Are there ever do-overs in life?
May 27, 2010 9:25 AM   Subscribe

What's the likelihood that, upon withdrawing from a PhD program at one institution, you would be admitted later into a similar program elsewhere? Is there a reason to believe one would be effectively blacklisted or disregarded for failing to succeed on his/her first attempt?

I'm curious regarding this matter because I've pushed my luck to the breaking point here in my current program. Procrastination, performance anxiety, lack of motivation, an inferiority complex, underdeveloped study skills - I've been afflicted by all of it since my arrival and years later little seems to have changed, aside from the fact that my ejection from the program is now on the immediate horizon.

Part of me believes that under different circumstances, I might very well thrive within a rigorous academic environment. After some serious intellectual maturation, some boosting of confidence, the development of a stronger personal support network, and a re-evaluation of my dedication to the principles and workings of the Academy, I believe I could approach this lifestyle again, finally ready and invigorated to perform to the best of my abilities.

As it is, I took only one year off between undergrad and grad school, have had very limited real-world experience as a result, and at this point have an MA under my belt but very little else. A few years ago when I applied to 12 grad schools ranging from ivy leagues to an array of lower-ranked state universities (safety schools), I received nary a rejection letter. They all accepted me. In the end, I enrolled in a very prestigious private university. Thus to some extent, I'm trusting that for whatever reason, I'm a desirable candidate for admission and that that success might be replicated at a later point in time when I'm conceivably in a better mindset for doing this type of work.

The question then is, while this may not be common, it's not entirely unheard of either, is it? You would likely need to some considerable work at explaining yourself in your application, but is failure to complete a PhD on your first attempt basically a death kneel for any future chances of an academic career? Do people ever bounce back? Are they ever awarded the opportunity to try?
posted by afabulousbeing to Education (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thus to some extent, I'm trusting that for whatever reason, I'm a desirable candidate for admission and that that success might be replicated at a later point in time when I'm conceivably in a better mindset for doing this type of work.

You were a desirable candidate. The largest difference in re-admission (versus say, transferring) would be that you already have a graduate track record. That changes things significantly. You'd have to, at least, really be able to account for your first set of troubles.
posted by OmieWise at 9:32 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't think so. Your next school may not even ask why you dropped out. If so, just say you had some personal reasons, or family issues and they probably won't investigate much into it. Universities are businesses. If you have the qualifications for the program, they'll want you there. More students = more $.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 9:39 AM on May 27, 2010


I wouldn't think so. Your next school may not even ask why you dropped out. If so, just say you had some personal reasons, or family issues and they probably won't investigate much into it. Universities are businesses. If you have the qualifications for the program, they'll want you there. More students = more $.

This applies less at the PhD level, though. It's often more an issue of getting qualified applicants, for which funding is already available, than trying to raise extra money. The short answer is that it might not matter, but it also might. If you are in a specialized discipline, there is a chance that a reputation from one school may follow you to another.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:41 AM on May 27, 2010


Well this is just my preliminary attempt to feel around for info, and there's surely other sources I will turn to in the future to get a more definite sense of this as possibility. If there's a chance any Mefite has a personal anecdotes to share, that might be helpful as well!
posted by afabulousbeing at 9:43 AM on May 27, 2010


I've done this, and I am now a couple of months away from submission.

I was lucky enough to get a new place set up before I quit. The new place was back at my undergrad institution, which almost certainly greased the admissions wheels.

My story is complicated, but I think it's fair to say that the reason I left wasn't entirely my fault. I was not surprised to see the department close down (!) and my supervisor essentially leave academia within a couple of years of me leaving. But understandably (since there are always two sides to every story), this has reflected on how I'm perceived by potential postdoc employers. It takes explaining, and when the job market is tight, people would much rather pick a candidate without those complications.

But the point is, yes, it's possible, I am living proof, but yes, to receive the same professional rewards as someone who does not do this, you will probably have to work harder than them.
posted by caek at 9:45 AM on May 27, 2010


(I am in the sciences, where time away from science or career missteps or non-traditional CVs are perhaps viewed less positively than they are in the humanities.)
posted by caek at 9:47 AM on May 27, 2010


Robert Oppenheimer tried (though it's unclear how seriously) to poison his tutor in his first Ph.D. program at Cambridge. He later graduated from Göttingen. (On the other hand, he was apparently both a brilliant scientist and charismatic leader and as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in the New Yorker, schools had a different philosophy of punishment/accountablity.)
posted by Jahaza at 9:51 AM on May 27, 2010


Oh, and it probably didn't hurt that his parents were wealthy, I doubt he was receiving scholarship money, which alters the equation as SpacemanStix points out.
posted by Jahaza at 9:53 AM on May 27, 2010


Have you considered asking for a leave of absence to work on some of the issues that are causing you troubles with graduate school currently?
posted by sciencegeek at 9:54 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


A good friend did this. I don't think there was a gap between her two programs, though...
posted by bardophile at 9:59 AM on May 27, 2010


After some serious intellectual maturation, some boosting of confidence, the development of a stronger personal support network, and a re-evaluation of my dedication to the principles and workings of the Academy, I believe I could approach this lifestyle again, finally ready and invigorated to perform to the best of my abilities.

Why haven't these things happened in your current grad school environment? What kind of different environment would you be looking for that would foster these things? To be honest, these are all things that seem to be independent of environment, though they do of course require a commitment of effort and time. I worry that you haven't really made these commitments, because:

Procrastination, performance anxiety, lack of motivation, an inferiority complex, underdeveloped study skills - I've been afflicted by all of it since my arrival and years later little seems to have changed, aside from the fact that my ejection from the program is now on the immediate horizon.

The way this is written sounds way passive- as if these problems were somehow placed on to you by grad school. No, they were already there, and grad school has brought them out because it's harder than what you've had to do up to this point and whatever compensatory mechanisms you had in place have been swamped. This has happened to almost all of your peers, too, but they have managed to adjust either by developing skills to increase their compensation threshold or by addressing the fundamental problems directly. What you really need to assess now is your trajectory. Are you in trouble because you are simply slower in developing these skills than your peers despite your best efforts, or is it because you're not developing them at all? In the former case you might see some improvement if you have more time: a change of venue or, as suggested, a leave of absence might help you if you use the time well, by which I mean directly addressing these issues. In the latter, these probably won't. How did you respond to previous warning signs leading up to this threatened expulsion? Unless you change something fundamental you can expect the same level of improvement in response to crises in the future.

But this doesn't address the question directly. As Omiewise says, you need to be able to account for this time to future schools. Extenuating circumstances can explain a lot but you will need to demonstrate both capacity for graduate work as well as a means of assurance that your previous problems won't repeat. Capacity would be demonstrated by being able to point to either good coursework or a good research record (publication, conference presentation, etc.) but in the absence of both you will have a very hard sell. In the short term, you need to concentrate on salvaging your present situation if it is possible; even if you can't keep your head above water, try to build capacity to do so in situ, maybe with a 'working' leave of absence where you are still working on your project but not in a full student capacity.
posted by monocyte at 10:14 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've known people to get PhDs after crashing and burning, or just having a series of discouraging episodes. One person told me her reason for persisting: she always had reasearch goals she wasn't quite ready to abandon. I think this is basically what's kept everyone of my acquaintance going: having a pretty well-defined interest they wanted to pursue and indeed in some cases have pursued as independent scholars, after not being able to find academic jobs. It sounds like you're nto far along to have a whole life's work projected but do you have an idea what your research would be about, and a passion for it? I think if you can present yourself as someone like that, you'll at least get a hearing. If not then I do think the question arises as to why you would bother after what sounds like a not very rewarding initial experience.
posted by BibiRose at 10:53 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a strategy, you could take a leave of absence from your current program while you're applying to another. Then, if you're interviewing, it won't come up, because you haven't left the first program yet. But recommendation letters are going to be weird probably.
posted by zpousman at 11:32 AM on May 27, 2010


My husband withdrew from his first PhD program and, a year or so later, reapplied to a different university to pursue a second Master's degree (and a specialty certificate in a related field). He completed the second Master's quite rapidly and was then fairly easily admitted into the university's PhD program. (And he has now completed his PhD.)

Perhaps, when the time comes, you ought to consider going for something other than a PhD at the new university -- just to show (upon successful completion) that you're a good bet for their PhD program?
posted by rhartong at 11:47 AM on May 27, 2010


I assume that any admissions committe would wonder why you're not submitting letters of recomendation from the people who should have the best ability to judge your academic potential, your PI and other professors in your graduate program.
posted by halogen at 12:14 PM on May 27, 2010


At few my classmates in my economics program were admitted to other programs after failing their comprehensive exams in my program. One of them earned his Ph.D. at another program within about one year, doing remarkably well there. Programs are different. My program was very mathematically oriented in its basic curriculum; my friend's second program was apparently less so, so they didn't care about his comprehensive exam performance at my school, and he was able to pass his comprehensives there with no issue. Where my program was not so good about providing mentoring or active support for getting students through the program, my friend's second school was very good.

Your reasons for leaving may well impact your applications, and lots of places may care about it. But there is apparently no universal "blacklist" - I know at least one counterexample.
posted by dilettanti at 3:16 PM on May 27, 2010


As it so happens, I already took a very brief leave of absence and returned to discover that every single person I was planning to work with was either leaving or on sabbatical during a critical time in which I would need to work with them face-to-face. That definitely took the wind out of my sails.
posted by afabulousbeing at 12:39 AM on May 28, 2010


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