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Can I be admitted to graduate school in a different field from my degree? Specific cases include:

  1. If I've taken plenty of advanced courses in field X in the process of completing a degree in another field, can I apply to graduate school in X?

  2. What if I haven't taken many courses in X, but I have acquired a good grasp of X through self-study or working in a related field?

  3. What if I've never studied X, but I have done very well in an unrelated field? Could I be admitted to graduate school in X on the basis of general intellectual promise, and then make up the missing background after enrollment?

Note that this question is an attempt to provide a comprehensive answer, to avoid the need for a profusion of field-specific questions on this topic (see the associated meta question). Please feel free to edit the question or answer to improve them.

  • LImited usefulness. It's kind of like asking about similarities between two unspecified languages. You would really need to know what the two languages are, or what the previous field and the new field are. – aparente001 May 3 '15 at 6:29
  • @aparente001 This question is an attempt to cover the main cases in a way that allows people to self-assess. This site gets lots of questions of this form which are typically very difficult to provide good general answers to, since they depend closely on the particulars of the poster's background and intended program. – jakebeal May 3 '15 at 14:59
  • Overlap between fields influences how much additional background is required. E.g., a physics major might need to take half a dozen additional math classes to be adequately prepared for pure math grad school, while an English major might need to take nine or ten. But this doesn't change the fundamentals of "have you acquired most or all of the necessary background?" and "can you demonstrate that you've acquired it?". It just shifts where your starting point is. – Anonymous Mathematician May 3 '15 at 15:43
  • So you're planning to refer people here in future, to save having to write many similar answers over and over again? – aparente001 May 3 '15 at 21:34
  • 3
    Exactly (see here for the background that led to this question). Recently we've been closing various questions of the form "can I apply to grad school in X with a degree in Y?" while referring them to a general discussion of how admissions works, and this question is intended to give a more specific and useful referral. It can't cover everything, but a lot of these questions seem to come down to the issues discussed here. – Anonymous Mathematician May 3 '15 at 21:55
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Graduate programs care far more about your background and preparation than about which field is listed on your degree. Even if the application requirements list a degree in X as a prerequisite, the department will very likely make an exception if you have a degree in another field but can demonstrate that your background is equivalent. How likely this is depends on which of the three cases listed above you are in:

  1. Extensive formal study of X puts you in good shape. You should discuss this issue in your statement of purpose and make sure your letters of recommendation address it. Letters from people in field X who say your background is appropriate would be more convincing than letters from those in other fields.

  2. The overall strategy is the same as in the previous case, but you'll have to work harder to make a compelling argument for admission. It's certainly possible to get admitted, but the rest of your application will have to be convincing enough to make up for not having courses in X on your transcript. When you request letters of recommendation from faculty in field X, you should specifically ask whether they are prepared to endorse your background as sufficient for admission (to avoid getting letters along the lines of "this applicant is smart and hard working, but I don't know much about their background and preparation"), and you should strategize with them about how you can present your background in the best possible light.

  3. It's unlikely that you can be admitted at this point, for two reasons. One is that many people think they would like to study a field that's new to them, only to discover that it's more difficult or less interesting than they had expected. The other reason is that time in graduate school is a limited resource, and it's inefficient to use it to study prerequisites. You would generally be allowed to fill in a few gaps in your background, but not to begin studying the field from scratch. Instead, if you want to change fields you can begin by taking individual courses at a local university. It's also sometimes possible to enroll in post-baccalaureate programs aimed at helping people change fields (but the availability of such programs varies, depending on the field and location).

There is a notable exception to #3, and that is the handful of fields where there is no meaningful pre-graduate coursework in those fields. For example, there are vanishingly few undergraduate programs in Epidemiology, and as such there is very little expectation that you have taken specific coursework, and nearly the entire admitted graduate class will be "switchers" of some form or another. In these cases, what is likely most helpful is to be able to articulate how your present program and course of study has led you to be interested in, and prepared for, further coursework in that field.

  • I've added a note about 3 for some fields near and dear to my heart where the otherwise excellent answer is less applicable. – Fomite Sep 21 '17 at 0:28
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I would like to add to the other answers the fact that the ease with which you can jump to a different field in graduate school depends on the nature of your new field. One factor to consider is how interdisciplinary your new field is. Some traditional fields, such as mathematics, physics, and to a lesser extent chemistry, have a fairly strict hierarchy in that you must take certain courses in certain order so as to understand the field. Thus it would be more difficult to convince the admission committee that you are a good fit if you have very little formal training in the field. On the other hand, fields such as biophysics, neuroscience, etc., are very interdisciplinary. Neuroscience programs, for example, will usually be happy to admit majors from math, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and computer science, to just list a few. In this case, even if your official major is not neuroscience, your chance is not significantly worse than someone who does have a major in neuroscience (this of course also depends on your other credentials such as relevant research experience).

Another factor to consider is the structure of the Ph.D. programs in your country and in your new field. In some cases, such as biology or many European countries, you are required to select an advisor from the very beginning of the program, whereas other programs, such as in mathematics in the US, you do not have such requirements and you are admitted into the program first and select your advisor only one or two years later. In fields that require you to pick an advisor from the beginning, having a different undergrad major may be less disadvantageous if, for example, you personally know (or your advisor personally knows) the professor that you will want to work with. Alternatively, you may be better off applying to programs that do not require a specific advisor if you do not have a specific commitment in the new field.

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