Grad Student Asks: How To Switch Departments? (Ought Experiment)

Grad Student Asks: How To Switch Departments? (Ought Experiment)

Welcome back to Ought Experiment, the column by Dear Ida that offers personal advice for your academic life. Today’s letter is from a graduate student seeking advice on moving from one department to another.

Dear Dear Ida,

I’m a first-year PhD student, and increasingly feel that my department is not a good academic fit for me, to the extent that writing my dissertation here might be too much of a struggle to be worth doing.  I know that students sometimes transfer between programs, but don’t personally know anyone who has done that, and wonder how to go about it. Firstly, I wonder how one applies to another department one or more years into a PhD program, and secondly, I wonder how this is done in a way with which the current department would be happy. I imagine that the second issue requires some sensitivity and care, and wonder if your readers have any advice. To be clear, I am not thinking of trying to transfer at this point, as I’m sure I need to proceed further to be able to decide, but would like to have in mind what the possibilities might be while I continue to try to make things work where I am.

Grad Departing After a Year 

Hi there, G’Day. Thanks for the questions!

Let’s start with “the practical stuff” first. The process to transfer to a program is no different than the process of applying to that program. Barring truly exceptional circumstances, almost no Ph.D. program is going to admit a student who has not applied to the program in the standard way. Since you have already been accepted into a Ph.D. program, you know what this process involves.

The first thing I’d consider doing is talking with the people who wrote you letters of recommendation the first time around. These people are already supportive and committed to your success, and they are in a position to offer you more specific advice about whether you should apply to a different program or stick with the one your are in now. You are also going to need letters of recommendation if you want to apply elsewhere, and these people have already written letters for you, so they will almost certainly will be willing to send them again. They should probably update the letters to indicate that (1) you were accepted into a program but would find the other program you are applying to a better fit, (2) you nonetheless did well in current program so far (assuming you have—if you haven’t, they should just not say anything about your current status there), and (3) indicate any other relevant changes to your CV if there are any, such as conference presentations, and so on. If you are going to use a different writing sample, let your writer letters know that too—and give them enough time to change the letters if need be in light of the change of writing sample.

If there is a professor in your current program who you have impressed and who you believe will be very sympathetic to you transferring, you could also approach him or her for a letter. But your previous letter writers are probably safer bets.

That’s “the practical stuff”. Now for the interpersonal stuff, which is a lot harder to give concrete advice about. My advice is, unless you are asking for a local letter writer, just don’t talk about your applying to other programs with the faculty there until you’ve actually been accepted somewhere else. Maybe others will disagree, but I don’t see much of a point in bringing it up until you actually have a real option to leave. Even if you are accepted to another place, this doesn’t mean that you have to go there. It just means that you have an option to go there.

As for making sure faculty aren’t upset, they shouldn’t be. The costs to a program of losing a graduate student to another program are not nothing, but they aren’t much either. There might be a small amount of quiet irritation if the admissions committee was torn between admitting you and admitting someone else because now they have neither student. Even so, that small quiet irritation will most likely fade into nothingness by the time the next semester rolls around. A faculty member who holds a grudge against a graduate student for leaving the program is both emotionally unbalanced and very rare.

Where you go to graduate school can have a huge impact on your own life. This is why it is totally reasonable and understandable for you to be concerned about whether your current program is right for you.

But, to speak frankly, where you go will most likely have a very small impact on the life of the faculty. Just to give you some perspective, at most Ph.D. programs, the official division of labor is 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. Of that 40% teaching, it is unusual for more than half of that to be graduate teaching. So that’s 20% of the work to graduate teaching at most. You are not the only the graduate student there. For the average faculty member, teaching *you* is probably *at most* 3% of their official job duties, and probably far less. This is partly why it is totally unreasonable for a faculty member to freak out about you leaving. I predict that they won’t! Maybe a few will be slightly regretful, but even that will quickly fade.

That’s why I wouldn’t spend much time worrying about whether the faculty at your current program will be happy with your decision. So as long as you don’t act like a jerk when you bring up that you are considering leaving their program for another, I doubt you will generate ill-feeling in any of the faculty members there. Once another program has accepted you, you could (and probably should) request a meeting with the graduate director (or possibly the department chair), as well as the faculty that you are most likely to do dissertation work if you stay there, and calmly talk about your reasons for considering transferring. During that meeting, you can express gratitude for the training you’ve received during your time there and for the time and effort faculty have invested in your success. In addition to being appropriate, it will help to soothe any ruffled feathers, if any there be.

I hope this helps. Good luck!

—Dear Ida

Have questions for Dear Ida? Write to [email protected]. Further discussion and comments welcome.

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