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I am an international student who has been admitted at a low ranked institute in the US. I also have an offer from an institute in my own country to do a Masters'. I ultimately want to get admitted at a prestigious program in the US.

I was recently advised to join the low ranked US institute, do my course work well, establish contacts with professors at more prestigious schools, and then switch to a better school for a PhD. It sounds immoral to me. But I was told it is not immoral in practice as the institute receives thousands of offers to fill up the seat you will be vacating.

Is doing the above seriously unethical?

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    It is not really a matter of ethics. Since I assume that you did not have a good enough PHD application for a more prestigious school, it will be probably be too hard to switch schools later based on course work only. And if your research in the meantime is that good that a better school could happily accept you, then there will be no reason to leave anyway (since you can do excellent research even in a sub par school). – Alexandros Feb 13 '15 at 9:09
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    I started a PhD program in one department and then left for a higher ranked department after my MS. Some of my former students have done the same. As long as you're up front about it, it's fine. – JeffE Feb 13 '15 at 11:30
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    Please ask one question per post. I've edited out the secondary question about whether attending a low-ranked school in the US will actually make it easier to get admitted to another school, so that answers here can focus on the ethical question. Please ask the other question in a new question, not an edit to this post. – ff524 Feb 13 '15 at 11:46
  • The same way, if your supervisor had found a better PhD candidate he/she would take that person. I have seen many cases where supervisors recommend many students to apply and in the end they pick only one (or few) of them. – orezvani Sep 6 '16 at 2:24
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This is far from immoral or unethical. Theres nothing wrong with attending a program and transferring to another one that might be a better fit. Making the transfer to another program would really be up to you, your work and the networking contacts you make while in your masters program.

  • Assuming that the institute funds me, is it still ethical? – freebird Feb 13 '15 at 4:06
  • Also could you read the portion that I have added just now to the question? – freebird Feb 13 '15 at 4:07
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    Regarding funding...I see no ethical issue at all. The funding provided to you isn't a 'chain' that only allows you to stay at that program. – Eric D. Brown Feb 13 '15 at 4:21
  • Regarding the 3rd part of your question: I'm not sure that I can answer this question as I don't know where you are from and what programs you have available. Attending a US based program has its pros and cons but there are plenty of other programs in other countries that are just as good (and they have their own pros/cons) – Eric D. Brown Feb 13 '15 at 4:22
  • @scaaahu- My primary concern is being able to transfer to a reputable PhD program easily, and not necessarily the course content. Is it still a good idea to go to the college in my country? I have an offer from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, India. Also, the US college being talked about is ranked very very low. – freebird Feb 13 '15 at 5:29
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If you were to apply to my hypothetical mid-tier PhD program school A and were given funding -- and if I were your advisor and put a lot of work toward mentoring you and advancing you to candidacy -- and I were to find out it was always your intent that you would switch schools to the more elite school B at the first opportunity, then yes I would be miffed.

For example, my school offers tuition waivers and stipends (approx $28,000) to every incoming doctoral student in Arts and Sciences, for six years. This is guaranteed funding. Students are assigned advisors from the first year to work on their projects. We invest a lot in our students. In my case, we're a top R1 but I know my colleagues at mid-tiers try hard to scrounge together packages for their students and make up with even more intense mentoring.

It's one thing to switch schools because of fit issues that come up between advisors and advisees. I would never tell a student who is unhappy to stay. It's also another thing to be scouted and stolen. This occasionally happens. But to come into a program that is providing you with resources with the intent that you graduate (from them), with one foot already out the door seems lacking in ethics.

People often use the marriage metaphor for doctoral programs -- while divorce is always an option and the (unhappy) result of a lack of fit, marrying into a program with the intent of cheating and switching up at the first opportunity is not ethical practice. [Again, some schools don't give you any sort of commitment in the form of funding either, so in that case you are free to explore other options].

There's also a couple of hitches in your plan:

  1. When you apply to other schools, you will need letters from school A -- presumably the reason you are doing this is to get letters from an American institution -- i.e, from us at a moment when we might be none too pleased with your strategizing.

  2. The new school you're applying to will want to know why you're not continuing with the PhD at the old school. If you are honest and tell them that you are switching because you already intended to use school A as a stepping board, they may take it as a sign of your low regard for academic ethical behavior. Someone who cheats once may cheat twice.

On the other hand, applying to an MA/MS program at school A in order to get into a high-ranked PhD program at school B is not only typical but desirable behavior on the part of school A.

p.s. My advisor once told you me that you owe as much loyalty as you are given (in reference to academia). If you are in a program that give you guaranteed funding and where your advisors invest time and energy in you and your project, then of course they will be hurt if you change mid-stream and they learn that was always your intent. If, on the other hand, you owe little to a place that guarantees no funding and your advisor is missing or never assigned.

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    I think I disagree with this, although to a large extent it must be a matter of degree. Consider for instance the perspective of an undergraduate student who spends a year at a state university and then transfers to, say, Harvard. The standard perspective -- and certainly, Harvard's perspective -- would be that "all along" the student wanted to go to Harvard and they used the state university (and thus taxpayer dollars, etc.) as a steppingstone. Really every academic degree program is a steppingstone to something else, and you are trying to optimize your next step at all times. – Pete L. Clark Feb 13 '15 at 15:07
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    Undergrads are very, very different than grad students. I'm all for undergrads changing schools. But if my PhD student did this to me -- and if I knew she came in with that intent, I would feel betrayed. – RoboKaren Feb 14 '15 at 5:12
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    I certainly agree that undergrad is different from grad. It's less clear what is the ethical difference. One should also keep in mind that in many PhD programs -- e.g. almost all US PhD programs in math -- one may enter without a master's degree and spend one or more years without a PhD advisor and without doing focused work with any one faculty member. – Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '15 at 6:22
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    You've already made a key point: it's not easy to transfer PhD programs, especially if you're not fully invested in your current one. So just "punching time" in one program waiting to be called up by the top one in your field: that is very, very unlikely to happen. On the other hand, if my PhD student naturally came to a point where she thought it would be distinctly better for her career to study elsewhere...OK. It's her career, not mine, and the time I spent on her is not "wasted". I just don't think students have an ethical obligation to stay where they are, under any circumstances. – Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '15 at 6:27
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    I removed my downvote since you made your answer more measured: it is good to remember admission to a PhD program can be independent from a commitment between a student and an advisor. Nevertheless I don't see that you are making an ethical argument: you are saying that you'd be hurt if someone did something, which is not exactly the same thing. If a student enrolls in a PhD program to work with a given advisor, the advisor can leave the department to take a better job, right? So why can't the student? And if that is better for the student, what is the advisor's objection, exactly? – Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '15 at 15:20
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If I understand the OP correctly, he does not yet have a master's degree so could enroll in a master's program and then transfer to a different PhD program. That is absolutely, wholly kosher, and in fact it is a very common practice. For instance, at my state university every few years an exceptionally strong student gets a master's degree along with their bachelor degree (or perhaps takes an extra semester or year) and then goes on to do a PhD at an elite school. Everyone is happy with this.

Also, in my opinion if you do not get funding -- and especially, if you are paying any nontrivial tuition or fees whatsoever -- then absolutely you can leave at any time and under any circumstances (even in the middle of a semester: you will probably have to continue paying tuition and fees as though you were still enrolled; if you are willing to do that, you don't need to show up).

There is a case where I see an ethical issue: what if you get funding for a graduate program (master's or PhD, though funding for master's programs is rather rare) and your intent is to transfer out of that program before completion? Here I think it matters what the precise meaning of that is. Though some have differed on this point, in my opinion if you simply want to transfer to a better program if/when you are given the opportunity, then okay, that is your right if you get admitted. If that other program is really better for you, then those in your current program who are invested in your success will be happy for you. However, if you are in absolute terms uninterested in receiving the degree from the program you've accepted funding in -- in other words, if you couldn't transfer somewhere else you know that you would either continue on without a degree or drop out of the program -- then you are behaving unethically and deceptively: quite generally it is unethical to receive funding to do X if you are not in good faith trying to do X.

The other thing I would say is that once you're in a PhD program, transferring to another program can be done but is not that easy, and in fact may involve setbacks and duplication of effort (e.g. you may need to spend time fulfilling requirements in the new program that you had already fulfilled in the old one). The people who transfer programs usually have clear personal/family/life issues motivating their decision or are struggling in their current program. Neither of these situations is ideal for "leveling up" to a better program. If you're a good student in a mediocre PhD program, I think the question is whether you can find a suitable advisor who will help you maximize your potential and ambitions. If you can, then growing where you're planted and thinking in terms of leveling up in your postgraduate academic jobs is a much better strategy than trying to switch horses midstream: this has every risk of being unhelpfully disruptive to you.

  • if you are in absolute terms uninterested in receiving the degree from the program you've accepted funding in, then you are behaving unethicallyI strongly disagree. It is completely ethical to accept a job that you don't want; what is unethical is accepting a job and then not actually doing it. At least in the US (and in my discipline), graduate funding is determined on a semester-by-semester basis. Students are hired as TAs for particular classes, or as RAs for particular projects. – JeffE Feb 14 '15 at 16:36
  • (contd) As long as the student is up front about his intention to leave, there is absolutely no ethical problem with his accepting a job that ends before his departure. – JeffE Feb 14 '15 at 16:37
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    @JeffE: First of all, graduate funding is certainly not always determined on a semester-by-semester basis nor keyed to particular projects: some students are funded and have no teaching obligations nor research obligations with any specific faculty member. (This describes my own funding situation for the first year of my PhD program, for instance.) In most programs I am familiar with, the funding you receive is well over and above the specific work that you do to get it: in particular, it includes tens of thousands of dollars of paid tuition. – Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '15 at 17:14
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    Anyway, I find it odd that you disagree that accepting funding in a graduate program signifies a willingness to complete the program -- or at least, lack of an express plan not to complete the program! You mention being upfront about intentions, but that essentially cannot be the case: what program would admit a student who said "Under no circumstances will I complete a degree here"? – Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '15 at 17:17
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    As a concrete example, I had a friend in graduate school who had an NSF graduate fellowship, which paid handsomely and included no teaching obligations for several years. Though he was a very strong student, he lost interest within his first year. Nevertheless he continued to receive the funding for his second year, even though he rarely showed up to the department, and at the end of the year he dropped out. There was no required work that he was not doing, but I certainly think he was behaving unethically nevertheless. – Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '15 at 17:24

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