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I've heard of people transferring between graduate schools because of their advisor moving to another school and taking their students with them.

Do students ever transfer for other reasons? If a student isn't happy at the school they choose, could transferring be an option? Presumably they would frame it as something positive such as "turns out I really want to work with Professor X" rather than "I hate my school", but does this ever happen? Is there a certain timeframe in which this is possible? (Assume it's a 5 year PhD program.)

If the answer varies by subject please mention the subject in your answer.

(Context: many friends have told me that if it turns out I'm not happy with my choice, I can always transfer. My impression is that this is actually difficult since many schools don't accept transfer students and in any case not being able to stick with a program looks bad -- but I don't have evidence either way so wanted to ask people who are in academia. Of course the ideal would be to pick a school one is happy with in the first place!)

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    I know "transfers" of two kinds: 1) starting a new PhD program 2) formally being enrolled and one place but de facto collaborating a lot with another place. Sadly, one of the biggest pains in doing PhD is that when things aren't working you cannot just change places. – Piotr Migdal Aug 19 '13 at 0:24
52

Mathematics

Let me specify that by transferring, I mean moving to another university in the middle of a graduate program. Switching universities between undergrad and grad or between a master's degree and a Ph.D. is very different. Basically, those are the only mainstream opportunities to move, and anything else will require an exception.

Transferring is certainly not unheard of, but there are some serious caveats:

  1. It's difficult to transfer to a substantially more prestigious department. It can happen, but the admissions committee will be very skeptical, and it's just not going to work out unless the application is outstanding. In particular, many committee members specifically do not want to reward rolling the dice again and seeing what happens, so for transfers the question is not "Does this application look better than our weaker students?" but rather "Is this application so obviously wonderful that we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we accepted someone else instead?"

  2. Expressing any unhappiness will make it much harder to transfer. You may think you'll be happy at the new school, but they will worry about ending up with an unhappy, unproductive grad student on their hands. And they are right to worry about that: the best predictor of future happiness is past happiness, and many unhappy people have unrealistic beliefs about what would make them happy.

  3. It's hard to transfer once you start seriously working on a thesis. If your work isn't going well, then that's a reason not to accept you. If your work is going well, then that's a reason you should continue working with your current advisor. Unless your advisor has died or left, it will be tough to convince anyone you are a good candidate for transferring.

  4. No matter why you say you want to transfer, there will be some suspicion that your goal is to end up in a stronger department or a more desirable location. If you have another reason, you'll have to make a powerful argument for it.

I've heard of people transferring between graduate schools because of their advisor moving to another school and taking their students with them.

Sometimes they transfer officially, and sometimes they still get degrees from the previous school but complete their theses while in residence at the new school. The latter is generally easy to arrange when an advisor moves.

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    +1 for "the best predictor of future happiness is past happiness" – Dan C Jul 18 '12 at 7:44
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    "No matter why you say you want to transfer, there will be some suspicion that your goal is to end up in a stronger department" -- assuming the candidate is suitable for the "stronger department", why would the admission committee see this motivation as something negative? – Pandora Jan 16 '16 at 14:29
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    @Pandora: It's not so much that it's negative, but that the committee may not believe other reasons. Applicants sometimes outline personal or intellectual reasons why they feel a certain department would be a much better fit for them, only to have the committee basically ignore the stated reasons on the grounds that they are just an excuse. – Anonymous Mathematician Jan 16 '16 at 18:50
  • @AnonymousMathematician what if they accepted you and offered you an assistantship, but then you wound up choosing somewhere else? Would the place you turned down be more inclined to accept you as a transfer? – ALannister Jan 9 '17 at 18:46
33

Computer Science

Yes, PhD students transfer for many reasons besides moving advisors. Sometimes the reasons are purely professional; for instance, I've seen several students successfully transfer because they discovered a passion for a subfield that didn't match the interests/experience of the local faculty. Sometimes they're more personal things like two-body problems (especially when they become three-body problems). Sometimes advisors die or leave academia. Sometimes it's because of an irreconcilable disagreement between student and advisor/committee. Sometimes the student just thinks they can do better than their current department (and has the publications to prove it).

Probably the most painless time to transfer is immediately after completing a master's degree. (I did this.) That's a natural time to switch research directions, and many PhD programs allow their students to pick up a Master's degree along the way, even if they don't have a separate Master's program. (Mine didn't.)

Still, applications from MS students in PhD departments will face skepticism, especially if the applicant already has a good track record with their former advisor.* (Why do they want to leave their current advisor? Shouldn't we offer this slot to someone who doesn't have one?) So it's important for the applicant's research statement to explain why the new department would a better match, without disparaging the old department. It's also important to have a strong and supportive recommendation letter from the former advisor, to address possible concerns about technical weaknesses or personality conflicts.

(*And if a PhD applicant doesn't have a good track record with their MS advisor, they're not likely to be admitted anyway.)

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Field: Mathematics.

Transferring is possible although you might have to 'start over' at your new university. For example, perhaps you have completed the first year sequence of courses in University A and passed some prelims before transferring to University B. At University B you might either be required to go through their first year sequence, or take (and pass) the relevant prelims to have the courses waived. This can be difficult since first year courses and topic and prelims tend to vary across departments. In addition, depending on how much prior experience you have before coming to University B, they might require you to finish your degree in less than usual time (say, 3-4 years instead of 5). In particular, folks with Masters degrees applying to PhD programs are often required to get a second Masters in their second university.

Source: A friend of mine transferred from Rice Mathematics to UW Madison Mathematics; additionally this was a topic of conversation at a Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics where a breakout session leader had transferred universities mid-PhD.

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    In particular, folks with Masters degrees applying to PhD programs are often required to get a second Masters in their second university. — Interesting. My university explicitly forbids duplicate degrees. If you have an MS in mathematics, you cannot get another MS in mathematics (although you can get an MS in, say, computer science). – JeffE Jul 17 '12 at 19:39
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    I haven't heard of being required to get a second Master's degree (many programs don't even require one in the first place), but prelims/required courses can definitely be an issue. – Anonymous Mathematician Jul 17 '12 at 20:05
  • The specific instances I have seen of students being required to get a second Masters degree are not in mathematics. In particular, the students in question had masters degrees from India and were required to get second masters degrees as part of their (5 year) PhD programs in Psychology and Engineering - possibly in part because the masters degree is somewhat synonymous to candidacy and/or skepticism about degrees from other countries. – Aru Ray Jul 17 '12 at 21:12
13

Computer Science

It's not uncommon for a student to transfer, usually earlier in the program. The reasons can be as you mentioned, and often there are non-academic reasons as well.

You do have to apply again from scratch, although its possible that admissions committees will look more generously on the application. You might be able to apply out of cycle for spring admission as well - there are fewer applicants and each application gets more careful scrutiny.

But in any case it is important to have a reason relating to the desired destination. If you want to work with professor X it will help immensely if professor X can speak on your behalf by writing a letter. In other words, don't think of transferring out, but think about transferring in to maybe one or two targeted placed.

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I am currently trying to transfer too. My story isn`t the nicest neither. I met one guest speaker at my current university and just loved her work. My lab is stacked in old technologies and I feel we aren't innovative at all. I talked with this guest speaker and her answer was very positive regarding getting me as her student. However she asked me to tell my supervisor before applying: bad idea.

Maybe because I am in Asia and here the culture is that your professor is a God, he was really unpleasant and rude with me. He even said he would write bad recommendation letters for me if I change universities. For me that was harassment. His main reason was the money invested and how bad this looks for him and for the university.

My advise is: be sure you can move and then talk with your adviser. The only positive thing was that after talking with him, I was certain that I was at the wrong place. I am positive I can change. So if you aren't happy or the program isn't aligned with your future goals and perspectives, change! Don't waste your time.

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    I see the anecdote and its connection, but I'm not entirely sure that I see this as an answer to the question. – virmaior Aug 31 '17 at 4:50
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I transferred during the first year of my PhD program successfully. My project at my original department was fully funded and my adviser was also great. However, I did not like the department and my PhD major was not in line with my interest. Thus, I applied for another major which I liked more.

One problem that may arise is recommendation letter. I asked my MS adviser (in another school) to write letter. I also asked my PhD adviser for recommendation letter. This part is a bit tricky, but I suggest to be honest and tell the truth and provide detail explanation for your decision.

I talked with 4 faculty members about my application in a conference. Three of them did not have any problem whatsoever with the fact that I am a PhD student from another school, and they recommended me to apply whereas one of them told me that the department does not accept transfer student. I finally got admitted into one school. I applied from a mid-rank school to top rank schools.

My personal view is that there is nothing wrong with transferring from one school to another, but you should have a good reason for doing that. In any case, some faculty members understand that a student could have many reasonable reasons for moving away from a school and joining another one while others are not very open-minded and think that it is wrong.

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Selection of graduate students is hard.

It's fine to switch programs, but it's a lot like switching jobs after a short period. If you start a job somewhere, then immediately leave it, you need a decent reason in your narrative. The program you're applying to needs to believe that you're interested in sticking around when crunch time comes, or you're not worth the investment.

It helps if you have a legitimate-sounding reason in your personal statement that makes it sound like the reason you left the previous institution is unlikely to recur. It definitely helps if you have an LOR from your former advisor.

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    What about, say, transferring from a Math Education PhD program into a regular Math PhD program, because you realize that doing research in pure mathematics is where your heart really lies, and not in doing research on how best to teach it to other people? – ALannister Apr 4 '15 at 18:26
  • I realize this is an ancient question, but I think it's a lot more defensible if you are changing programs entirely like you mention. It's not uncommon for someone in the grad-school path to shift gears because they discover something they are more passionate about, and passion is exactly what your selectors want to see evidenced. If you can convince them "I like this even more" rather than "I'm bored", then that is a positive. – Trixie Wolf Sep 19 '15 at 13:58
3

Science (chemistry).

It is very hard, up to impossible, to change PhD program in science after you started one, as well as starting over after a failed attempt.
The only option is before you enroll in any. Even if this is not directly stated in requirements, selection comity will be very suspicious and very unlikely to admit such a student. For the most part already enrolled applicants or applicants that were enrolled and quit are not considered eligible be programs and in almost all cases you are not eligible to apply for a scholarship. I now as I am trying to change the PhD program.

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Molecular Biology

The only time I can think of when PhD students changed universities was on the unexpected death of their advisor. In that case, former students of the advisor who had since started their own labs took on the students, in some cases temporarily until they could find a better fit, in other cases until graduation. For the "better fit" cases, I believe both student and new supervisor approached the better-fit lab and explained the situation.

In the case I'm thinking of, the deceased advisor was very well known, came from a highly prestigious university, and had many former students in strong positions. I don't know how well it would have worked if all those points were not the case.

Aside from that instance, it's very rare for PhD candidates to move locations without your advisor moving as well.

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