Stage structures of populations can have a profound influence on their dynamics. However, not much is known about the transient dynamics that follow a disturbance in such systems. Here we combined chemostat experiments with dynamical modeling to study the response of the phytoplankton species Chlorella vulgaris to press perturbations. From an initially stable steady state, we altered either the concentration or dilution rate of a growth-limiting resource. This disturbance induced a complex transient response—characterized by the possible onset of oscillations—before population numbers relaxed to a new steady state. Thus, cell numbers could initially change in the opposite direction of the long-term change. We present quantitative indexes to characterize the transients and to show that the dynamic response is dependent on the degree of synchronization among life stages, which itself depends on the state of the population before perturbation. That is, we show how identical future steady states can be approached via different transients depending on the initial population structure. Our experimental results are supported by a size-structured model that accounts for interplay between cell-cycle and population-level processes and that includes resource-dependent variability in cell size. Our results should be relevant to other populations with a stage structure including organisms of higher order.