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.

Regards,
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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asst prof
asst prof
4 years ago

I don’t know why previous letter writers are safer. I trust the integrity/indifference of most professors enough to think that they would not hold it against a student if, for whatever reason, that student wanted to transfer. If you’ve done well in a course, ask that professor for a recommendation. I would think a letter of rec from a *current* professor who can attest to your ability to do graduate level work would hold much more weight than those from your undergraduate institution.Report

slac chair
slac chair
4 years ago

I think it is wise not to tell anyone at your current institution. Worst-case scenario is you *don’t* get in anywhere else, and you have to stay in your department. At least some faculty will think of you (disparagingly) as the person who wanted to leave. And they might be the ones handing out TA-ships, travel money, etc. Or they might be the ones you eventually want to work with. I’ve seen enough professors get upset with super petty shit to doubt their integrity in this matter.Report

centropyge
centropyge
4 years ago

I’ve been in a situation similar to the OP’s in the past. My qualms were not so much about *how* to transfer, but *when* to start thinking about transferring. I guess some of the answers to the latter are fairly straightforward (e.g. your advisor takes up an offer elsewhere), but others (and maybe most) I think aren’t so obvious and probably case-specific. I’ve already browsed around the web, but am interested in hearing what students and professors of philosophy have to say (if anything).Report

some person or other
some person or other
4 years ago

Perhaps this is too obvious to be said, but surely lots of this stuff depends on particulars of the case too much for there to be any blanket general advice. (I think a lot of whether you should talk to current faculty depends, for example, on what your reasons for wanting to leave are, and how much they are likely to respect those reasons.) Maybe it would help to look into whether other students have recently left your department, and try to get in touch with them?Report

ikj
ikj
4 years ago

FWIW — I transferred from one Ph.D. program to another after my first year. This was in another field in the Humanities. In that field’s rankings at the time I moved up about 20 spots. I didn’t tell anyone at the first school I was applying or request any letters, although my letters were all from a terminal master’s program not my undergraduate instructors. In fact, I didn’t inform the first school until after I had accepted the offer at the second. At least in my case, I think this was the correct way to go. Although I wasn’t close with any of the faculty at school one, the people I had worked with were largely–even surprisingly–supportive of the move. I think at least post hoc, faculty understand the importance of reputation in graduate studies. Had I not accepted an offer from school two, because I didn’t notify anyone at school one of re-applying I was in no danger of the kind of blowback regarding funding or like that I might have been. All in all, I think it worked out for me, but as some person notes it I’m sure it varies by circumstances.

PS — And maybe this is too obvious, but it’s less a transfer than starting from square one, at least after the first year. I was eventually granted a few coverage credits for seminars at school one, but for all intents and purposes my year at school one was lost in the transfer.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
4 years ago

I left my PhD programme after three years (my husband after four) when our adviser retired unexpectedly and the dept. made it clear they weren’t going to be replacing him with someone able to supervise us. Our supervisor was very supportive in our applications elsewhere, and we sought letters of recommendation from people outside our dept. but inside the same university (we were in philosophy, but had taken a number of classes in the math department).

Because we moved overseas to a very different type of programme, we started there from scratch. In the end, it didn’t matter; we both ended up changing our focus rather dramatically, and having a full four years to complete our PhDs was useful and I never felt like I lost much time. (I was 27 when I got my PhD).Report

Jacob Archambault
4 years ago

If your school offers the option of taking courses at another nearby graduate program, do so. Cultivate a rapport with a professor at the exchange institution, who is not personally invested in your remaining at your current program; and ask for a letter if you are confident s/he could provide you with a good one. Such a letter should carry more weight, being both more recent and from an external writer, and therefore helps your chances of landing at a good program.Report