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I have just completed my first year of a 50/50 coursework/research masters program in physics. I have a supervisor, but have not yet started the research component, which is meant to run until the end of next year.

After a year of graduate study I've realised that a lot of the theoretical physics done at my university is still too applied and not mathematical enough for my taste. I also feel like I need significantly more mathematics to carry out research in the areas which interest me most. Also, after looking at the areas of active research in both departments, those of the maths faculty interest me much more.

Because of this I want to transfer from my physics program to the equivalent maths program (both at my current university). I dual majored in maths and physics as an undergraduate, so I meet all the requirements and have even completed three subjects that I should be able to use as partial credit in maths. My concern however, is with leaving my current supervisor. I haven't yet started on a research project with him, but I'm worried about leaving and really don't want to inconvenience or disappoint him.

Has anybody else had a similar experience, and is this at all common? How did you handle leaving your supervisor? How did they handle you leaving? Is this likely to effect me if I end up back in the physics department for a PhD (i.e. is it likely I'll be "blacklisted")?

Thanks in advance for any advice, I'm feeling quite lost and would really appreciate it.

  • Is it possible for you to stay in the physics department and be unofficially supervised by a mathematician? – astronat Oct 22 '18 at 7:19
  • Not really, unfortunately there's very little crossover between the two departments here. Most of the physics department is very focussed on the phenomenological side of physics rather than the more mathematical side, and so there isn't much in place for crossover between the departments. – CoffeeCrow Oct 22 '18 at 8:00
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Programme transfers are pretty common and most modern universities have established procedures in place to allow this to happen. At my university -- a research-intensive one in the UK -- this would only be allowed if you meet the following conditions. For the sake of clarity, I will call the programme from which you wish to transfer programme A and the programme into which you wish to transfer programme B.

  1. You meet the entry criteria of programme B. In most cases in which programmes A and B are related, this is not a problem. The greater the difference, the smaller the likelihood that these criteria will be met. The most common cause of grief in our experience is potentially different English language thresholds. For example, programme A might have an IELTS requirement of 6.5 while programme B might require IELTS 7.0.
  2. You have no outstanding incomplete requirements in programme B.
  3. The programme director of programme B is willing to release you. This is relatively easy because most programme directors have no desire to keep anyone who doesn't want to be there.
  4. The programme director of programme A is willing to accept you. The programme director will want to review your academic qualifications and performance. This review may involve an interview or skills demonstration. For example, you might need to demonstrate facility with a piece of lab instrumentation or software.

If you meet all four criteria, then the question becomes about inter-programme credits. Depending on the coverage of the taught components of programme A and its overlap with programme B, you may be asked to take courses to make up the taught credit load for programme B.

Finally, you will be asked to choose an academic supervisor who will oversee the research component of your degree.

If you want to transfer out of a programme, I suggest that you do so now. Unlike PhD programmes, master's degrees are churn out students at a much faster pace. Thus, the academic supervisor you have in your original programme isn't likely to have developed a strong working relationship with you. I wouldn't overthink the issue that you are inconveniencing him or her much. This happens quite often and is the reason that policies are in place.

Finally, if you are professional about your reasons for departure and your approach to the process, there is no reason why you will be "blacklisted", should you then try for a PhD or post-doc position in your original programme.

Good luck to you.

  • Thanks for your detailed and helpful answer. I just have one question, what do you mean by "outstanding incomplete requirements", in your second point? – CoffeeCrow Oct 26 '18 at 3:46
  • Thanks. By that I mean that you've closed any accounts (e.g., lab fees), returned equipment lent to you (laptops or books, for example), passed final checks of your bench space, that sort of thing. In our university, this happens following the completion of the course component. – St. Inkbug Oct 26 '18 at 4:11
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My concern however, is with leaving my current supervisor. I haven't yet started on a research project with him, but I'm worried about leaving and really don't want to inconvenience or disappoint him. ... Is this likely to effect me if I end up back in the physics department for a PhD (i.e. is it likely I'll be "blacklisted")?

Since you have not yet started any research project with your supervisor, it is unlikely to be inconvenient to him to have you transfer to another program. Unless your supervisor is an extremely resentful individual (which would be rare in academia) it would be highly unlikely that he would take any negative view of you for wanting to change to a preferred program of study, and it would be similarly unlikely that you would suffer any long-term consequence if you wanted to come back into physics.

As with any situation like this, the key is to be polite and thankful for the existing help you have been given. Tell your supervisor your reasons for wanting to change to study mathematics, and thank him for all the work he has already put in supervising you. Although it is unlikely you will inconvenience him much, it is not a bad idea to pre-emptively apologise for any inconvenience you may have caused him, and let him know that your decision is about your preferred program, and is not due to any deficiency in his supervision.

If you do this well then you will be able to leave on friendly terms with your present supervisor, and you will ensure that you have not "burned your bridges" with your move to another program. There is a reasonable possibility that your supervisor might even like the fact that you are pursuing more mathematics, and might be interested in doing research projects in physics with you later, once your mathematical skills have improved.

Anyway, don't be nervous --- most academic supervisors are friendly and want what is best for their students. Sit down with your supervisor and lay out your plans. Be polite and thankful and put yourself in a position to be able to come back later if you decide to renew your interest in research work in physics.

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