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I just completed my senior year. I have been accepted to a grad school (say University X).

CASE A: I am quite familiar with the fact that one shouldn't change grad schools during a PhD. It is highly frowned upon and regarded skeptically. However my case is somewhat different.

I want to reapply for some PhD programs next year (fall). But, at the same time, I don't want to lose the only PhD seat I've got. So, I was thinking about whether I can go to University X this fall and apply for next fall (applications start this year's August).

If I get accepted, I would simply move to the other university. I obviously won't need any recommendation from professors of University X. It would be as though I had simply applied as an undergrad who waited one more year.

But my worry is, will this be considered as Case A? I am worried because if it is, then I may end up screwing up my relationship with the entire academia. When applying, I would be in the 1st semester of a PhD, which is not really a big deal. I wouldn't have any advisor at that point and would simply be taking a few classes.

Any suggestions?

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    Grad applications ask for your academic history. You're going to lie? We also ask your letter writers about you. You're going to tell them to lie? – RoboKaren May 4 '15 at 12:08
  • I simply won't mention about the University X. Is that really bad ? – zzz May 4 '15 at 12:13
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    @zzz Yes, that's lying on your application. If you get in and they find out about it, they could rescind your offer. – Johanna May 4 '15 at 12:34
  • What if I do mention about Uni X and still reapply ?? How is that gonna be looked at ? – zzz May 4 '15 at 12:49
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    one shouldn't change grad schools during Phd — [citation needed] I changed grad schools after two years. At least two of my former PhD students changed schools during their PhD, one into my department, another out. Nobody frowned, and nobody was skeptical. – JeffE May 5 '15 at 2:22
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One key point: you don't mention anywhere in your question why you want to transfer. Because you say "some PhD programs", I gather you don't have a specific other program in mind, and I can only assume that you don't have some compelling personal reason to do so (e.g. living in a certain city so as to care for a family member) but rather are simply trying to trade up.

Most students who enroll at programs which are not the top ones in their field would like to (or should like to!) move to better ones if they could, but because transferring programs is a fair amount of inconvenience for everyone, the threshold for doing so is rather high. If you want to get into a better PhD program in year N+1 than you did in year N, then it would be reasonable to have a better application.

Trying to improve your application while newly enrolled in a PhD program is a bad idea. First of all, as everyone else has said, of course you must disclose the fact that you are currently enrolled in a PhD program if you are applying to a different one. The idea that you think otherwise is a bit alarming, not because this is such an evil thing to do but it shows how far away you are from understanding academic culture. Do you think that no one will find out that you are currently in a PhD program?!? Think again: likely all of your recommendation letters will mention this, for instance.

Moreover, the first semester of being a PhD student is a tough time to build your application: no one at your new program knows you very well (or at all), you haven't done anything much, and more than likely you are just absorbing the culture shock of a new environment and are not in a position to show superiority (and in fact most first year PhD students are fairly inept compared to other PhD students in the program: I know I was). This phenomenon comes up when first year PhD students try to reapply for certain graduate fellowships (like an NSF fellowship) that they were also eligible for as a graduating undergraduate: they have to get a mix of recommendation letters from faculty at their old university who probably have nothing new or better to say about them than the previous time around and from faculty at their new university who have trouble saying more than "Mr. X is a student in our PhD program -- isn't he? I'm pretty sure."

My advice is to do one of the following things.

  • Ask the university who accepted you whether you can defer for a year. It is much better to ask this question up front than for them to find out later from someone else that you are trying to trade up. It is a fairly good bet that you will be able to do it: I would much rather enroll a student a year later if in that intervening year they figured out that they really want to come.

  • Enroll in a non-PhD program either there or somewhere else: a non-degree program or a master's program. In the American system, getting a non-terminal master's degree is essentially the culturally accepted version of the kind of academic laundering that you seek to do. This is probably two years rather than just one year, and if you play your cards right you can actually improve your application and profile in that time.

  • Thanx for that idea about deferment. It can work. But, Can you apply to another school during the deferred period ? – zzz May 5 '15 at 22:52
  • @zzz: My understanding of deferment is that the student has the option, but not the obligation, to enroll in the following year. I think the expectation is that a student who defers admission is not fully committed but is contemplating other plans. So: yes, I think so, unless there is any specific information to the contrary. – Pete L. Clark May 5 '15 at 23:26
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I don't see anything inherently wrong with changing PhD programs sufficiently early and with good cause. I do, however, find it wrong to be secretive and conspirative about it. In other words, you should by no means lie that you were previously (or currently) engaged in a PhD program at University X. Also, you should be prepared to answer the admittance committee why you are transferring. I would say, that "yours is a better program" is not enough, you should present a more compelling reason (i.e. a particular research interest and desire to cooperate with some particular faculty at the new uni) and be able to back it up.

You are probably worried what University X will do when they find out about your application. Well, chances are, if you are not assigned to a specific project with a specific mentor (you say you are not) or you don't receive any funding, they wouldn't care that much.

If you are worried, that if you mentioned University X, they would contact someone there to inquire about you, that could happen, even without a mentor.

In short, lying to the new institution is very bad and could hurt your chances tremendously. Deceit is usually (with negligible exceptions) the death sentence in academia. The new institution could even not only refuse to admit you, but also contact University X and tell them about your misconduct. Now that, would mean nothing but trouble for you.

  • Thanks.....So, I suppose, that means that I should mention Uni X. But, am not sure what to be done when Uni X finds out. I am in real pickle now. – zzz May 4 '15 at 12:29
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    What do you mean "when they find out"? You're going to need at least pne recommendation letter from someone at Uni X, which means you have to tell them that you plan to leave. – JeffE May 5 '15 at 2:24
  • @JeffE....I will be applying for next fall i.e this august. My joining at Uni X is in this fall. How will I be able to get a reco from the profs in the very 1st semester ? – zzz May 5 '15 at 17:27
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Getting a PhD from a decent institution takes lots of time and effort. Unless you are working on a project that highly motivates you the experience will be more difficult and unpleasant that it is worth.

If you don't feel compelled to devote an important chunk of your life to investigating a particular dissertation subject, then the Master's degree route makes a lot of sense. You should be better able to choose a research project after a year or two in an academic department.

You need to look for the best place to pursue answers to academic questions that will keep you motivated for the next 5-7 years. And if you get to the point where you are choosing advisors, don't fail to find out everything you can about them from their former students.

If you can honestly tell a recruiter that it is your heart's desire to investigate so-and-so with Professor X then that will make you a much more attractive candidate. You will be able to honestly say that because you will have read all his/her papers on some subject area and you can think of nothing else you would rather do than help find answers to the remaining open questions. Spending years in grad school to get a PhD without being properly motivated is a recipe for misery.

Good luck!

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