I am a PhD student that has just started my third year in a scientific field. Since I have started my program, my mother has been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. It has recently gotten worse and I am worried sick. I am considering applying to another PhD program that would be much closer to home.

This other department would also meet my research interests better than the current one. I have not been super excited about my current research so that is a factor in my consideration too (although I was not seriously considering leaving before this happened). I am much better aware of my research interests now than when I first applied to graduate school, since my undergraduate degree was in a different field.

I should mention that the program that I would be applying to is generally higher ranked, although my current one is respectable too. I have not applied to that department before. I have four publications, two first-author papers in good journals and one in Science (not first author). My advisor is very well-known and is very sympathetic to my situation. I have not discussed the possible transfer yet and although they would be saddened if I left, I'm sure they would write a great reference letter. My grades in the PhD program are not outstanding since I was mostly focused on research. I will likely have my master's degree by the time I would be applying in the winter.

I know transferring PhD programs is generally not easy, especially when it's to a more prestigious department, and given that by the time I would start I will have completed 3 years at my current department. But considering my situation and my publication record, how understanding would an admissions committee be? Does anyone have any experience with a similar situation or advice?

Thank you so much.

  • 2
    Does your institution allow supervision via distance or online? If you are not doing a lab-based PhD, you might be able to do this instead?
    – Poidah
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 7:17
  • Another option to consider, depending on your long-term career goals and the job options in the city you want to move to, would to graduate this year. Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 16:07

2 Answers 2


Advisors are humans too (at least most of them). Most would be willing to think with you to find creative solutions. Maybe you can stay with your old institution, but arrange for you to visit the new institution. I my old institution a couple of months in another institution was mandatory. So you can keep the progress you have made and still spent some time closer to your family. Maybe, you and your current advisor can arrange for someone from the other institution to become your co-advisor. This might enable you to regularly travel back and forth as part of your normal work, and combine that with family visits.

If people are willing a lot is possible, and in situations like yours a lot of people are willing. So my advise is talk to your advisor. Don't limit yourself to that new institution. Your primary aim is to spent time with your family, and the new institution was one possible way of achieving that. Maybe your advisor has other ideas on how to achieve your aim that work out better.

  • 2
    This is the right answer, your advisor may have options and ideas you've never considered and certainly has more influence at the schools in the city you want to move to than you do. Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 16:13
  • I hadn't considered this, thank you so much! I will look into this possibility.
    – Hypercube
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 16:48

I'm sorry to hear that you are going through this.

I went through a similar experience shortly after I moved to a new country to start my PhD. I contemplated quitting and moving back home to be with my family. I spoke with my family and they convinced me not to. The reason: they did not want the illness to affect my life. Your parents likely share the same viewpoint: they are very proud of you and your achievements and would not want the illness to interfere with you achieving your goals.

The experience with my family gave me perspective and helped me to see that one should think deeply before significantly altering their life trajectory because of an unfortunate event. That said, you are not contemplating quitting and it sounds like, illness aside, the move will be (professionally) beneficial for the reasons you stated. Keep the following in mind, though:

  • Give yourself time to rest and potentially take time off to deal with your family. It's possible that you just need some time off to visit and evaluate. If you do decide to move, keep in mind that moving mid-degree is hard enough as it is, let alone dealing with the additional stress of a family illness. I encourage you to take time off regardless (if you are leaning towards moving, discuss the possibility of taking a break in the communication with the new institute)
  • Nearly every PhD student feels a period of stagnation around their third year. This is natural, don't take it as a sign that you are not in a good program. Any PhD program definitely requires multiple months (possibly years) of painfully slow progress.
  • If you move, don't feel bad if you take more time to finish your degree. Making a move requires you to settle in at the new place and get used to the new research environment/style of your advisor.

Remember to think about yourself in all this, please be forgiving/kind to yourself!

  • I'm sorry to hear that you are dealing with this too. I really appreciate this compassionate answer, you have given me a lot to think about.
    – Hypercube
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 16:55

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