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(Sorry for the long question in advance! If it's too long, you could skip the first two paragraphs.)

I'm currently enrolled in a PhD program in a relatively prestigious school, which is very well-known in my field and in the specific area I'm interested in. Despite the department being a very good match for my interest, for some very personal reasons, I really need to move to a different place. (I assure you that my reasons are absolutely convincing, but unfortunately are too personal and complicated to explain it here, so I'd appreciate it if you could suggest answers to the question I'm asking and not discuss whether I should change my mind about leaving my current program).

Before I explain where in the application I could get into trouble, I need to say, that I can't explain my reasons for leaving my current university to my professors. Although the reasons are not at all about the department (I'm actually pretty happy with the program itself), and are only related to the location, since understanding them requires some background on what my reasons are about and some familiarity with me at a personal level, I have very little hope that they could actually sound convincing to my professors. They're the sort of reasons that I could explain to a friend and I'm quite sure they'd find them absolutely convincing (as those I explained to did), but I can't explain it to a colleague or a professor unless I establish some level of friendship with them beforehand. So, I prefer to reserve that option as the last option.

Although I'm trying to go and continue/do my PhD somewhere else as soon as possible, I'd want to do that next year if my applications weren't successful this year (especially because next year I'll have more publications, could possibly get a little closer to my advisor here so I could get their help and explain my reasons to them, and will have a higher chance in general). That's why I don't want to jeopardize my current position at all, because I might end up staying here one year longer. I'd appreciate any suggestions to solve the problems explained below.

I would consider my problem to have two main parts:

Part 1:

Since I'm going to apply for PhD positions, mostly in Europe, but possibly a few in the US, I need to contact potential advisors (in most of the programs I'm considering, the department-level admission is almost just a formality and any PhD student has to be accepted by the advisor first). I'm afraid that the prospective advisor might know a professor from my department (especially because they work in the same field and my department is very well-known in the field), and they might contact that professor and ask about me, which could get me into trouble in my current program (possibly resulting in the school cancelling my scholarship). I do try to make sure that they haven't published a paper together recently, but sometimes it's hard to figure out for sure if they're collaborating on a project at the moment or not, or if they're going to meet at a conference soon.

Part 2:

It could be difficult to justify why I want to leave this department given my interests. The department is a great match for my interest and I'm assuming that whoever reads my statement letter is not going to ask "why won't you complete your Ph.D. with prof. X or prof. Y at your own department then?!". Any suggestions on how to minimize the amount of annoying personal explanations, while trying to explain why I want to go somewhere else?

I'd greatly appreciate any solutions you'd suggest. Also, do you think these stuff are actually something to be worried about or am I just overthinking it?!

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I don’t have an answer to the first part, but the only possible answer to the second part is to say something along the lines of:

Due to unreconcilable personal issues, I’m unable to complete my PhD at the University of Stack Exchange. I have the highest regard for the faculty there and Professor Advisor was an excellent supervisor, but I could not continue to pursue my studies there. These issues would not interfere with my ability to pursue a PhD at the University of Overflow.

You shouldn’t lie and pretend there was some kind of problem with the university. I think that making it clear that you have no issue with the university and your professor is probably the best thing you can do to avoid accidentally starting any rumors or make it seem like you’re besmirching the old university. I think it’s important to simultaneously stress the the issues are personal and that they won’t follow you to your new location.

I do think that being forthright and honest, but vague, is your best approach. I would seriously recommend putting this in your statement of purpose as well. At the end of the day it’s never not going to occur to the people reading your application to ask, and you’re usually better off heading off and explaining obvious worries than letting them sit there in their mind.

I know someone who was sexually assaulted by a community member at his university and found himself in a similar position. This is along the lines of what he did.

  • 1
    "personal issues" is a useful phase in this situation. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 16 '18 at 1:04
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This advice will add, I hope to that of Stella Biderman here. However, you will have to evaluate its wisdom in light of what you know of your own personal situation.

I actually changed universities in the middle of studies, but for a different reason. Switching can, as you suggest, raise issues with the places to which you apply.

If your situation is intolerable, it is probably more important that you protect your overall reputation than specifically worry too much about the word getting out locally that you wish to leave.

In my case it was made possible by another professor in the school I was leaving (not my advisor), with whom I had a good academic relationship. He believed in me and my abilities and his recommendation made it possible when it might not have been otherwise.

So, if possible, find a person (or a few) at the current institution whose support you can depend on and who will be trusted in the profession to help you with letters, assuring the recipients that your move is necessary and appropriate. It may not even be necessary to reveal all to such a person (people), though they likely need to know that it is a personal need of great importance.

  • I was also in this situation as a graduate student. Ideally, the people you trust to be supportive include your advisor and other faculty in your field, in your department. At least in the US, anyone trying to move from one PhD program to another without a strong recommendation from their advisor is viewed with suspicion. Are they leaving because they are being kicked out? Because of a serious personality conflict with their advisor? Because they find their current program too demanding? If we admit them, are they going to struggle / cause trouble here too? – JeffE Aug 17 '18 at 15:41
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I was almost in a similar situation a few years ago. I will describe what happened to me and that may inspire you in some way.

I started my PhD several years ago at some European university and a year later my wife had a terrible car accident while pregnant. The emotions were tense and we were under a huge urge to change countries. You know, we needed to clear up horrible memories ... etc. Due to the accident, I lagged behind in my PhD programme and catching up was not easy. So, as you see these are very personal reasons that not everyone would understand.

At that time, my supervisor was a very big shot, well-known in the field, who at some time was the editor-in-chief of one of the top journals. So, you can imagine how hard it was to convince anyone else to accept me. In any case, I had a stellar profile as a PhD applicant and started contacting other universities in Europe. Never received back for obvious reasons. I went to conferences and met in person a couple of the professors I already contacted. The first question they asked: "but why do you want to leave Prof. X?" I explained my personal reasons very professionally and one of them actually was happy to accept me subject to funding confirmation that unfortunately didn't happen.

The lessons learned at this stage:

  • People do understand personal reasons are a valid motive for drastic change.
  • Talking to people openly and professionally can help.
  • Given the reputation of your supervisor/school, you may not have the chance to even make your reasons known to prospective supervisors (They ignore your emails and assume whatever).

At this point, another year of my PhD has passed, and was so helpless.. but at the same time, I realized that my current supervisor's name is a big hurdle, and being in Europe where everyone pretty much knows everyone in the field was not of really much help. So, I decided to move afar... very far away, and that is how I ended up in Australia.

I started applying to professors here, and after three attempts I was accepted in a good PhD programme with a generous scholarship and a nice supervisor.

Telling my previous supervisor about my departure was not the most pleasant thing I did in my life, but he was fine and understanding. And to be honest, I don't think he cared much about it. Now in your case, you're worried that if your supervisor knows about your plans, it might jeopardize your current scholarship. Of course, I don't know him/her, but any decent and reasonable professor in his/her position will come to you and discuss why, or on the other hand, just won't care. You are just a PhD student to him, and his career or life don't depend on you. Moreover, I'm not aware of anywhere in the world where your intentions to leave a PhD program would result in cancelling your scholarship. Anyway, back to my story. When I told him by email about my resignation from the programme, he sent one of his seniors research fellow to talk to me, and when they realized I was determined to leave they accepted it and life went on. No hard feeling or anything. We even co-authored a paper together later.

I have just finished my PhD in Australia last year with a good standing and looking back, I couldn't be happier with my decision to leave.

PS: apologies if anything seems unclear. I wrote this while sick, lying in bed.

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