I've been in engineering PhD for 6 months and now considering transferring to another university. The reason is not academic, but family -- I'm in a long distance relationship with my boyfriend. We're both serious about this relationship and plan to get married. However if I keep doing my PhD in my current university, we'll be separated for many years

I am considering transferring my PhD to university closer to him. My questions are:

  1. Should I contact the potential future advisor first before telling my boss I'm leaving?
  2. When should I talk to current advisor and how (focus on my family reason?)
  3. Is it possible to get his letter of recommendation, or I'll screw up this relationship entirely?
  4. will it possible to transfer to an university better than my current one? (honestly getting to a higher place is not my purpose, believe or not, but around my BF's place are almost all very good universities (1 tier higher than my current one), which actually refused me when I applied them last time. So I'm very concerned if I could be able to enter them now)

One thing that comfort me is that because I work hard, my current advisor seems have good impression on me. But I don't know whether this will help. If anyone have any ideas, would you share your suggestion?

  • I am in the exact situation as you, see the other question I asked. The problem I have is that I am currently doing research on exactly what I want, and I am afraid that transferring to another program I will be more of a compromise on research but I will be closer to home. A big dilemma. Feb 24, 2014 at 16:56
  • @user4050 Thanks for your comment. Yes I saw your question as well. It's always better morally to be telling the truth at the first place. Actually it will be easier as well. However, I'm really not sure whether this will work out. It's a big thing anyway.
    – Poplol
    Feb 24, 2014 at 20:31
  • 5
    1. No, only after talking with your advisor. 2. Now! 3. Yes. (If it screws up your relationship, good riddance.) 4. Maaaaybe.
    – JeffE
    Feb 25, 2014 at 11:45
  • Yes, your advisor should be understanding. If a student I was working with wanted to leave, I would definitely try to help them. If your advisor holds this against you, maybe it's good you found out only 6 months in?
    – Lev Reyzin
    Feb 25, 2014 at 15:08
  • @JeffE Thank you for sharing your experience. I decide to talk to my advisor first.
    – Poplol
    Feb 26, 2014 at 18:00

2 Answers 2


I did this. I moved to a higher-tier department that had previously rejected me, after two years in my first PhD program, to be close to my SO. My former advisor and the other faculty in my research area were nothing but helpful and understanding.

The sooner you talk to your current advisor the better. The last thing you want to happen, no matter how friendly and understanding your advisor, is for someone to ask him "So why is Jae leaving?" before he knows you're thinking of leaving.

Be honest and direct. Keep in mind that you are asking for help—which is your advisor's job—not for permission to leave. Try to bring your advisor in as a collaborator in your move. Reassure him that you will finish whatever tasks are still on your plate, and that you are willing to help choose, train, and/or mentor your replacement if his thinks that would be appropriate. (Follow through.) Try to leave doors open for future collaboration, either through visits or remotely.

Finally, ask for a strong letter of recommendation, and for suggestions for potential advisors to contact. Since your target schools have already rejected you, you need strong evidence of excellence beyond your undergraduate record. Your current advisor is the strongest source of that evidence; people will take his letter very seriously. Conversely, not having a letter from your current advisor will raise a red flag.

Finally, if you can pick up a master's degree before you leave, that will raise fewer eyebrows when people look at your CV in the future.

  • Thank you for sharing your story! I've had an master before starting this PhD. I asked my master's advisor for advice, and he gave the same suggestion as you gave. It could be hard, but I'm feeling much better now. Hope all the best with you!
    – Poplol
    Feb 26, 2014 at 17:59

If your advisor is generally an emotionally sane person, he should be able to understand your position. If your advisor is not, you're better off finding out as early as possible, and then to run.

That said, the right time to talk to your supervisor is right now, for two primary reasons:

  1. As you're working in a lab, it is quite likely that your supervisor would want to hire a replacement for you, which takes time.

  2. Your supervisor may have contacts to the relevant universities, and be able to help you moving.

When it comes to what to talk about, there are two important aspects besides your wish to be closer to your family:

  1. You'll want to reassure him that you are not leaving unfinished things around. Wrap up your experiments as far as possible before you leave, and be available to work on manuscripts after you're gone, too.

  2. Do you plan to take your thesis topic with you? If so, you probably should discuss intellectual ownership with your advisor. Even if you feel it was your idea, he may disagree.

Finally, is there any risk that your current lab has some "secret techniques" that you'd "hand over" to the competition? If so, try to address potential concerns.

  • Thank you so much!! Very helpful. To add some details of my situation: 1) I just started to shape my thesis topic, and am now in a transition period that a graduating student is tranfering some of his skills to me. Besides, I'm not live on RA yet, still on program fellowship. So yes I hope to make it happen before I get more involved into the program, and before my boss pays me. 2) I'm not planning to bring my thesis topic with me, and as you suggested, I should make it clear I won't disclose intellectual property of the lab.
    – Poplol
    Feb 24, 2014 at 20:36
  • One thing troubling me at this moment, is, shall I go to talk to him right away without searching or contacting for potential supervisor in other university, or shall I get in touch with other faculty first? The latter seems not respectful to him, but I'm afraid I'll screw the relationship and have to leave the lab without any plan B. Painful.
    – Poplol
    Feb 24, 2014 at 20:39
  • 1
    Academia is a very small world. If you do ask around for advisors elsewhere, there is a decent chance that your current advisor hears about - and even generally reasonable people could react cross if they hear from a third party that their PhD student is searching for a new advisor. Judging from your addition, it seems that your advisor hasn't invested too much into you, so I don't think you have much reason to fear. I do assume here that your advisor is say well-known for choleric outbursts or other emotional instability. All the best for your efforts!
    – Arno
    Feb 24, 2014 at 23:07
  • 2
    Thank you! You're right. maybe I should trust more my advisor. I should be more optimistic about my luck as I always meet good people.
    – Poplol
    Feb 24, 2014 at 23:56

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