TL;DR: First, all of this is happening in the US. I was a PhD student in X, in good standing, but had a shift of interest towards field Y, so I switched programs and universities to study Y. A year is passed since I switched, I'm currently in good standing in Y, but have come to the understanding that I really don't want to build my career in Y, and want to go back to X in my previous university. My request to go back was declined shortly after switching, but that was in different circumstances. I'm hoping there might be a chance now, but I don't know if there is any chance for a PhD student leaving a program for another to go back to the previous program by just saying "I made a mistake, I am sorry". Am I, in principle, qualified to return? What's the best way to go about this? Should I first make arrangements with potential advisors in my previous department, or should I first contact the department?

Full story:

I was enrolled in a top-tier PhD program in field X, but I left it for another top-tier program at another university in field Y, sufficiently distant from X that switching post PhD would be practically impossible. When I left my previous program, I hadn't yet started my dissertation yet and hadn't advanced to candidacy, but I had a couple of (unsubstantial) publications, and was past my exams, and was overall in good standing with a high GPA and the department seemed overall satisfied with me at that point. But I had been experiencing a shift of interests, which I explored quite a bit, studied on Y, collaborated with researchers on Y, talked to a lot of people, and eventually decided I like to switch my field, despite the fact that all of my undergrad education and post-undergrad background was in X.

It's been a year since I left X and joined Y (immediately). I realized this change was a mistake for non-academic reasons quite early on, asked my previous department if I can go back after a semester, and they said no. Now, I'm past my core courses in Y, have a couple of papers going on, am in good standing again, but besides the personal reasons, I actually realize I'm not "compatible" with this field. I am interested in questions researchers ask in Y, but, coming from a background in X, the process of research in Y is fundamentally different from how I think about problems. The non-academic aspects are hopefully going to be fine in long-term, but in 5-10 years, I can't see myself doing Y for a living or even identifying my professional character with this field.

Now I want to go back to X, I don't know if I'm at all at a position to even try, and if I do, I don't know how to do it to maximize my chance. I am afraid of receiving a negative answer right away if I contact our department. I thought about first making arrangements with a prospective advisor, but I also don't want the department (i.e. chair and DGS) to think I'm going around them or trying to manipulate the system.

Does a person in my situation typically qualify for getting back to my previous program and continuing from where I left? If so, what is the best way to do this?

Keep in mind:

  1. Most PhD students in both departments are funded centrally, by the department. Occasionally some advisors might have their own funding in X, but I'd guess department typically tends to accept a student only if they can afford them disregarding advisor's funding.
  2. At least one current PhD student at my previous department dropped out recently, so I'm guessing they might have vacancies, but can't be sure about that, and don't know if they already filled that in in the regular admission cycle.
  3. This is in the US, and clearly past the regular admission cycle by a few months, and I want to ask if I can go back from this upcoming fall.
  4. I had some (completely unrelated) personal complications when I was a student in X, and my previous department was incredibly helpful and considerate, but that makes me think I've already bothered them enough and "used my tickets".

Review of other questions:

I looked at this, and this, but they are not asking about going back to a program after leaving it for another program, but rather going back to PhD after leaving the PhD and being out of academia for a while.

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    OK, I think this question has run its course. Some discussion has been moved to chat. Please see this FAQ before adding a comment below this one.
    – cag51
    Jun 17, 2022 at 6:47

5 Answers 5


You probably can't.

Good PhD programs get lots of good applicants, and the program can only accept a fraction of the number they can accept.

Your history now has you wanting to leave not one, but two programs before you have finished. You may have been a good candidate to start (where good candidate = someone capable of and likely to obtain a PhD degree), but now you've shown, twice, that you don't have the follow-through to be successful.

Why should they take you back? Why should they keep a spot for you when they have a fresh applicant who looks as good as you did a couple years ago, except hasn't decided twice that they didn't want to continue? It's very, very difficult for admissions committees to identify candidates who they are sure will succeed; for ordinary candidates, the signal between someone who will be successful and someone who will not may not be very clear. Your history, on the other hand, now has two very strong indicators that you will not be successful (=complete a PhD degree), specifically that you have twice decided you wanted to leave your current program.

I don't know you at all, I've only read this post, but my honest assessment from reading this briefly is that I would probably not take you back as a student. Finishing a PhD is not about briefly staying in "good standing", it's about gritting it out through a multi-year research project, which is hard.

It sounds like X has already said you are not welcome back. You could try further to convince them, but I suspect you'll be mostly wasting their time and yours. It's very reasonable for them to determine that no matter what you demonstrate to them, under no circumstances will they take you back.

For the specific points you mention:

  1. This seems to mean that you ultimately need to convince the department; I think this decreases your chances, because if funding was typically from professors directly, it would be more likely that some individual professor would be willing to take you on to fill a specific need they have or otherwise be convinced that you are worth taking a special chance on.

  2. Maybe this helps you modestly, but probably not.

  3. Though I don't think it particularly matters when in the year you try to go back, I think this probably counts against you; you've exited the system and are now wanting to cut back in out of schedule. That comes off to me as a bit entitled.

  4. I don't think this is relevant at all.

It has become common for people to change careers multiple times, sometimes using few of the domain-specific skills from their previous careers and instead relying on "soft" skills (which might include how to work with other people, how generally to find information and understand papers, etc). You seem to think that once you get a degree in Y, you will be stuck in that area forever, but that's probably not true. Most likely you will not continue in that field in academia, simply because most PhD graduates do not: there are simply not enough jobs. That means that, more likely than not, you're going to be taking what skills you have to the private sector or to public service outside of academia. I would think broadly about what career options you have, what skills you've developed in the broadest sense, and determine whether it makes more sense to leave your PhD entirely and apply to jobs outside academia, or to stick it out with your current program to get the degree.

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    That's very reasonable. I also don't think they have many reasons to give me a spot instead of a new applicant without my red flag, but isn't maintaining a satisfying status and producing decent publications an advantage over a fresh undergrad? Program X is one of those that's believed to make first year intentionally extremely tough to weed out those who can't handle it.
    – user314159
    Jun 13, 2022 at 2:40
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    @user314159 "isn't maintaining a satisfying status and producing decent publications an advantage over a fresh undergrad" Satisfying status? No, that's the bare minimum, not something to wear with pride. Publications will depend on how they compare to others - if you've produced similarly in quality to other students, it's not special. If it's a little better than average, still not special. I think maybe you are underestimating how unusual it is to quit and try to return: that's a huge waving red flag dripping of flammable substances.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 13, 2022 at 3:08
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    And sure, maybe they'd see it as a benefit that you're more experienced/closer to being ready to graduate, but given your history I don't think they believe you will, ever. You quit on them, you're now telling them you want to quit on your second option. What about that history says you're ever going to finish?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 13, 2022 at 3:10
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    Imagine someone promised to build your house, and then after they had put together the foundation, said actually nevermind, I'd like to build your neighbor a house instead. So, now you have a half-finished house and have to start over looking for a new contractor. You see them building a foundation next door, and it's a good enough foundation, but then they come knocking on your door saying they're bored and ask if you'd now let them finish your house. All you know is they can build foundations, you've never actually seen them finish a house, why go with that option?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 13, 2022 at 3:14
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    I think this answer is accurate, but you might add that there is a certain amount of harm a student that leaves does to a program. It's not just about the student's ability to follow through and how that looks in the application package. The program (well, two programs) wasted a slot. If the student REALLY wants to go back to program 1, my recommendation would be to include "I don't need, want, or expect any tuition or salary support". Jun 14, 2022 at 18:06

I agree with Bryans assessment: you very likely can't.

The only situation in which I could see myself taking back a PhD student would be a circumstance that is drastic and was out of the student's control: for example, you had to move states for a cancer treatment. But in your case, you conciously made that decision- whether you suffered from a grass-is-greener syndrome really doesn't play into the situation here. A PhD is a long-term investment; it is high stakes, lots of money and effort involved- and you are flip-flopping as if this the choice between which books to read.

I answer here because my Bachelor and Master degrees are also in X, and now I am in Y. There is, as you say, very little overlap (read: none) between the two fields, and soft skills can only get me this far. When I chose my PhD program, I elected to take on a subject that would at least give me training in the methods of field Y. There was no option to leave X, because no-one in Y would have taken me with my credentials from X.

So, I can relate to the feeling of doing a PhD in a field of which you know that you won't stay in. So my advice is to make the best of what you have:

  1. Consider all options. How much leeway do you have with the topics and/or methods? Are there cross-disciplinary approaches in the field that connects you back to X?

  2. Cross-disciplinary skills: A PhD is not just for showing proficiency in some field, it is also about proficiency to carry out and write research. I wouldn't discard the ability to return to X with a PhD in Y, given your previous background in X. You also show ability to work in different disciplines- this takes commitment and makes you more of a generalist than a specialist. This can be an advantage especially in cross-disciplinary work environments. I am currently doing research in Z, actually. What I believed to be a weakness, in that I never had just one thing that I found worth pursuing, I turned into my USP. Of course, I am not a tenure track professor and likely never will be.

  3. Lower your expectations: what are you afraid of missing out when continuing your current PhD? Were you expecting to become the upcoming rising star in X? Statistically speaking, you are lucky to get a postdoc and unbelievably lucky to get anything beyond that. Once you realise that, you may find that you actually could qualify for (research) work in X after finishing the PhD.

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    These considerations seem like the only solutions at this point. I should clarify a few points. 1. I really didn't treat it like choosing a book. I did due diligence. I had thoughts of studying Y since I undergrad, but a bit too late. So I read papers on subjects I was interested in, I collaborated with researchers in Y, while a grad student in X, spoke to many people, and made a decision over the course of a couple of years. I realize now that I was still ill-informed, because my exposure was only to a part of the field that shared a mindset with me, which turned out to be a very small part.
    – user314159
    Jun 14, 2022 at 21:25
  • 2. My interest in X never changed. I tried, and did, cross-disciplinary work as much as possible, I thoroughly considered the option of staying in X, and I'd prefer to finish my PhD in X and continue my career in Y after my PhD if that was an option. Every professor I spoke to unanimously advised me against that arguing that just can't happen (due to conventions/politics/etc). This is something that I explained quite clearly to the department X, and also my prospective advisors (then professors) there. So, a switch was a strategic move really, rather than a sudden "heat of the moment" thing.
    – user314159
    Jun 14, 2022 at 21:31
  • 3. A cross-disciplinary work is not completely impossible, but the only option would be similar to what you described as working in Z, rather than either of X or Y, after my PhD. This is mostly because the fundamental difference in practices of X and Y. It's like doing cross-disciplinary work between mechanical engineering and sociology. And also the communities of academics in the two fields tend to be quite biased against each other, which is a main reason the number of people who were trained in one and worked in the other (at least in academia) probably doesn't exceed 3.
    – user314159
    Jun 14, 2022 at 21:39

The best way to do that would be to provide strong evidence that you have stopped being the kind of person who discontinues their Ph.D. program due to sudden "shifts of interest" or due to suddenly "coming to the understanding that [you] really don't want to build [your] career in" some field or another.

To obtain such evidence, you need to first critically ask yourself what makes you think that "this time it's different". If the answer is just that you're really, really sure this time, then not only will that most likely not convince anyone else, but you should honestly ask yourself whether your inner feeling of being really sure about your choice this time is something that the future you can be expected to adhere to. I suggest you think of it less as "how do I convince my old department" and more as "is it really true that I am going to stick around this time, and if so, how do I know this". After you have cleared that hurdle to your own satisfaction, only then does it make sense to get in touch with your old department.

If you don't have that kind of evidence (and I will venture a guess that you don't, since nothing in your post indicates this), or if the evidence is of such nature that it cannot be subjected to scrutiny by others (your own inscrutable inner feeling of certainty), then coming back may be nigh impossible, and rightly so.

Of course, if you are planning to quit your current program anyway, then there is probably no harm in trying to come back to your old department, just for the sake of your own peace of mind.

[Note that I have never been on any admissions committee, so take the above with a grain of salt. I am submitting this as an answer because it is too long for a comment.]

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    This definitely is an important step, and the main reason between a long gap between the previous time I asked the department to return and now. I understand my post doesn't reflect this, and a few other points that I realize from the answers here maybe I should have clarified, but the point was already too long. Please refer to my comments on @FLonLon's answer, point 1 for the "sudden shift" (it was not at all sudden; it took a couple of years and I was very cautious about it), and point 2 for one reason why I think if I'm back in X I'll stick around.
    – user314159
    Jun 14, 2022 at 21:47
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    But the main reason I think "this time is different", is: A. As I explained in other comments, I never lost my interest in X. In fact, I started cross-disciplinary projects between X and Y, to satisfy my interest in Y, then I realize I like asking questions in Y (while from X, I could only be in the position of helping researchers in Y with answering questions they ask). Experienced academics in both fields unanimously told me continuing cross-disciplinary would deprive me of a reliable career in either of X and Y, and switching post PhD wasn't an option, otherwise I strongly preferred that.
    – user314159
    Jun 14, 2022 at 21:55
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    B. Things went wrong with Y because of my partial information. It's like thinking "Ford is a cool car" after driving a Mustang. I (subconsciously) had selective exposure to Y. I was never systematically trained in it and only read papers and interacted with researchers so like-minded that I happened to find. It turned out, this is a relatively isolated and small community, and working with the rest of the field is unavoidable while you're in it. My guess is, this was so obvious to those Y profs I sought advice from before switching, that they didn't think someone from outside might miss it.
    – user314159
    Jun 14, 2022 at 22:05
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    C. The reason I think going back to X is different is that I am well familiar with the field, I always remained strongly interested in X, and as I said, if it was an option, I'd rather finish my PhD in X and only pivot into Y after PhD. This is something I also told the X department when I was deciding whether to switch. If return to X, I'd have no temptation to leave because of an interest in a new field after this experience, and I've studied X for most of my adult life, know a wide range of communities in the field, and have a very good idea what I'm getting into with all the pros and cons.
    – user314159
    Jun 14, 2022 at 22:11
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    @user314159 "I wasn't unsure when I started X" – exactly. This means that at least historically, not being unsure has not turned out to be a great predictor of whether or not you will stay in a program. I don't think you did anything particularly unethical, changes of heart happen, but all anyone else has to go on is your track record. Secondly, you still say: "if it was an option, I'd rather finish my PhD in X and only pivot into Y after PhD". Surely you see how a student who really wants to do X is preferable to one who would really like to do Y instead of X but cannot because [reasons]. Jun 16, 2022 at 10:26

If I understand you correctly you did not have a supervisor or a faculty member you worked with closely before you left. In that case I think your best chance is to contact the department, explain your situation and ask them if you could either join the program again off cycle or if they would consider your application, if you applied again next cycle. If they accept you again immediately that’s great. However, most likely they won't but they will allow you to apply again. In that case I think that you can immediately get in touch with faculty members (ideally people, you have talked to before) and discuss potential dissertation topics. That way you would not lose too much time and you have strong support in the faculty once the next application cycle starts. You may want to stay in your current PhD program until the next cycle for funding reasons and do the minimum work required for that. Alternatively, there may be someone who would hire you as RA at your old department.

During the next cycle I would do a full round of applications to all interesting schools because there is no guarantee you will be allowed back into the same program. However, even if you have to settle for a lower ranked school, you will still have connections in your old department and may be able to go there for a visit during your PhD or Co-Author with people (if field X does not require Co-Authors to be in the same place because they need to share a lab or other physical resources).


It sounds like you are ignoring the harm caused - by you - to department X."

I really didn't treat it like choosing a book. I did due diligence.

Yeah, sure... you probably did.
To you that matters - but why would that matter to department X?

Bryan Krause put it best:

You quit on them, you're now telling them you want to quit on your second option.

Try this answer - I don't think you'll do it - but here it is

If you ever want a chance to get a PhD in X:

  1. Finish your PhD in Y
  2. Work a while.
  3. Save enough to fund your PhD in X (with no stipend, and with no tuition assistance)
  4. Reapply to X with the condition that you will not accept financial assistance to finish your PhD in X.
  5. If some payment from them to you is required in this program (for some reason), promise to return the full payment as a donation back to the department (as unrestricted funds) as you receive the payments.

Does this seem like absurd or unreasonable advice?
Pretend that the person who quit isn't you.

  • Reread and think about the first sentence in this post.

  • Think about being in department X when a student did this to you.

  • Think about the person who didn't get in, because you picked the one who quit.

  • Think about all the time your department spent training that student who - instead of being there now and writing good papers which increase the value of department X - left you.

  • Think about the embarrassment - to you - because that student quit.

  • Think about how the student wasn't even gone a semester, and wanted to come back.

  • Now think about the person who quit, who was already told they couldn't return, asking again, to return.

Does those steps still seem absurd or unreasonable?

Honestly, I don't really see a path for you to return to department X.
However - if there is a return path - I would bet that it involves proving that you can follow through on a PhD commitment before you're seriously considered.

It wouldn't hurt to make financial donations to that department, but I don't know that it would help.
(If you donate a million plus, different story. The amount shouldn't matter, but reality is what it is.)

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