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Let's say a person really wants to go to school X for his PhD, but he was not able to get admission in this round of applications. However, he has an offer from another school Y, where a person with strong ties to school X has agreed to be his advisor in case he attends Y. Is there any good strategy that he can use that will help him get into X, if he applies again next year?

At the same time he would still like to attend Y and do research with said person at Y in case X rejects him again. Applying as a transfer student doesn't seem like a very good option, since transfers happen in graduate school only in very special circumstances. Could applying as a freshman work out? Would admission committees view him more critically if they know he is already a graduate student at another institute?

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I was able to transfer from Georgia Tech to MIT after a year. I initially went to GA Tech to study with a famous professor, who, once I got there, said that she was slated to move to Carnegie Mellon in 2 months. Nobody else at GA Tech was doing what I was interested in at the time, so I decided to go through the application process again. I re-used one of my rec writers from my app to GA Tech, and got 2 new rec letters from GA Tech profs I had worked with. I was able to do this because of a great program GA Tech had at the time (I hope they still do), wherein first-years do 3 mini-projects with 3 profs in their first semester. 2 of those profs provided recs, one of which had come from the MIT department I ultimately got accepted to.

To do something like this, you'll want to do the same and hit the ground running at University Y, starting research projects immediately despite your first-year courses. This will give you recs, and also give the admissions committee at X something new to consider.

One tricky thing is if/how to present your intentions to the profs you work with at X. If they know you're planning to jump ship, they'll be less invested in you. It's probably best if you don't come in saying that you'd like to leave for X ASAP.

  • Thanks for sharing your story! In my case, I do have someone at Y who's research I'm interested in, so my reason for reapplying will only be that Y is a top 15 place, whereas X and a few others are top 5 places and people there are also doing similar research. I think attending a more prestigious university would just lead to a better career overall. How could I handle this on my app, namely not having a very strong reason for reapplying? – user30803 Feb 24 '15 at 0:40
  • I wouldn't worry about justifying why you're reapplying in terms of motivation. The fact that they're a more highly ranked university is a good reason. Much better if you can single out in your application one or two profs there whose work you're particularly interested in. – SuperElectric Feb 24 '15 at 13:16
  • I would be more concerned with the point I brought up in my answer: namely how to secure good recs from people at Y despite the fact that you're leaving. If they see you as potentially temporary, they may invest less time in you. I'd say be upfront with your prof(s) at Y that you plan on reapplying to X, and want a quick project that you can potentially bang out in 6 months. If you impress in those 6 months, they'll be able to write good recs for you. And if you end up staying, you'll have a head-start on a good relationship with them for your good work. – SuperElectric Feb 24 '15 at 13:24
  • Sounds like a good plan, though it seems as if one would have to tread carefully with when/how I inform people about my plan for reapplying. One option could be that I start in the summer, if it's possible for me to secure funding. That would be quite a good option in fact, since summer projects tend to shorter, exactly what I'd be looking for. – user30803 Feb 25 '15 at 4:10
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I know more than a few people who have transferred schools. A couple of them passed their comps (comprehensive exams) and then got admitted into better schools. They had to start over at the new school but had the option of testing out of the comps/qualifiers etc at the new school. This is not encouraged, because you're screwing over your old school but nobody is going to hold it against you if you can make a significant upgrade to your career. I knew somebody who went from Kansas State to MIT. That made a massive difference to his career post graduation. Also, it's a big positive for you if you can demonstrate to the new school that you can handle PhD material, pass exams, and get good letters from research faculty at your old school. Keep it on the DL and try to impress faculty at your current school and also the one person at your preferred school. Getting great letters will massively improve your chances.

Some people I know actually flunked their comps (and were getting kicked out with a Masters) at the first school but started over at a much lower ranked new school. This is harder because whoever is writing your letters will have to explain why you're still a good fit for graduate school despite being unable to pass comprehensive exams. It still worked for some people, so that's also an option if you're really dying to get a PhD.

A third reason people transfer schools is when they can't find anybody in their precise area of research. This happens between the 2nd and 3rd year when the student kinda figures out what they really love and want to work on.

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