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I'm in my senior year of undergrad. I messed up a little bit academically this semester - not seriously, but enough to be confident I wouldn't get into a top 20 math PhD program. So I wanted to work on improving my CV for a year or two and then apply to the top 20 PhD programs (kind of like this person). I was thinking of this year applying to 2nd-tier schools for either a Master's or PhD program, then if I'm excelling really well in my first semester, applying to 1st-tier math PhD programs at the end of that semester. The main question I have is whether I should apply to the Master's or the PhD programs at 2nd-tier schools.

At first it seemed like a no-brainer to apply to the PhD programs at the 2nd-tier schools in order to receive free tuition and a stipend (which usually don't come with Master's programs). But then I was worrying if it would be looked down upon by both the university I am at and the one I am applying to if I am "quitting" one funded PhD program in order to join another. I especially felt concerned after looking at this answer, which describes a PhD as a "long-term relationship... an expensive and rare opportunity." Should I avoid applying to one PhD program with the intent of leaving for another (more prestigious) one? If so, should I just apply to Master's programs at the 2nd-tier schools this year?

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    You say you can't get into a top-20 PhD program, but is it feasible for you to get into a top-20 masters program? Just a thought. 1st tier masters to 1st tier PhD seems like an easier move to me than 2nd tier anything to 1st tier PhD. (But I'm not in mathematics, so I don't really know.) – ff524 Dec 10 '15 at 7:54
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    @ff524 Actully, industry jobs, while also doing independent research and application writing on the side, is a much more affordable way to improve ones application and get into a good PhD program. A masters degree from a top 20 Uni is usually around 50 - 100k. Given the author's question, affordability might be an issue, so I think we should help provide the OP some affordable/unconventional options. I should probably elevate this in my asnwer, as it is a bit burried below my moral point, which I think is much more minor. – WetlabStudent Dec 10 '15 at 8:07
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    Do any top-20 math departments even offer master's degrees in pure math? – Tom Church Dec 10 '15 at 8:52
  • This isn't really conclusive enough to count as an answer but I would like to add to those below: 1. This can often be viewed as "poaching" and is frowned upon. I would also point out that nobody really cares about your classroom grades in a PhD, they're more a weeding process than anything, and what anybody really cares about is your research work and who your mentor is and what school you came from. So while it's possible, it is rare and not necessarily something you should/can plan for. – Broklynite Dec 10 '15 at 10:31
  • @ff524 Very few (if any?) top PhD programs in math offer an official terminal masters degree. Some of these programs have very high failure rates on qualifying exams (upwards of 50%). The reason often offered [unofficially] is their goal is to admit more students than they can fund to completion and then only keep the best [kicking out those who don't do well on very hard exams and giving them an MS]. Is it hence unfair to take advantage of this system, if they are taking advantage of their students, by intending to kick many of them out? Its unclear whether mid-tier math programs do this – WetlabStudent Oct 3 '16 at 2:05
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This would be wrong.

The reason the PhD is subsidized, while the master's is not, is because you are making a longer-term commitment to the university, and they expect to benefit as an institution from your PhD work. You would be accepting this under false pretenses. In my opinion, this is just wrong, apart from whether it harms you or not. You should not enter into agreements where you never intend to hold up your side of the deal.

It would also not work as well for your plan.

I think it will be hard to produce evidence, based on 6 months or a year of a PhD program, of your improved academic performance. But you could actually complete a master's degree in a year's time, and that would be something that would really help admission into a PhD program.

Leaving shortly into your PhD program is definitely frowned upon.

Universities actively try to stop this from happening. For example, they usually do not allow people in PhD programs to convert their work into a master's degree after a year or two of study, precisely because people would try to take advantage of this loophole to get a free master's.

This will look bad to the institution you are leaving. I'm less certain about how the institution you are going to would view it, but it seems a potential negative there, as well.

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    I think the "It would also not work as well for your plan" section of this answer is a very good point. But I disagree with a lot of the rest. Do you think it is morrally wrong for a professor to switch universities simply because they got a job offer from a more prestigious place? – WetlabStudent Dec 10 '15 at 7:40
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    @WetLabStudent, the issue I have here is the student entering the program under false pretenses. The university expects that the student plans to attempt to complete a PhD there, and makes an offer on that basis. However, the student has no such intent. The situation is somewhat different with a professor, because the expectations are not so clear-cut, and career plans to advance are normal. However, I find taking a job while planning to leave very soon potentially problematic as well, depending on the specifics. – user24098 Dec 10 '15 at 9:11
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    "For example, they usually do not allow people in PhD programs to convert their work into a master's degree after a year or two of study, precisely because people would try to take advantage of this loophole to get a free master's." In my experience this is quite common. Most students who "drop out" of my PhD program get a master's degree upon departure. The average time they spend is about two years. I was the preliminary advisor of a PhD student who spent exactly one year in the program and left with a master's degree. I was impressed with his alacrity in meeting all the requirements. – Pete L. Clark Dec 10 '15 at 11:44
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    I disagree that enrolling in a Ph.D. program with funding entails a commitment to finish out the degree there. Life circumstances might change; the student might develop an interest in research topics not well-represented at the university where h/she enrolled; any number of things could happen. I am on the faculty at a second-tier university, and I have never thought less of any student who left, including those who left for stronger Ph.D. programs. To my knowledge none of my colleagues did either. – Anonymous Dec 10 '15 at 12:50
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    @Anonymous, yes, but I think there is a difference between a student who intends to complete the PhD, but does not for various reasons, and one who never intended to do so in the first place. In my mind the latter is acting in bad faith. – user24098 Dec 12 '15 at 7:32
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Practical standpoint: You do not know for certain you will be accepted after reapplying to the more prestigious program. I'd only go to the second tier school if you would be happy staying there until completion of the PhD. Going out into industry can equally look good on an application. Stay connected to the literature and study a bit each day while working in some research related job. This can often create a very strong application in the future (probably tells a much more interesting story in a personal statement than a masters from a second tier school).

Dan111 says that schools frown upon students leaving (of course this is true, just as a company would frown on you quitting to join another company). However, I think he is overstating the degree to which schools will block you from doing this. Many schools do in fact let you leave with a masters degree after 1-2 years of PhD work (usually after a qualifying or advancement to candidacy exam). Now of course some don't. This is something you should check. It's usually buried somewhere in the departments website (they don't exactly want to advertise it, because as Dan111 said they don’t want to encourage it). A good place to look for it is in the "degree requirements" or "qualifying exams" or "degree timeline" etc. sections. There is actually a good reason for the school to include this information. Strong (but risk adverse) students like to know that if they try their hardest but find out that the PhD just isn’t for them like to know that there is a fall back such that they don’t lose too much opportunity cost.

Moral standpoint: There will be a lot of disagreement here. Many academics will say this is morally wrong. Their argument usually goes something like "You owe it to the school that accepted you to finish there because they are funding you and subsidizing your tuition." However, in my opinion this is not a completely fair way of looking at it. Based on this logic, a professor who initially got hired at a second tier University, who planned on using this university as a stepping stone, and then published many prestigious papers due to this hard work and motivation, should also not leave the University that first hired them. The first university made a similar investment in that professor, that the University would make in a student, (arguably a much more costly investment). Students should do what's right for them, and an advisor at a lower tier university should help their student make the decision that is in the student's best interest (this will probably, more often than not, be staying, but when this isn't the case, a good advisor lets their student go).

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    Your example with the professor who leaves the second tier university seems like a false equivalence to me. I don't think most people consider it problematic to leave a PhD program if your circumstances change, or if you realize after starting that a PhD is not for you, etc. The moral problem is accepting an offer and leading the department to believe that you plan to finish a PhD there when you actually do not intend to - depending on how sure you are at the time of acceptance that you're going to leave, it can be deceitful. – ff524 Dec 10 '15 at 7:47
  • @ff524 I think I am being misunderstood, the example here is that the OP is going to work really hard and elevate themself, with the intention to apply to a more prestigous school. It is exactly the same as a professor working very hard at a tier 2 school with the intention of getting a job at better school. It is equally decietfull, yet many still wouldn't call this wrong. I editted the example to make it more clear that the professor is intentionally working to this end. Thank you for pointing out the lack of clarity. – WetlabStudent Dec 10 '15 at 7:56
  • WetLabStudent, I think both you and @ff524 have good points. The analogy can be very good or not so good, depending on the similarity in the chances of the professor, respectively student, to get a job/admission at the better school within a couple of years. In the professor's example, I find it a bit far-fetched to say the prof has an "intention" of getting a job at a better school. The extent to which "intention" can exert much control over the outcome here is pretty limited. That's probably also true (statistically speaking) of the student's case, although maybe not for the OP's case. – Dan Romik Dec 10 '15 at 8:23
  • ... So, to summarize, I think both the prof and student examples (but the student a bit more IMO) inhabit a murky gray ethical area where an action is being contemplated that will only probabilistically involve unethical consequences, with a likelihood that is hard to estimate. Considering the fact that all incoming PhD students cannot know with certainty that they will want to complete their PhD's, arguably the current example is not so different. But "arguably" is the key word here - I am sure a fair number of people will view this as unethical, and probably with some good reason. – Dan Romik Dec 10 '15 at 8:27
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    Their argument usually goes something like "You owe it to the school that accepted you to finish there because they are funding you and subsidizing your tuition." — No, you don't; students do not have a moral obligation to finish their degrees. But all but the saintliest student will hide their intention to transfer up when they apply, which means they would be accepted under false pretenses. It's the prior intention to transfer that causes the problem, not the transfer itself. – JeffE Dec 11 '15 at 16:32
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A lot of these low-ranking programs admit people to PhD programs in order to staff their large lecture courses with TAs. This is often the primary reason the university supports you, especially in the humanities. They are well aware of your dim academic job prospects with a a degree from their institution. Chances are you did not get rejected from a top-ranked school because of grades, but because your application materials did not suggest you had a firm sense of direction in your research. If you discover after a year in a low-ranked program what it is you want to do and can compose much better materials, then reach out to the people that wrote you the letters the first time around and see if they would support your effort in reapplying to top programs. Do not feel guilty. This your career at stake and you don't want to be flushed out a low-ranked program after years of hard work and excessive TAing only to find that no universities want to hire graduates from your program.

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Just to add a point that hasn't been emphasized yet:

A major aid to getting accepted into a lot of programs (after initially getting 'your foot in the door' with transcripts or GRE scores) is having strong recommendation letters.

If you moved to a new program (be it masters or phd) for a year, you will likely run into some major issues with letters. First of all, your goal of using the position as a demonstration of improvement will almost certainly not be reflected in a recommendation letter from a new advisor or instructor. Less than a year is just not enough time to allow them to see you accomplish enough to write a convincingly strong letter. Not to mention, they will still barely know you.

Secondly, you'd essentially be burning bridges at your stepping stone program by leaving under those pretenses (especially if you're 'snubbing' a phd program like you've described) . As a result, you will likely struggle finding someone to write you a strong letter or offering to write you a letter at all. Additionally, the research/academic community is smaller than you think, and burning bridges can have a strong adverse affect on your career (read: people talk and upsetting the wrong folks can get you blacklisted).

Thirdly , if you avoided these above issues by just seeking letter writers from your undergrad or unrelated institutions, it will raise red flags to new programs. Avoiding a rec letter from your current institution would actually raise questions about your efficacy in your new institution, thus negating the appearance of improvement you're looking for (at least as reflected in a rec letter).

Most of this applies to the bailing on a phd program scenario, but depending on the masters program you might fare equally poorly by quitting on them. No one, including large University programs, likes to be used.

Overall, I'd say your abandon ship idea is a poor one. No one will see enough of your abilities your first year to allow you to demonstrate improvement (bc remember, you apply to new programs after less than 6 months in your new school!). In the end, apply to some masters programs with the intent to finish them and get ready for the long-haul decade-long trip to the start of your career! Though, apply to one or two of the PhD programs you're interested in, call up someone in the department at those schools and get them to know you (as a person and not just a name on a paper) and wish for the best!

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A prof with enough clout to be leaving for a top tier university from a second tier one, gives the latter something for the time they hired them: good work, grants, reputation. It is clear that, when they hire him, they may or may not retain him.

A PhD, on the other hand, is still a position where, in general, there is some lead-in period, and the main results are expected only towards the end; starting with an intention to break off is clearly unethical in terms of the investment by university and supervised. Furthermore, it is limited in time (to 3 or 4 years, depending), so the student can be reasonably expected to commit for this limited period with the intention to complete. Failure to complete can be a markdown for universities, so it's a doubly penalising situation for the uni.

The only real argument when a PhD transfer should happen is if the student decides that the topic or the supervision didn't work out for them. This can happen, and, in this case, a transfer is legitimate. But it should be the exception, and not the original intention.

  • A PhD student that will successfully transfer to a top 10 University will have certainly given back to the first university through publications and reputation. I highly doubt that a PhD student from a lower university could transfer to say Harvard, without doing exceptional work at the lower level university. – WetlabStudent Jan 15 '16 at 2:24
  • @WetLabStudent I find rather unlikely that a student after 1 year will leave a bunch of brilliant results published, instead of just a big pile of mess. – Greg Jan 19 '16 at 22:59
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I want to emphasize a point that was made in some comments and as a secondary point in some answers. The question asks about going to a "2nd tier" program for one semester, then applying immediately to a "top 20" math PhD program. Ignoring any ethical concerns:

Attending a master's or PhD program for one semester does not seem likely to strengthen your vita very much when you apply to top PhD programs.

Top 20 math PhD programs are extremely selective. While it might be possible to overcome a poor undergraduate record and earn admission to these programs, it is likely to take more than one semester of classes. By the time you apply, in the fall of your first year at the new program, the professors there will have known you for about 4 months. There is not really enough time to earn the kind of recommendation letter you are looking for, if you want to not only attend a top 20 program but do so after a poor undergraduate record. Moreover, you will have, at best, one set of grades from the new program (from that fall semester).

It seems to me that, if you want to end up at a top-20 PhD program, a more viable plan may be apply to the best master's program that you can get into - perhaps even at a top-20 program, if they accept students directly into a master's program - and then finish the masters and be absolutely excellent while you do it. That will give you a longer record of success at the graduate level, and time to develop very strong letters of recommendation.

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Applying for a Master's Degree makes sense. Applying for a Ph.D. degree with the intention of switching does not.

My only advice that differs much from what others have said would be when you apply for Master's, apply to some first tier schools. There is much less risk involved with accepting a Master's student that doesn't work out than a Ph.D. student, so you might find some surprising offers. However, see my answer HERE about Master's program quality.

  • I know of many people who "intended" to drop the PhD for a masters when applying and then infact did complete the PhD! Sure if you are 100% sure you will drop [or switch programs], that is dishonest. However, what percent certainty that you will switch makes it ethical, I think that is unclear. – WetlabStudent Jan 15 '16 at 2:27

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