowledge and skills of the people around and how much of their time will you actually get? B) material resource to do the work, reagents, equipment, (purchasing if relevant)?

    What are the personalities like you will be dealing with one either side will you get along or at least tolerate each other?

    is there someone who can (and WILL) help you get to the next stage of where you want to go after?

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  4. Poison Ivy LeagueMay 19, 2015 at 1:08 PM

    Hah, this doesn't just happen with industry. When Trost moved to Stanford he abandoned his senior grad students at Madison with 1) no money, 2) no supplies, and 3) no guidance. The department really had to scramble to just help these students to make ends meet. Another famous example is from Jack Baldwin's Penn State state days where he told his group (during group meeting) that he was moving to MIT and that none of them could come with him ("you're not good enough for MIT"). I think that the department stepped in here as well, but it seems like PI's aren't really held accountable in these sorts of situations.

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    1. Yup, that sounds like Trost.

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    2. It's called making your career on the back of someone else.

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    3. Academia, in a nut shell.

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  5. I've seen some undergraduate theses that are composed of more than 1 project. Maybe your "Chapter 1" could be your current work, and then over the summer you join another research group and come up with your "Chapter 2". In this case you wouldn't need to completely finish your current project.

    It does sound like there is a chance you can get this project finished by July. If you can, that'd be great. This might be the time to work a few late nights and come in the weekends to push to get it finished (if you're applying to grad school then admissions committees frequently value publications & research experience higher than grades/GPA, which is something to keep in mind).

    As others have said, talk around. Ask other professors if they'd allow you to include research from your former PI in your thesis if you joined their group. It is also a good idea to talk to the Undergraduate Program Advisor in the Dept to see what the rules are. Also talk to your current advisor: there might be a period over the summer where they have technically started their new job, but you still have the lab space available and their occasional presence in the Dept.

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  6. For grad students, I've seen it work out pretty well where they switched institutions and worked for someone in the same subdiscipline. The new advisor got an already-proven grad student and the student was able to transfer to a better school and finish up quickly.

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  7. Don't go to grad school it's a trap!

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    1. Agreed! Unless you are sure you can rise straight to the top, escape now while you still can!

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    2. Ah, but that's the tricky thing. Pretty much everyone entering graduate school thinks that they're above average. And about 50% of them have to be wrong, right?

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    3. At least. When I think of "the cream," I am thinking of those that go straight from graduate school to the job of their choice. Among the students I know, that number doesn't even approach 50%.

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  8. At Michigan State a while back, there were two faculty who left for industry.

    Case #1 was organic, and went into industry up the road. He did the right thing, and came back on Saturdays to look after his former research group (he had grant money).

    Case #2 was an inorganic guy, and the mentor for my GF. He was a jerk, never showed up again, and GF had to switch research directors.

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  9. This situation happened to my PhD advisor during their PhD (back in the 80s) Advisor left the lab high and dry for industry after my advisor's 3rd year in grad school. In that case, the department decided that anyone post-orals could continue on their project (with the dept kicking in funds and another PI on the committee overseeing) and anyone pre-orals would have to change projects to a new group. Of course that was a time with much flusher budgets so the dept. could do that I guess.

    I can't imagine an undergraduate would have problems either way. If you can finish it, finish it. If not, find a new advisor who will let you include what you've already done in the thesis and work with you on a relevant project. Not all PIs are jerks; someone there should sympathize.

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