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I am a first-year PhD program at a certain top-10 graduate school in my field on the East Coast. I wish to transfer to a certain top-10 graduate school in my field on the West Coast.

I have been dealing with health issues that have made living a normal life in addition to carrying out my academic duties quite difficult. While I haven't allowed it to affect my performance at all, my life has become a living hell. I wish to transfer to the West Coast school because it is about 10 minutes away from home and I will be able to live at home with my parents which will be a huge support to me and my health and make it easier for me to perform my duties. In addition my doctors actually suspect that the "harsher" weather may be worsening my condition (and anecdotally I always do seem better when on the West Coast). I have no qualms about getting the required recommendations.

Complicating matters: The West Coast school was my first choice all along, but I was rejected. I accepted a position at the East Coast school hoping my health problems (started in undergrad) would be resolved, but they have not gone away. I do not want to disclose these health problems for fear that they may hurt my application. However, I don't have a really good reason to transfer without that, unless I make up something about departmental fit which is really not true since my current department is honestly a pretty good fit too.

Advice?

  • 6
    I feel for you, but....at the PhD level, transferring is decidedly non-trivial unless you've got a faculty mentor at the new institution who is ready to go to bat for you. If you didn't get in the first time around, why do you think you could get in as a transfer applicant? – Corvus Apr 29 '15 at 4:26
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In virtually every case, trying to transfer out of PhD program A to join PhD program B because you were unhappy in A is a bad idea, and unlikely to be easy. The linked, old question discusses several scenarios in its answers.

There are legitimate reasons, some of them obvious. While I understand why one would want to, changing for location, as per your title, is not one. Changing to improve a serious health condition, on the other hand, is one.

So I don't see how you can reasonably hope to transfer without disclosing your health condition. Add the compounding factor that you were declined in the past by program B. Given that you are very early in your career at A, I cannot see how, minus health conditions that could qualify you for spots set aside specifically to aid in like cases, their decision would be different so soon after.

If transferring really matters that much, you should consider opening up about whatever issue(s) you are dealing with - to your current faculty first, but also to the receiving faculty. Your current faculty will appreciate to hear a non-academic reason for your desire to leave, and if you're lucky, one or some of them will fully support you as they buy into your explanation. Given the earlier refusal, you'll need strong letters from A, and even then this still strikes me as a long shot. But you can always try if your life at A is making you that miserable as your health is failing.

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To the OP: I feel for you and wish you the best of luck.

I know several people that have transferred to a different Ph.D. program after beginning one. In some cases this involved them substantially exceeding expectations at the program from which they transferred. In other cases, such as when they moved for geographic or personal reasons, or because they were not happy with their first Ph.D. program, usually this involved transferring to a department that they would have likely been admitted to in the first place.

Are there any schools which are not quite as prestigious, but still strong and a good fit for you both research-wise and geographically? If so, applying to them might be a good idea. (In addition to your chosen West Coast school -- I doubt your odds are good but they're probably not zero).

Finally --- a word of caution --- you don't say whether you'll eventually be seeking academic employment or not, but the academic job market is quite difficult for everyone, even for graduates of top ten schools. In particular it requires a lot of geographic flexibility and many people end up in locations other than where they would like to live.

I hate to discourage anyone from getting a Ph.D., but you might think ahead and make sure that you plan for a career which will allow you geographic flexibility, if you believe that your health will require it.

Best wishes to you.

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I agree with the other answers. Transferring would be very difficult unless you: 1) made such a name for yourself in your first year that you are now a superstar in your field; or 2) are stepping down in level considerably from university A to B. In either case, you would need a strong letter of recommendation from your current faculty.

There are some other options to consider:

  1. Taking a medical leave of absence to recuperate

  2. In some fields (and even then, depending on the whims of your advisor), you are only required to be in residence during your coursework. Once you've done that, you can do your dissertation fieldwork and write-up in another location.

That being said, you should know that you will have very little choice in which geographical locale you will be able to find entry-level academic jobs and include this in your calculations about what you want to do with your life.

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