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I just finished my second year in a social science PhD program and have only one semester left to finish my coursework. Last semester my advisor A told me she was gonna take a job offer from another university and could not bring me because of lack of funding. I was her only PhD student, and she was the only person whose research aligns with mine, so I was quite frustrated. This summer I asked another professor B whose research is kinda close to mine, and she took me over as her advisee, which I really appreciate. They are both very nice to me, but I realized that prof B does not really know a lot about my field, she is very kind, but the problem is we do not work in the same field.

So I am considering whether it is possible to apply to another program. Both A and B are very nice people, especially B, so I really don't want to hurt their feelings or bother them too much. My department faculty members are generally very nice, so I feel guilty about planning to betray them. FYI I'm an international student, so I couldn't really take a break to work or do something else. So here are my questions:

  1. I know applying to another program while being enrolled in the current phd program does not look good. Is there any way to make it look not that bad? Will this piss my current professors off?

  2. Shall I tell prof B about my thoughts? She is the dept chair, if I tell her about my plan, is it inappropriate to ask for her recommendation letter?

  3. When shall I inform my former advisor A and current advisor B? We will have a committee meeting with two other committee members in September, shall I tell them before or after the meeting? I saw people suggesting that you should never reveal it to anyone unless you get an acceptance letter, but would that be a dishonesty issue?

  4. Shall I specify in my personal statement that I'm in another program and the reason I want to leave?

  5. If A and B are pissed off, what would happen? How bad could it be?

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I think you are overly pessimistic. Yes, you can apply elsewhere and you have perfectly good reasons. Yes, your current chair (and advisor) should support you in this. Yes, you can be honest about your reasons. The "program" left you, it isn't your doing.

Under the circumstances I would hope (and expect) that you get good recommendations for a move.

I doubt that 5 is going to happen. I would consider it student abuse if they don't support you.

But, also consider all options, including changing your sub-field slightly if there is someone else who can support you. The issue is the time to completion. Changing schools might require more time (or not). The other school will have its own requirements, such as for qualifying exams, that you need to meet.

Give up all thoughts of "betraying" anyone. Your career should be high on their list of priorities under these sorts of circumstances. Good luck.

I'll also note that a lot of students are only now (end of coursework) getting around to choosing an advisor anyway. Perhaps you can get a MA for your efforts on your way out the door, but now, rather than later is the time to move if that is your decision.

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  • Thank you for your suggestions! I wish I could get an MA anyway but sadly my dept just canceled ma program a couple of years ago. Bad luck I guess :(
    – iciclisa
    Aug 11 at 23:44
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I know applying to another program while being enrolled in the current phd program does not look good. Is there any way to make it look not that bad?

On the contrary, this only looks bad if you were unsuccessful in your first grad school. But in your case, the only professor who works in your subfield left; this is a perfectly reasonable reason to transfer. Especially if your coursework performance is acceptable. You should definitely see if you can get a master's degree before you leave.

Will this piss my current professors off?

You say they are nice, reasonable people, so I seriously doubt it would be an issue. B might be disappointed if they were excited about working with you. But advising a student (especially one in a different subfield) is a lot of work, so there's also a chance that B will be relieved. And certainly it's better (from their perspective) to make this decision now rather than three years from now.

Shall I tell prof B about my thoughts? [When?]

I would recommend approaching this as a conversation. Rather than telling B that you are going to leave, diplomatically explain your concerns, float the possibility of applying elsewhere, and ask for her thoughts. This approach leaves you some ability to back-track if she responds poorly, and it gives her the opportunity to find an alternative solution (e.g., maybe she can bring in an external co-advisor who works in your subfield).

She is the dept chair, if I tell her about my plan, is it inappropriate to ask for her recommendation letter?

Absolutely appropriate.

Shall I specify in my personal statement that I'm in another program and the reason I want to leave?

Yes, and your letters writers should do this too. The new school will certainly see from your transcripts that you are currently in another program. Your reason for wanting to leave is a perfectly good one, but if you don't provide it, they may fill in the blanks with something less good.

If A and B are pissed off, what would happen? How bad could it be?

Theoretically, I guess they could withhold letters of recommendation and B could stop advising you. But realistically, I think the main risk is that if you say you want to leave and request letters but then don't get a good offer somewhere else, you'll be in a somewhat awkward, uncertain place.

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  • Thank you for your suggestions! It's so helpful!
    – iciclisa
    Aug 11 at 23:44
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At this stage of a PhD you have your own ideas about your research and are learning to fly on your own. You (probably) still need 'advice'and encouragement from time to time but you don't need day to day supervision like you did when you arrived and it was all new.

It looks to me like there us a sensible way forward with B as your formal supervisor for the purposes of university paperwork, but continuing collaborating with A as a colleague, working and publishing together, through emails and zoom, much as you would have done anyway. A is then getting some free help in her research field so everybody is happy.

Your department owes you. You've given them 2 years, they have a duty to take you the rest of the way so they shouldn't object to your working with someone from another institute. It is their problem, and you should absolutely not be forced into transferring/restarting or bailing out with an MA.

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  • Thank you so much for your suggestions! Yeah I think I can figure it out if I can't transfer thanks to my very nice department faculty members, it's just it is harder that I thought tho haha.
    – iciclisa
    Sep 7 at 16:32

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