I am currently in a PhD program wherein I like my advisers, but unfortunately due to the following issues I have found that I might be happier applying to another university:

  1. The university charges a $1200 fee during the fall and spring semesters which does not come out of our paychecks, and that they charge monthly interest on. There is also 2 months of the 9 month period of our stipend that we receive half our monthly pay. Thus we are effectively expected to make 6.5 months worth of pay work for 9. I have needed to find additional ways to make ends meet which cuts into the time I could be studying and doing research.

  2. The university does not have a method of testing out of classes without needing to take them. As a result I am forced to take classes which I am already proficient in when I could be taking classes more relevant to research.

  3. The workload for being a GTA this semester was far more than what is reasonable, and cut into my time to do research. I have been informed that this is somewhat common here.

I am applying to other PhD programs at the moment and I am currently wondering what is a way I can both explain my situation in a manner so that people understand why I am applying out without sounding like I am badmouthing my current university? (A professor I know mentioned that the above explanation might be too specific and perceived as badmouthing them). I don't want to be too vague so that it seems like I am just making excuses to apply somewhere else because without 1-3 above I would be happy here.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  • 9
    You may want to be careful if you are giving too much information via your SE profile, keep in mind this may be seen by other people that may be aware of you. Jan 4, 2021 at 20:30
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    @AnotherPerson Almost every US university has these fees that are not covered by tuition remission. I believe they are due to compliance with tax or funding rules and are used to fund student services that cannot be deducted pre-tax or cannot be funded directly from certain government sources, or both (I forget the exact details). There's no real difference between having them pay from a check or have it deducted from a stipend. If you don't want to pay interest then pay them when they are due. At least it seems like a very poor reason to change graduate programs to me.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 4, 2021 at 20:55
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    (2) is unfortunate but also kind of a minor issue unless your PhD is highly course-dependent (maybe it is if you're in math). (3) is also unfortunate and unfair but I'd caution against a "grass is greener" mindset.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 4, 2021 at 20:57
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    I think insufficient financial support is a perfectly good reason to want to change PhD programs, but I'd focus on that aspect rather than some peculiarity of how fees are assessed, given what you describe is standard as far as I know. If it's a public university they may not even have much choice in the matter (though my own grad program would float students their fees without interest to cover the situation you describe).
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 4, 2021 at 21:06
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    If you have a union, you should speak to them about TA workload. nteu.org.au/wagetheft Jan 4, 2021 at 23:38

3 Answers 3


Concision is your friend here. You do not need to explain all your reasons in detail, and giving multiple reasons will indeed sound negative. Instead, choose the most significant, straightforward reason, and explain it as concisely as possible. In your case, this would be "funding" (#1 and #3 in your list). The issue with coursework, while annoying, does not seem like sufficient reason to transfer (especially when you have presumably already finished many of the duplicate classes).

The challenge with "I want to transfer for better funding" is that grad students are never paid much, and it's a little difficult to believe that the small pay difference between programs is enough to justify starting over, moving, etc., especially when you are otherwise happy with your current program. So, you should provide enough detail to overcome this objection. Note, there is no need to explain the intricacies of your school's internal accounting, just the bottom line (annual salary vs. hours worked). For example:

I am currently paid $15K per year, which barely covers rent in [your expensive city]. So, I have had to work in a grocery story 15 hrs/week just to make ends meet. Further, my colleagues and I are averaging 35 hrs/week in teaching responsibilities. This arrangement leaves little time for research.

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    The pay difference between programs is not always small. It can be > 50%. Of course the cost of living varies even more. Jan 4, 2021 at 21:36

Actually, I don't see how "inadequate financial support to allow me to continue" would seem rude. You don't have an issue with the professors or what you are learning so I think you are safe enough discussing your decision with them. Maybe knowing your situation would encourage them to free up any available funds.

Probably many of your professors had to struggle themselves with finances in their own education. It isn't uncommon. Maybe they will have some suggestions, both locally and to expedite a change.

But they can't help you if they don't know. Ask.

I'm surprised, actually, that your doctoral program doesn't cover all fees. That is pretty unusual, unless you are at a private institution.

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    I have discussed my decision with them already and they support me applying elsewhere. Jan 4, 2021 at 20:40
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    Then get some good recommendations, both of places to continue, introductions to other faculty, and letters of recommendation. Good luck.
    – Buffy
    Jan 4, 2021 at 20:41
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    In my experience professors are far more likely to have wealthy parents than students are. Jan 4, 2021 at 23:36
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    @GoodDeeds Obvious hypotheses: wealthy parents teach children learning and teaching is good, wealthy parents teach children to pursue a career, wealthy parents pay for better education, wealthy parents live where elite education is available... all these things increase the probability of becoming a professor more than they increase the probability of becoming a student. Jan 5, 2021 at 2:07
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    @AnonymousPhysicist. I guess I'm just a lowly counterexample then.
    – Buffy
    Jan 5, 2021 at 12:12

Speaking as a doctoral coordinator, I would encourage you to focus your efforts on seeking a better program fit for your research interests and career aspirations. No one wants to admit a doctoral student that was a "problem" from someone else's program. Focus on the positive. This year will be very competitive for most doctoral programs - what do you bring to the table compared to a new applicant with no prior history?

You should have known all about the fees and financial support before starting in your current program. In my opinion that is not a valid complaint. I would not cite this at all.

If you really are being asked to work each week more than the amount of time specified by your GA contract, that is against university policy and the law. It should be reported to the Department Chair, Dean's Office, and ultimately the Provost at your school (if it is not adequately addressed inside the college). It puts the university at financial and legal risk if individual faculty are abusing graduate students.

If you are simply being asked by your assigned advisor to put in more work than your peers who are assigned to other faculty, but not an amount of time that is specified by the GA contract, that is a different case. Again, that to me is not a valid complaint. You could request a different assignment, but as long as you are not being asked to perform work that exceeds your GA commitment (20 hours, I'm guessing), you really don't have a good case to complain.

I hope that helps. Good luck!

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    Often, TA complaints often come down to "I'm being asked to do x, y, and z, and it's taking me more than 20 hours per week to do that" with the response of "x, y, and z should take less than 20 hours per week to complete." That may or may not be true, but it can only be resolved by getting into the details of the work. Jan 5, 2021 at 19:33
  • Thank you I found your comment very helpful. Jan 5, 2021 at 21:40
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    "You should have known all about the fees and financial support before starting in your current program." cost of life may increase enormously in a given city in a time span of 3-5 years. Quite often information provided by HR and by PhD coordinator are out-dated, to the point that they may claim 900E / month is enough to rent a flat and live in Berlin (DE), while it is not true since 2015 at least. "If you really are being asked to work each week more than the amount of time" Being asked to teaching a 5 hours/week course, does not take into account the 15h/w preparation needed.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 6, 2021 at 12:47
  • IMO, your answer and your attitude and your self-claimed role being "doctoral coordinator" explains why OP (and many other doctoral candidates) find themselves in an uncomfortable position during their academic experience. I mean, you are not HR, you are not paid to defend the University at all cost, aren't you?
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 6, 2021 at 12:48

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