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This is an unusual situation where I want to take classes and receive credit for my transcript at a particular university but I am not currently a student there.

At some point in the next few years I will applying for a program that I actually do plan to complete, either PhD or master's, but not until taking more classes at this university.

What are the considerations I should be aware of if I were to apply, be accepted, matriculate, etc and drop after an academic year, i.e. two semesters? I assume that if anything this would make it more difficult, from an 'ethical' standpoint, to be admitted to a program in the future if I were to explain my reasoning for having dropped out, but I'm not sure if it would be that important.

In particular, it will be clear that I matriculated and dropped in order to preserve continuity with my previous studies (just completed). i.e., it will be obvious to a program that I apply to in the future that I do not intend to matriculate and drop again as I would do here.

To clarify, I would not be transferring to another school, but dropping out entirely and recommencing my degree from scratch at another time, likely at least a year after dropping, but with the additional courses in my transcript.

EDIT: I should also clarify that this university does not offer a 'non-degree' program so that is not an option.

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    Is there a reason why you don't start your target program as soon as possible? – svavil Feb 27 '17 at 21:05
  • Basically want to learn more before I get there, and there's a specific school I really want to go to. Want to be as well-prepared as possible. – user68313 Feb 27 '17 at 22:26
  • From my experience, you might be better off applying to your target university directly. Do you see this as an option? – svavil Feb 27 '17 at 22:51
  • It's a STEM field where it's really beneficial the more knowledge you have. I want to be able to get to the point where I can do some interdisciplinary research (not necessarily 'purely' in my field), not necessarily officially as part of my degree but maybe as something that I move onto after it. In general your judgement would be that waiting too long looks bad? – user68313 Mar 1 '17 at 3:37
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    I'm concerned that you are significantly overestimating the weight these classes would add to your Masters or PhD application. For one, these applications can be quite different, especially in the US where direct PhD is an option. PhD admission committees are ultimately looking for proven ability to do research, which additional classes will not demonstrate. From their perspective, classwork is the 'easy' component, and lack of knowledge in certain areas can be supplemented after admission. On the other hand, to start, then restart a MS seems like a waste of time and money to me. – user58322 Mar 2 '17 at 12:17
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You know you are planning to drop out, but no one else needs to know. People's plans change all the time. For example, a person might start a master's, then realize he actually wants to work toward a PhD. He might start at one institution or in one program and realize he actually wants to be somewhere else. If he has done good work before the change, and if he is not someone who habitually starts things but abandons them before finishing... I don't see a red admissions flag here.

I don't see an ethical problem either, because when you start a master's program, you are part of a flock. The program doesn't suffer if you leave after 2 semesters, and an advisor hasn't invested a lot of time and thought into how to best guide you.

Caveat: I have never sat on an admissions committee.

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Most, if not all master's programs in the US have a 5 year requirement. You must finish your degree within five years. You can certainly matriculate, take classes, and then drop out. Those class will be on a transcript which you can transfer elsewhere. However, graduate programs are specific to each school, meaning a class you took at University A, might not transfer to University B. The worst that can happen is that your classes don't transfer over and you will have to start from square 0, at which point the additional courses would be useless and all that money you spent would have been for nothing.

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I think that Michael C.'s and aparente's answers were correct in that it's fine for you to matriculate, take courses and drop out. However, I want to address your question from a more general perspective.

Should I study anything else before going to the program I really want?

If I read you correctly, you want to amass more knowledge before you start your target program. I believe that immediately starting your target program is a better decision. I acknowledge that you might lack some knowledge to fully grasp the courses in your target program from day 1, but this very lack of knowledge will be a motivating and stimulating experience for you. In other words, if you start a program in a well-known field, you might get bored and lose motivation quite fast. If you start a program in a field you know not-so-well, you'll put more effort into studying, and the rate at which you amass knowledge will be a lot higher.

Secondly, starting in your target program immediately will allow you to make acquantainces and network with the people from the same program, which will also benefit your learning.

Finally, one of your concerns is

[I want] to be as well-prepared as possible.

You are not the one to assess it. When you assess yourself, it's very easy to err on either side. The correct tool to assess yourself is the admission process: if you are selected to matriculate, you are ready for the program. This is why you should apply to the target program, at least to see if you get admitted.

  • Thank you for your advice. My specific situation I think warrants waiting a bit but I don't really want to get too specific. – user68313 Mar 9 '17 at 3:14

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