Transfer grad programs?
February 2, 2009 10:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm a PhD student in program X. I've taken grad courses with program Y (and did well). Now I realized I really want to be in program Y. I can't "transfer", but I can apply anew to program Y. Is this a Bad Idea™?

Reasons it might be a Bad Idea™:
  • If it doesn't work out, my adviser at my current program will ultimately find out, and it'll sabotage our relationship.
  • Program Y might not accept me simply because they would be concerned that it would sour their relationship with program Y.
On the other hand, perhaps everyone will be mature and gracious about it, and my life will be substantially more fulfilling.
posted by ori to Education (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There are some other factors to consider. How long have you been in program X? How many milestones have you passed already? Are both programs at the same university? Are they both PhD programs? What field?

Doing this may not be a bad idea. Doing it without telling your adviser is an awful idea. People at your new program will almost certainly note that you do not have a letter of recommendation from your current adviser. That may be enough to sink you on its own. I would think it would be highly likely that they would contact your adviser to ask why.

People changing programs within the same university happens all the time, although I only know of a few examples. But it usually happens with the consent of the adviser. This won't necessarily be great for your relationship with your old adviser, and they will probably take you a bit less seriously in your current field. This is food for thought if you think you will stay in your current program if you are rejected from the new one. That said, if your performance in your existing program has been good and you have a good rec from your current adviser at the same university, I would guess your chances of admission would be extremely high.
posted by grouse at 10:50 AM on February 2, 2009

Are you talking about switching from Underwater Basketweaving at Wossamatta U to the Department of Other Things at Wossamatta, or are you talking about staying in Underwater Basketweaving but moving from Wossamatta U to the Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge?

In the first case, you should be thinking about making a comprehensive search for good departments in Other Things Studies and applying nationally to good departments, not just trying your luck at home. Or, you should talk to your advisor and DGS about bringing in Other Things Studies to your research and working up a dissertation committee and plan such that you could credibly apply to jobs in UB and OTS. Obviously this second doesn't work well if the two fields are actually high-energy physics and medieval literature.

The second case is just a straightforward transfer, though you'd almost certainly have to re-complete substantial coursework.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:58 AM on February 2, 2009

-It happens fairly regularly at my university that someone will either adopt a co-advisor in department Y, but still graduate with a degree from deparment X. It has also happened that person jumps ship entirely and is only advised by professor in department Y, but will still graduate from department X. For example, I am in the chemistry program, and there are a few students I know with advisors (or co-advisors) in ChemE, Materials, or Biochem, but they will still graduate with an MS or PhD in Chemistry.

-I think it is fairly common that a person will have interests in varying things throughout their graduate career. Do you have a specific professor in mind that you'd like to work with? Would it be possible for you current advisor to collaborate with them?

-We are very lucky to have a "Director" of our graduate program, who is like a secretary/career counselor/will find the right people for you to talk to. Do you have someone like that in your department that you can speak to confidentially? He/she will know the correct procedures and figure out the best way to get you studying what you want without stepping on too many toes.
posted by sararah at 10:59 AM on February 2, 2009

Seconding grouse. It is expected that you have letters of recommendation from your current faculty, and you would look extremely strange to apply without them.

Also, chances are excellent that people in program Y know people in program X, even across disciplines and institutions. They will call each other up and ask about you, so there is no circumventing your current mentor getting wind of this. At least in my field, program Y will only take you with the consent of program X and your current advisor anyway.

However, keep in mind that graduate programs are very flexible. You may be able to matriculate at program Y and keep your current mentor and project, if you are doing this for reasons other than specifically your mentor. That may be a happy solution for everyone.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 11:02 AM on February 2, 2009

Don't try to be sneaky. It always backfires.

Go to your adviser, it's his job to, you know, advise you. It's a simple conversation. "I'm really enjoying my coursework over at Y and see my professional/academic direction changing. What do you suggest?"

You may not be able to transfer, but your adviser may be able to grease the wheels for you. (Perhaps a greater number of classes, a dual degree, a second adviser)
posted by 26.2 at 11:14 AM on February 2, 2009

Thank you for the Bad Idea Jeans reference. Made me smile.
posted by namewithhe1d at 11:25 AM on February 2, 2009

Depends entirely on the culture of the two programs you're dealing with. I have a friend who is currently doing the very same thing. She's in one program that really works with Applied Basketweaving, but discovered that her true passion is for Theoretical Basketweaving. The university culture here, especially among folks interested in Basketweaving, is extremely open, helpful and crossdisciplinary, so this isn't causing any real animosity. The biggest issue is the prospect that she might lose her summer funding from Applied Basketweaving, before she starts as an official Theoretical Basketweaving student in the fall (assuming acceptance). But it's all working out for her so far because she's being open, mature and gracious with all of the faculty and staff involved in the process. You're talking about being afraid of political repercussions, but remember that by behaving well and truly above-board, you can minimize the potential fallout.

Also? There's little to no chance under any sane circumstances that you won't get into Y because they don't want to sour their relationship with X. The relationship between X and Y is much, much bigger than your application and any potential impact it has.
posted by amelioration at 11:30 AM on February 2, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you all for the excellent advice so far. Yes, the idea would be to transfer between two different programs at the same school.
posted by ori at 11:36 AM on February 2, 2009

This happens all the time at my school. People change advisors and programs all the time, for all sorts of reasons, and, if it's in the same general area, it's even less of a problem. I see no reason why your current adviser would have a real, sustainable objection if your change is simply due to changing research interests, especially because students with diminishing interest in their subject area are more likely to drop out, right? Pose it to him/her as an option that will enhance your chances of finishing successfully. The only factor I can think of that might complicate things, is the transfer of funding from his/her area to the new area - which is not really your problem at all.
posted by Weng at 5:32 PM on February 2, 2009

Are you in the hard sciences or humanities/social sciences? It could be a difficult move if in your field your advisor pays for you out of his/her grant money. If your funding comes from the university, it's likely to be less of a logistical problem.

But it ultimately depends on the personalities involved and the internal politics of the programs. Talk to your DGS before your advisor unless you know him/her really, really well (and it sounds like you don't). DGS= Director of Graduate Studies.
posted by vincele at 1:28 PM on February 3, 2009

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