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I'm a 1st year math PhD student and wish to transfer. I applied to transfer fall 2023 to 16 schools but didn't get in anywhere. I'm going to try again, but first I'll answer why I wish to transfer and how I ended up in my situation to give more context.

Why I wish to transfer: I want to be in a program with stronger students, a more challenging environment, and most importantly, professors in my research interests: algebraic geometry, number theory. My best option in pure math, given the professors who've left or retired over the 1st year, is discrete math (graph theory & combinatorics specifically). However, discrete math is still pretty far from algebraic geometry. In fact, there aren't even any courses in algebraic geometry being offered, so I study the material myself. As for the other issues, courses and qualifying exams posed no issue. It's suspicious how easy everything is going, even the research that I started this semester is flying by. With 2 professors I was scheduled to read through prerequisites and then attack a specific research problem. The semester and both research plans started early February, with credits for the spring and an expectation to continue during the summer. With 1 professor, I completed all the tasks mid March, and with the other I'm on track to finish by the end of April.

How I ended up in this situation: I wasn't able to get into a better school since I applied (in fall 2021) after only completing 2 years of undergrad and got my B.S. in 3 years (f19-s22). I thought about staying a 4th year, but my parents pressured against it citing the monetary cost. The undergrad math department offered no support (in fact, negative money, since by starting and finishing a masters in the 4th year, I would even lose the 4 year partial merit scholarship that I gained in 2019), while grad schools cover tuition and give you a stipend for living expenses. Given how many kids my dad has to support and my belief that a transfer is possible, I decided to start grad school.

What should I be doing to improve my chances? Next cycle is my last chance as if I don't get in for fall 2024, it's better to hustle and finish my PhD in 3 years. I have generally strong credentials that would normally make me a good applicant for a higher-ranked program.

I asked a professor, former chair of admission, and a few students to look over my CV and statement of purpsose when applying, so they're very polished. To not waste people's time, I also asked schools I got rejected from for feedback before posting to academia SE. One said

It's hard to say. We don't usually consider transfer students from graduate schools like yours - if a student is bringing a Master's degree, it is usually from a better school. You should be asking Directors of Graduate Admissions at more realistic schools. Your professors can give you advice. Kansas State and Carnegie Mellon might possibly play out for you.

Another said

We are less likely to accept PhD students from other programs. There has to be very good reasons for transfers. I should also say that at ---, we could only accept a small number of applicants this year and so it was more competitive than usual.

The biggest issue, mentioned even by programs that otherwise declined to give feedback, is there's 200-300 students applying for 7-12 spots. However, I consider myself qualified enough to contend for those spots. It appears that my reason for transferring wasn't good enough, and that the low prestige of my grad school (50-100th) hurts my chances. I knew that prestige might be an issue, but I didn't consider it to be such a large issue that I would get rejected from everywhere. Certainly I could've applied to schools just slightly better than my current one, but then all the problems which caused me to transfer except the subject area would remain. When applying, I mentioned the lack of professors in my subjects, but left out the part about student strength and difficulty after receiving mixed responses in feedback. One thing I might've failed to mention in my statement of purpose is just how strong my desire is to transfer, that I'm willing to give up 1 year just to be in my preferred field of research. Should I add that when reapplying? How else can I improve my application?

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    I think this is too focused on your individual situation. There are lots of questions here about admissions criteria for graduate school, especially academia.stackexchange.com/questions/38237/… and academia.stackexchange.com/questions/176908/…
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 23:07
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    You may have a better chance of applying to PhD programs in other places "from scratch" instead of trying to transfer. Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 23:48
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    The math job market is so competitive that I think you are already screwed as far as an academic career is concerned. (Also - you should check - does anyone with a pure math PhD from your school get a postdoc? From our PhD program here, only one person has ever had a postdoc offer as far as I can tell in the entire history of the program, and that person had to decline for personal reasons.) Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 0:34
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    @AlexanderWoo At least 1 person per year does. Someone who got a PhD 2 years ago even got a assistant professorship after 2 years.
    – Anonamouse
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 2:10
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    I did not mean hiding your current grad school; yes, applying not as a transfer student, but as a regular PhD applicant. If you are admitted, it will be up to the new graduate program to decide how to count your current MS/MA degree and classes/exams that you took. In particular, if your current classes can be used as substitutes for their classes. Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 2:14

3 Answers 3

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I think you've found yourself in a bit of an unfortunate situation. Only getting three years of undergraduate instruction makes it hard to compete with other excellent students, nearly all of whom are staying for four years and many of whom are really maxing out the opportunities their institution provides. You explain why this was not your decision, and I feel for you.

I think you are finding that it's pretty hard to trade up from one PhD program to another once you're already there. Realistically, I think you may have to give up on your hopes to get a PhD in a top 20 department. On the other hand, you should be able to find a department that shares your research interests: if you want to do algebraic geometry, you should not be at an institution where none of the faculty do that, and I think you can transfer into an institution in which there are strong faculty in that area. For instance, my institution (UGA) is about the 50th best graduate program overall, and we are very strong in algebraic geometry, with at least one truly world-class mathematician working in that area. I'm not saying that coming here is as good as going to Harvard or Princeton or Michigan (it isn't), but it's still very good, and in fact programs like ours serve unusually motivated and knowledgeable students quite well. We have had some graduates go on to do distinguished work in algebraic geometry...and we are not unique in this regard. Other PhD programs at around the same level can say the same.

Good luck.

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  • What do you even have to do nowadays to get admission to a PhD program in a top 20 department nowadays?
    – cgb5436
    Commented Apr 6, 2023 at 4:10
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    @cgb5436 from reading the "about me" page of students on top universities, I've noticed that almost all of them had an outstanding record before applying to the programs (an IMO medal, awards, experience in research and even some published papers). They are basically able to do what average people (like me) need to learn while doing the PhD :)
    – Amelian
    Commented Apr 6, 2023 at 22:07
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I am not a mathematician, and I am occasionally reminded on this site that math PhDs are quite different than science ones. So, this will just be a partial, rather speculative answer; hopefully an actual mathematician can give you a better one. But, a few points:

(1) I suspect your "mistake" was in your SOP. Compare the v1 of this question to the revision 4. The first version was all over the place, whereas in version 4, a brilliant editor did an amazing job writing excellent prose that clearly and concisely made your situation crystal clear. I jest, since it was my edit, but I'm a little bit serious: if the beginning of your SOP had laid out such a compelling narrative, I rather doubt that you would have gone 0 for 16.

(2) Despite my diagnosis, I'm not sure this will help you much if you reapply next year. Yes, you can borrow from what I wrote above and write a much better SOP, and this will probably be enough to get you "serious consideration." The problem is that at that point, you'll no longer be a new grad student; rather, you'll have been in grad school for two years. So, a good undergrad record and a clear narrative won't really be enough anymore; rather, you'll need to show some impressive accomplishments from the past two years. From what you say, it's hard to get impressive accomplishments at your low-ranked school...so it seems like a bit of a vicious cycle, at least from the outside. Good luck.

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    It's a bit cheeky to say that when you're the one who edited the question.
    – Anonamouse
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 2:18
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    Yes, that's the "jest" :-)
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 2:18
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    Paragraph 1 could also convey "I'm conceited and don't get along well with others". I might phrase it in a more positive way about the opportunities at the target school. Also worth considering re: Alexander Woo's comment above, it's likely that the environment consisting of no interesting professors and a non-challenging environment is operated by a group of professors who were seen by their peers to be better candidates than the average student at even the "better" schools OP is targeting.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 2:25
  • Good points, made an edit
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 2:34
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Find out where people from your current department have successfully transferred. Then see if any of those places have algebraic geometers. You don't have to limit future applications only to such schools, but knowing what those schools are will give you a realistic benchmark to compare against where you dream of transferring. I didn't get a sense from reading your post how you decided what schools to apply to this year. I know someone who got no math PhD program offers when finishing college, and it turned out that (i) the person's application list was all top-20 departments, which was quite unrealisic for that student's situation and (ii) the student had not spoken to anyone for feedback about the list before applying. If I had been shown the list ahead of time, then I would have warned the student that it was wildly unrealistic.

I know someone who transferred a few years ago from a math department outside the top 50 (but ranked much closer to 50th place than to 100th place) to a top-20 department, so this kind of thing can happen, but the lower ranked the school is that you're applying from, the less likely it is that you'll be successful.

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