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I am in a PhD program in mathematics, and I am in my last year in the program. This is the last year that they will fund me for. If I need more time, I will either need to pay the tuition on my own, or not complete my degree.

I feel that my advisor and department do not support me well. I am not going to go into the details, but if I had known better, I should have left with a Master's three years ago and applied for another PhD program. I was wondering how feasible it would be to re-apply into a PhD program at another institution. Keep in mind that I am entering my sixth year into the program, and I've already passed to candidacy. I realize that this may look bad on my part, that I've stayed at my own institution and at the last moment decided to leave. I am looking for advice and thoughts on this.

I realize that the reasonable thing to do would be to stick it out in my own program and try to finish, and if that doesn't work, then possibly try to apply somewhere else. One of my professors told me that it may be just as hard for me to get a postdoc as it is for me to be accepted into another PhD program. So I am curious if anyone has any experience with a similar situation. The reason why I am considering re-applying to grad school is that I feel that I may thrive at a different institution and have a better possibility of landing a postdoc or an academic job if I started all over.

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Unfortunately, it's probably not feasible to start over elsewhere in the near future. You can certainly try applying, and it might work out, especially if you have a really compelling explanation. However, I think the chances are slim.

The basic question is how much progress towards a thesis you have made during your six years in grad school. If you're close to finishing, then nobody will think it makes sense to start over from scratch in the same subfield (or even a related one). At that point, you're not genuinely starting over, but just extending your time in grad school beyond six years. In particular, continuing in a similar area will come across as a request for another school to provide the additional funding your current university won't give you, and that won't sound like a good use of money. Most schools wouldn't give their own students a seventh year of funding, so why would they give it to a student from another university?

On the other hand, if you aren't close to finishing after six years, then starting over might make sense, but your track record will look bad. You'll need to present a powerful argument for why you'll do much better the second time around. In particular, there are people who have strong backgrounds and excellent grades but somehow don't end up succeeding at research, and the admissions committee will worry that you may fall into that category. Taking a chance on a fresh graduate student will seem like a much better bet than admitting someone who has already spent six years in graduate school but been unable to finish.

So basically you're stuck. Either you are too far along for starting over to make sense, or you have a track record of failure.

Of course it's difficult to say without knowing more about your specific situation, but I'd guess your best chances lie in two possibilities:

  1. Even if you don't get admitted now, you might fare better in a few years. As your previous time in graduate school fades into the past, you can try to make a case that you have increased perspective and maturity and a renewed desire to get a Ph.D. in math. I don't know how likely this is to work, but at least it gives you a chance to explain that you have changed since your first attempt at grad school.

  2. You could try radically changing your research area. For example, from algebraic geometry to bioinformatics. Of course this depends on being able to make a good argument for your change of interests. You have to really demonstrate that you've finally figured out what you want to do, in the face of skepticism (many people will assume you are just flailing about looking for any chance to try something new). However, it gives you a ready-made explanation for what went wrong the first time: you were trying to do something that in the end just wasn't suited to your interests and talents, but you've discovered that this new topic is a much better fit.

Whatever approach you take, I expect it will be difficult to get admitted. It can't hurt to try, but I wouldn't get your hopes up. My gut feeling is that it would be easier to try to finish your Ph.D. and then salvage your career (but of course I don't know enough about your situation to say that with any confidence).

  • I'd second this explanation/recommendation, given my experience. Grad programs in the U.S. will be fairly suspicious of a grad student who's been in any reasonable program for 5-6 years and wants to move elsewhere (the notion of "transfer" does not meaningfully exist, by the way). "Running into trouble" in one's graduate work cannot be any sort of "plus", but it may eventually be forgive-able (job-wise) if/when one shows that one can do better than what happened in grad school. Yes, it may well be the case that getting a postdoc is no harder than getting into a new PhD program for you... – paul garrett Jun 13 '17 at 23:59
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While this does not answer your stated question, I think it is important to point out that the end of the normal enrollment period is not the end of the road. At a research university, it is often accepted that some students will, for reasons possibly beyond their control, require longer time to finish a degree than typically envisioned. And schools are often willing to accommodate this by offering special enrollment status to these ABD candidates, often at reduced tuition rates, and at effectively part-time or in absentia physical presence, which would allow you to continue towards finishing your graduate degree while at the same time holding on to an external job.

I do not know how close you are toward finishing your dissertation, but I will assume here that

  1. You have completed all coursework requirements.
  2. You are well into the process of writing your dissertation.
  3. By "last year in the program" you meant the last year in the standard program length and not the last year in the standard program length + any additional special terminal status.

Under such assumptions you may want to contact the graduate school of your university to see if they offer anything similar to

  • Princeton's DCE status which gives up to two years of additional enrollment past the regular period at a heavily discounted tuition rate.
  • Princeton's ET/DCC status where you are actually not enrolled as a graduate student. But you get a little extra time during which you are expected to keep in touch with your advisor and finish your dissertation on your own. In particular, you will not get charged tuition at all.
  • Stanford's TGR status in which you remain enrolled but at a reduce tuition rate.

I should also remark that while the job market has not yet rebounded entirely to the pre-2008 glory, it has improved sufficiently that this year I saw some advertisements for teaching positions that are willing to take ABD students if will complete their dissertation within one year of the start date. So if you are really close to finishing, but just need a little bit more time, you should consider that as an option.

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