I am a senior undergrad studying internationally and majoring in electronics. I applied to graduate physics programs in the US. I was able to get into some schools, but not the top ones. I have accepted the offer from University of Minnesota for the PhD along with a Master's.

However, I got a few great positions in the upcoming summer and a couple of papers which seem to be completely deal breaking. I also have a feeling that my undergrad major might have been a problem so getting a master's could be helpful.

I wanted to reapply for grad school with my Master's (along with good GPA). There is a lot of negativity in academia about transfer students. However, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not talking about transfer student. I want to reapply as a first-year graduate student. And, I am also not bothered by getting recommendation letters from UMN. I can get sufficient letters from other professors.

I contacted a few schools asking about it. They said I can obviously reapply as a first-year graduate student (that's what I want). But many people (on the internet) say that it is something that is highly frowned upon, and this decreases the chances of admission (even with Masters). I want to get some perspective as to what extent is it common, and how much is it frowned upon?

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    Hi, and welcome to Academia.SE! Can you explain a bit more about why you want to take such a radical action? University of Minnesota may not be MIT or CalTech, but it's still a very good graduate school for physics. I'm assuming, BTW, that you don't really mean "freshman," which generally refers only to undergraduate. – jakebeal Apr 17 '15 at 12:15
  • Yeah sure....First of all Freshman refers to grad school freshman. May be I am a little worried about my opportunities. I feel like I screwed up my grad applications. Stanford and Berkeley told me that I was rejected because of my "SOP". I want to rectify that. I just feel that I may deserve a little better. – user33283 Apr 17 '15 at 12:38
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    Given that the statement of purpose is largely bs, to hear that you were rejected for that makes me sad. But I agree with @jakebeal that, location aside, Minnesota is a very good school. – gnometorule Apr 17 '15 at 14:21
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    @gnometorule I have some colleagues who would take severe issue with that statement about location... :-) – jakebeal Apr 17 '15 at 14:24
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    Applying to another program without letters from Minnesota profs will probably look very bad. – Potato Apr 17 '15 at 17:13

Since you, in part, ask how much this type of thing is frowned upon, I can provide a data point (or at least an anecdote). For the purposes of this question/answer I am going to pretend there is an absolute ranking of all U.S. PhD programs in my area (since you are concerned about moving to a "top" school).

The first PhD program I entered was one that does not even appear on the listed of schools that I typically see ranked by various reports. So let's say for my absolute ranking of grad schools that my first program was ranked not even in the top 100.

After a year (or 1.5 years) in this first program, I decided I did not want to get my PhD from there, so I applied to other schools. In the statement that I gave my advisor to help him write me a letter of recommendation, I included 2 reasons that I wanted to leave, which were basically the following

  1. The program I was in did not match my interests. Basically the department was more applied-oriented (almost exclusively so) than I wanted to be.

  2. I basically said that I wasn't a great undergraduate and that now that I had some successful grad courses under my belt, I wanted to re-apply to grad school and get to a better school.

After reading this statement, my advisor said almost verbatim,

"Please tell me you have not shown this to anyone else. You can't show this to anyone else without removing [item 2. from above]."

The major moral here is that there are reasons for switching PhD programs that will be perceived as legitimate, but prestige may not be one of them. I came from a liberal arts background with not much knowledge of the different types of research, and learned after a year in grad school that I was not in a location that would support my research interests. This is perfectly reasonable (in my opinion), and it was also plausible, given the department I was in.

I don't know anything about your field, but I imagine that if you enter a rather top-notch* program like Minnesota and then want to go to a different school to somehow start your actual PhD, I think you will cartainly have to explain your reasons for switching.

You want to go to the higher-ranked school for prestige? Probably this reason will not be well received.

You couldn't find a match for any of your research interests in Minnesota's department? Well, Minnesota is a great department that many tenure-track seeking new PhD's would love to work in. If you can't be a successful researcher there, what kind of researcher are you?

Of course I'm inventing the answers to these questions, and there are many reason's one might switch grad schools. But the point is that you should have a good (by some measure) reason for switching grad programs. If such a reason exists, I think there is nothing negative about changing programs, and I doubt getting into your second program will be more difficult with your Minnesota Masters degree.

*I'm assuming this department is perceived as top-notch based only on jakebeal's comment to the question.

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    "Great answer" comments are discouraged, but this is such a thoughtful answer. :) Welcome to academia stackexchange! – gnometorule Apr 17 '15 at 14:31
  • Thanks for ur reply. I agree that recommendation can be bit tricky. But like I said, I don't need reco from UMN profs. I am not sure if this will be against me or not. – user33283 Apr 17 '15 at 14:32
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    @user33283, not having a recommendation from anyone in your current program will almost certainly be bad for your application. – Bill Barth Apr 17 '15 at 14:34
  • Question: Why is reason 2 so frowned upon? Every single student I know (I am a student, also) want to go to the best possible school. What's wrong with that? – Ant Apr 17 '15 at 17:38

If you want to be in academia, you are making a mistake of treating graduate school as the end of your academic career, rather than the start. Getting into a really good school is all you need at this point: there are professors who are just as world-class at a place like University of Minnesota as there are at MIT or CalTech, just less of them or in more focused sub-disciplines.

Your goal now should be to have a damned good graduate school career in the school where you are accepted (which, again, is a very good school and highly selective), and eventually line yourself up for the best postdoc that you can get. In Physics, as in many other disciplines, you are expected to do a significant amount of postdoctoral work: postdocs come from all over, and it is the work you do as a postdoc that will have the most effect on your application for faculty positions.

So: don't waste your time now trying to optimize the wrong phase of your career. Buckle down, do some excellent graduate work, and line yourself up for the right next step.

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  • Thanks for the insight. But still, the question is unanswered. I wanted to know if this is possible and how rare or common is it ? – user33283 Apr 17 '15 at 13:01
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    @user33283 Sure, it's possible, but it's pretty rare, partly because it's a bad idea. – jakebeal Apr 17 '15 at 13:02

I guess I'm out of the loop. I knew a handful of PhD students in grad school at the University of Texas who had gotten their Master's degree elsewhere first. There was no shame in it, but they also didn't start completely over. They came in having done their Master's, had the vast majority of their coursework requirements waived, prepped for their qualifying exams, took them, and then went straight into research. Some of them took several classes along the way to catch things they had missed, learn some exciting things, interact with eminent professors, etc. They did fine. It's not that uncommon to take a Master's at one US university and then a PhD at another. But, there's no need to completely reboot your career to do it.

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  • Thanks so much Bill. Its good to hear that. May I ask, those students at U. Texas, Which major did they belong to ? – user33283 Apr 17 '15 at 13:28
  • The primary one's I was thinking of were in a computational and applied math major which has since changed its name but is still run by the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. There might also have been an Aerospace Engineer or two (which was my major). – Bill Barth Apr 17 '15 at 13:56
  • I can't speak to physics, but in my field the master's you receive on your way to a Ph.D. is not equivalent to a standalone master's---and coming from a school with (primarily) a nonterminal master's program is often viewed as "couldn't cut it for the Ph.D." I'm under the impression from the original question that this is the sort of master's she'd be pursuing. I mention it because your answer is a little unclear regarding what sort of master's degrees you're talking about. – kyle Apr 18 '15 at 1:45
  • @kyle, exactly. UMN does have a terminal master program. But I am a part of masters en route Phd. I am afraid, I may be looked down bcoz of that. – user33283 Apr 18 '15 at 5:28
  • @user33283, I think that admissions committees can tell the difference between those who couldn't hack it in a PhD program and those who could. Those who can't hack it don't apply from a lower-ranked school to a higher one. If you get admitted to MIT after a year and a half at UMN, who cares what other people think about your time at MIT? If you're really concerned about the perception, switch to UMN's terminal master's now. – Bill Barth Apr 18 '15 at 12:41

JFK said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." User33283, don't be a snobbish leech. Don't turn down the meatballs before trying one, just because you think the Angus steak is more prestigious.

Go into your new school with the best possible attitude you can: you are a smart, curious, thoughtful, hardworking person; the school you will be attending has a great deal to offer; if you come across a professor there that doesn't appeal to you, just steer clear of that person; and gravitate to the people you find stimulating, helpful, ethical; etc.

If the school turns out not to be the right fit, despite your best efforts, then you'll have your reasons to move elsewhere. And you'll have your recent recommendations (which WILL be needed, as @Potato pointed out).

Now, here's a point that will help you swallow the above: if Minnesota is not among the top-ranked schools, then you'll be able to be a big fish in a medium pond!

Just make sure you're a big fish with integrity.

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