To grad school or not to grad school...
June 17, 2010 7:22 AM   Subscribe

My wonderful MeFi's, an ethical question regarding grad school: how ethical is it to 'move up'? That is to say, apply for one program then switch to another?

I've been considering grad school, and consider fortunate to have a graduate-school professor feeding some info my way. We've had multiple conversations about the possibilities, and he occasionally talks about 'moving up' - applying to one program to get the tuition waiver or other financial breaks / incentives - then going for the program I might really desire. While that sounds fine and dandy to the part of me that wants to avoid debt, there's another part of me that wonders how ethical - or common - that is. I'd always thought of grad school and Master's as a fairly noble thing - I'm not naive, of course, but the idea of getting an advanced degree is more than just playing a game...

I guess the question is specific: is it ethical to start out for one program, saying so merely to get the benefits behind it, or is that considered de rigeur these days? Bear in mind I'm not changing from, say, History, to a completely unrelated field; it would at least be a fairly related move. General thoughts and advice regarding grad school are welcome as well
posted by chrisinseoul to Education (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm in my 8th year of grad school (MS and now PhD in Ecology) and I can't understand a situation where this would happen. Do you mean like applying for a PhD that has financial support knowing you'll leave with just a master's which that particular school doesn't offer support for? Or do you mean applying for a research degree with financial support and leaving with a JD?

In either case, I'm not sure how well you'll be able to gain admission unless you're simply a really good liar. Admissions to grad programs are incredibly competitive (especially right now with the economy sucking) and any hint of lack of interest on your part could easily keep you out of the program. And I'm also not sure how you could get away with the second case, since an advisor, and in many cases a committee, would have to sign off on your coursework and would notice if the coursework you're taking is not appropriate to the program they're paying you to attend.

In either case, as a fellow grad student, I would say it would be unethical since you would be taking a spot in a degree program from someone who actually wants the degree that you don't want.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:40 AM on June 17, 2010


I work for a PhD Program and we do occasionally (like once a year) have a student who transfers out of our Program to another School (for reasons such as they find a Program with a better fit or some personal reason like location) and occasionally we have applicants from other PhD Programs who want to join us for these types of reasons. We don't take it personally or consider it a problem. Students don't promise their lives to us and are free to manage their academic careers as they see fit. That said, competition for funded PhD admissions is competitive. Don't assume you are a shoe-in anywhere.
posted by Pineapplicious at 7:52 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you're not an attractive enough candidate to get in with funding at Good University, I'm not sure what you expect would change after a year at Bad University.
posted by deadweightloss at 7:55 AM on June 17, 2010


Ignoring whether this would be practical or useful for you, I would argue that this is not at all unethical. The graduate training system cares about you as a person not one little bit, so if you have an opportunity to improve your learning/networking/funding opportunities, I suggest you maximize them. The school you leave will still be there, and there'll be someone else there grateful for the spot and funding you leave behind.
posted by Philemon at 8:05 AM on June 17, 2010


Can you clarify-- do you mean you'd do a year in an MA program with funding and then move to a PhD track program with funding? Do you mean you'd start in a PhD track with funding and move to a better PhD track with funding after a year? After more than a year?

Is your mentor at a school in the US or the country you want to be in? Is he in the same field as your discipline? Where did he do his PhD? How do you know he knows what he is talking about? Are you talking about History? I do History.

I'd say that unless you had a compelling reason to change programs-- a shift in interest upon beginning research, a conflict with an advisor-- faculty are not going to be happy if you use their program as a stepping stone to a better one.

But really a clearer description of what you mean would help.
posted by vincele at 8:07 AM on June 17, 2010


I'll quickly add that the reason unhappy faculty have an impact on you is that they can affect your career later on when it comes to hiring, publishing and the like. If those personal relations didn't matter, of course pissing off faculty wouldn't matter.
posted by vincele at 8:22 AM on June 17, 2010


I've graduated from 2 masters programs and am in a Phd program in the US right now - all at the different universities, and I'm with hydropsyche - I'm puzzled about how this "moving up" from one program to another is supposed to work. Why would they allow you to keep the waiver and benefits from the first program if you reject it for the other? Perhaps you mean that you would complete your course credits requirements under the first program's tuition waiver and then switch to the second program which has no waiver funding, assuming that the course credits requirements would be the same?

I know someone who had to switch PhD programs due to circumstances beyond his control - but he had to apply to the second PhD program as a new applicant, and take all his required course credits again.
posted by Bwithh at 8:30 AM on June 17, 2010


I don't think it's unethical at all. One of my very good friends at grad school used two years at our (top 20) school to bolster his resume and will be transferring to a top 10 school in the fall; he's very bright, but went to a very small college as an undergrad and so didn't have quite the opportunities to show his skills there. As a single data point, the administration here were happy for him--they were even happy to fund him this summer out of our NSF grant, even though he's leaving after this.
posted by MidsizeBlowfish at 8:32 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had the same question as vincele: are you wanting to do a terminal MA and then the PhD elsewhere? There's nothing unethical about that, and it shouldn't raise any questions. So I'll assume you're talking about applying to PhD program A and then bailing midstream into program B.

But even then, I have a hard time understanding your reasoning. In my experience, the reason people jump ship for another program is (1) it's a way more prestigious program that promises better job opportunities, or (2) they have irreconcilable problems with their current department and can't continue there.

Neither of these are really what you cite as your reasons though--you say you want to get into program A for the financial perks. But why wouldn't B offer financial perks? Typically, the more prestigious the program, the better funded it is. Why not gun for B in the first place if money's the only consideration? In other words, this:

If you're not an attractive enough candidate to get in with funding at Good University, I'm not sure what you expect would change after a year at Bad University.

posted by Beardman at 8:33 AM on June 17, 2010


OK, yeah, Bwithh might be right--are you implying in your last paragraph that you'd be staying at the same university and switching departments, hoping that you can fulfill the course requirements of B while under the financial protection of A?
posted by Beardman at 8:35 AM on June 17, 2010


So it sounds like you want to apply for a MA/PhD program at School A, but then switch to School B after the MA.

People do this, although they don't talk about it openly.
posted by k8t at 8:37 AM on June 17, 2010


PersonalExperienceFilter: I applied for an MFA program that accepted three new students a year. I didn't make the cut. I was offered a place in an MA program instead. So I took it, moved out here, worked like a dog in my preferred field all year long - both on campus and professionally off campus - and made damned sure I knew who the influencers were. At the end of that year, I applied to transfer from the MA to the MFA, and was congratulated for my determination. (Oh, and accepted into the program as an unprecedented fourth student). I didn't get the assistanceship money the others got, but everything that mattered - like the degree! - was the same.

Was that unethical? I don't really know, but to be honest, I don't really care either. No one who ever had to be impressed by that degree or its source institution would ever know, so it the end, it doesn't matter...
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 8:41 AM on June 17, 2010


On further thought, I think chrisinseoul might look into whether or not his preferred/dream program would accept credits from the first program, and how many credits it will accept.

I know a PhD student who qualified (completed all his required course credits and passed qualifying exams, and just needed to write the dissertation) at a top 2 department in their field. Then they left academia to do some thinktank/activism work, giving up on the PhD. Then his former mentor left the first department to head up the other top 2 department at another uni, and personally persuaded his former student to join the other top 2 PhD program (in the same subject - they are in fact sister schools at different universities) - this student was considered to be a star student and a favorite profs. The student agreed but even though his mentor was now head of the new department, the institution made the student re-take almost all his required course credits (he was allowed to transfer like 8 credits i.e. 2 courses out of a required 18 or something) AND re-take his qualifying exams. (funding was not an issue here as both schools offered full rides)
posted by Bwithh at 8:41 AM on June 17, 2010


I've known several people who have started in PhD programs, which are funded, then left after receiving their master's, which would not have been had they applied to that program directly. I've also known that the faculty doesn't look kindly on this, because the funding is given with the understanding that you intend to stay for the full PhD, thus giving back a fair amount of work to the funding institution.

I don't know what sort of situation you're talking about, though, in which a "lower" program has funding but a "higher" program would not?

In general, I'd say you have an ethical dilemma if the funding you start with is given with the understanding that you will stay on and be productive later. For example, if you start out spending most of your time doing coursework, then you might not be producing much for the institution. And if you leave before you do produce much, then you have taken advantage of the system. There are no rules stopping you from doing so, and nothing in the system formally tries to prevent it, but that's how many will view it.

On preview: Yeah, you can view this as purely "business," where neither side "cares about" the other as anything more than a means to furthering their own ends, but that's a crap way to go through life, and people will react poorly to it. And if you approach things that way, then you're adding to the impersonality of your own environment.

That's some of the ethical side of it. Weighing that with the concrete financial implications is the hard part.
posted by whatnotever at 8:41 AM on June 17, 2010


oops - typo above. "a favorite profs" = "a favorite of profs"
posted by Bwithh at 8:42 AM on June 17, 2010


There's a misunderstanding somewhere. This doesn't make sense.
posted by notned at 8:44 AM on June 17, 2010


If you're talking about getting into one program and then moving to another program at the same school, any funding you get may very well be departmental and not move with you--that is, if you're starting in history with the idea of moving to American Studies, if they're separate departments the funding is going to be separate, with the exception of some university fellowships open to all departments. If it's possible to easily switch between programs in one department (i.e., the Renaissance Lit specialty vs. 20th Century), it doesn't make sense to me that they'd have separate admissions.

if it were easy for students who didn't have strong enough credentials to sneak into tough programs by a back-door method like this, I can't imagine the school or department wouldn't close that door pretty quickly.

The question is vague. Reflecting on my experiences in three different grad schools, though, it's really hard for me to come up with a scenario that fits what you've said that makes any sense, ethics aside.
posted by not that girl at 8:51 AM on June 17, 2010


If you're not an attractive enough candidate to get in with funding at Good University, I'm not sure what you expect would change after a year at Bad University.

This is absolutely incorrect. If your graduate application is substandard or even just okay (say, terrific grades from a no-name school), successfully taking graduate classes and getting recommendations from your graduate professors can show that you're capable of doing graduate work on a competitive level with undergraduate students from, say, the Ivies.

In my field (creative writing), at least, it's also not unusual for small state schools to offer tuition remission to everyone accepted, and for bigger programs in, say, New York City, to offer very few scholarships. It's how the smaller programs attract writers in the first place.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:16 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is absolutely incorrect.

I disagree. Good recommendations can make a lot of difference, but profs at Bad University aren't going to have the same weight as profs at Elite Undergrad University, and if OP has not attracted professorial acclimation to this point, it's unclear why this would come at Bad University anyway.

I know one person who failed to get in to an elite PhD program in year X, but subsequently got in to one in year X+3, after working as a research assistant for a top person in his field for 2 years. I do not feel merely attending a mediocre PhD program would have been to his benefit. Movement in academia is inexorably downwards, except for the very best people, who almost always start at the top.

I am familiar with the hard sciences and the social sciences. Have very little idea what goes on in humanities programs.
posted by deadweightloss at 9:28 AM on June 17, 2010


Good recommendations can make a lot of difference, but profs at Bad University aren't going to have the same weight as profs at Elite Undergrad University, and if OP has not attracted professorial acclimation to this point, it's unclear why this would come at Bad University anyway.

Based on the encouragement he's received from a professor, there's no reason to think that he hasn't attracted "professorial acclimation."

Also--again, and I can only really talk for my field--having gone to a no-name school (which actually attracted some solid faculty thanks to its geographic proximity to New York City), I often heard professors advise promising students to do exactly this.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:43 AM on June 17, 2010


Another thing to consider is if your MA will transfer. Mine did, some people's didn't.

I've also seen an issue in my own department with people that did MAs at "lesser" departments -- when they get to the dissertation stage, they haven't been kicked in the ass by the MA thesis process within the department. In my observations, they get a ROYAL ass kicking with their diss. I don't see that happening with those that did the MA in our department.
posted by k8t at 10:15 AM on June 17, 2010


This is absolutely incorrect. If your graduate application is substandard or even just okay (say, terrific grades from a no-name school), successfully taking graduate classes and getting recommendations from your graduate professors can show that you're capable of doing graduate work on a competitive level with undergraduate students from, say, the Ivies.

To be clear, I agree that this is worth a shot--though in the experience of everyone I know, you can only ever climb a rung or two up the status ladder, in the humanities at any rate.

Anyway, the OP's plan doesn't sound like using a program as a stepping stone to admission at More Desirable U. Their only stated motivation for jumping from one program to the next is financial.
posted by Beardman at 12:43 PM on June 17, 2010


I am a proud student/near graduate of the "mediocre university" + "famous professor" category, and, hell, yeah, you better believe it's possible and it helped immensely. Not all professors at middling universities are failures, sometimes they're big names there for location, family, or funding. Employers don't care remotely about my school, but I've gotten jobs solely on who my advisor is. If someone's famous enough, it does not matter if they're currently at a mediocre school.

I'm not actually sure what the original question is...if you mean "move up" across programs in the same university, I don't quite get how this would benefit you. You'd have funding for a lot of credit you don't need, from what I can tell, so it wouldn't be unethical, but it would be a waste of time.

If you mean this other program won't let you in now but you think they will in a year after they see the work you've done while funded in the other program, then I see your concern. However, sorry to tell you this, but graduate school IS all a game. If you will be doing useful work for the professor you're working for and you're qualified for the funding (academically, financially, whatever), then you're not doing anything wrong. If you manage to get the funding over other students, then that means that you were theoretically a better applicant, so you still don't have to feel guilty. The only time I would be careful is if you told a professor you were dedicated to this field and their research and they fully expected you to stay for a PhD, then you leave after a year, leaving them to train someone else. That's not unethical, but it could cause problems in the future if you're in any remotely related field. Since I can't figure out exactly what you're talking about, I can't really extrapolate the ethics any further than that.
posted by wending my way at 1:07 PM on June 17, 2010


Was that unethical? I don't really know, but to be honest, I don't really care either. No one ... would ever know, so it the end, it doesn't matter...

Yeah, you should probably stay away from ethics threads in the future.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:28 AM on June 18, 2010


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