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Should a Transfer Even be Attempted? Is a Top 20 School Out of the Question?


lorenzen
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Hello all,

I first posted in this forum nearly 5 years ago as I was attempting to gain entrance to a funded master's program. The advice I received here was invaluable and I still feel grateful.

Since those early gradcafe days, I graduated with a master's, taught undergraduates for a year, and recently started a PHD program in sociology. Now I find myself crawling back here to ask you all about a dilemma I'm experiencing.

The program I'm in was my "safety school." I wrote a terrible statement of purpose (cringey is what I'll call it) and got rejected from some top 30-50 programs. This current program is nowhere even close to top 50, and it really shows. I have been shocked by the quality of instruction PhD students receive here. The faculty display little to no passion for the subject they teach. One colleague in my cohort noted that "it seems like they all hate their jobs and no one wants to be here." My master's program was so incredibly different! There was true curiosity and all, students and professors alike, took this whole business of sociology very seriously indeed.

On top of it all, the program changed one of their specialty areas right after I accepted and joined the program. It will be hard to pursue my research interests now.

While I enjoy living in this little town, I am desperate to apply elsewhere. I would like to apply this cycle to better programs. But I know this could look quite bad to graduate committees.

 

What do you think? Would a highly ranked program discard my application once they see I am attempting to transfer, even if I explain that the research emphasis of the school changed after I joined the program?

 

 

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  • 4 weeks later...

Hey! I have experienced something similar to what you're going through. I was accepted into a graduate program (2018) and it wasn't my top choice at all. I was rejected from my other top choices. On top of that, the program I was accepted to didn't have my areas of interest. The department was cool, and the environment was okay, but I made the decision to leave because there was no one there to help me with my core research areas. No room for me to grow either. In 2020 I was accepted into my top three choices and I can say it was the BEST decision of my life. I am doing more with my research and time, I don't even remember the previous years spent in my first program. 

I recommend reapplying but I also encourage you to think critically about these questions/areas:

What have you done so far to make your application stand out from the first time you applied? You mentioned that you wrote a bad statement, but was that all that made you a less desirable applicant? For me, I had to improve myself so I made sure to get all As in my first two years of coursework and apply to external fellowships/grants. These things (if you get it) make you more desirable to graduate committees. I got a three-year external fellowship after my acceptance to programs, which made me a more desirable applicant and opened the door to more funding. So think hard about the ways you can relay to other schools that you have grown.

If nothing has drastically changed for you to make your application stand out more from the last cycle, a possible suggestion is to complete two years and obtain your MA in sociology before leaving for another Ph.D. program. This is what I did, and there are short-term and long-term benefits. Short term, it tells committees you are able to take Ph.D.-level coursework. If you don't get any offers you can at least work in applied research and gain experience for the next round. The long term is that you may be able to transfer the majority of the course credits you have taken to your new program, which cuts down your course load leaving you with time to do more research. You mentioned you had MA/MS. If it's in sociology, disregard this. If it's not, possibly consider it.  

What will graduate committees think? Well, it depends on you. Sounds like to me, you have a legitimate reason for leaving. You can relay that they no longer have the subfield you want to specialize in; therefore, you are intentionally seeking programs that do what you want to do. Avoid applying to programs with 1-2 faculty studying what you want, because 1) you don't want this to happen again, 2) graduate committees will likely be weary of you; if they know you left because of a lack of people to work with, they will likely not want to invest time in you because they know you are prepared to leave if their 1-2 faculty in your area leaves. 

Overall, graduate committees don't care if you leave. They understand a person may have to leave their current grad program for numerous reasons. You aren't the first to do this so you should be fine. Just never bash the school you're leaving because new schools won't take kindly to that.

Who will recommend you? You need to think about who will write strong letters of recommendation for you when you apply elsewhere. I had my faculty in my first program write my recs and they did a good job. Committees will expect that most (or at least one) of your letter writers come from your current institution. Not having this can be a red flag for committees. So think about this carefully. Did you make deep connections with the faculty at your current institution to write a strong recommendation? If not, you may want to start now. 

Transferring? You aren't transferring. You are reapplying. Depending on the program you are accepted into, they may not care if you did a year or two years in your first Ph.D. program, in the sense that they won't let you transfer over credits... so essentially you may start over. With that said, it's good programs don't care because they won't be held against you! Graduate students leave their Ph.D. programs for a number of reasons. Just be confident and explain in your statement (and interview if asked) that your subfield is no longer being looked at within your current program so that is why you want to leave. So again, you aren't transferring. You are leaving your program and applying to another. Also, don't make it about you leaving, make it about your new institution and what they can offer you (and you them). 

Highly ranked programs? You mention this a lot. Why does this matter to you? Depending on the answer, it may or may not be as important as you think. You should focus on programs you can get into with your stats that have faculty that share your research areas. My new program is a top 30 school. It may not have been a top 10, but the resources and research, and external opportunities they have for my subfield make up for that. In addition, I don't want to be in academia, I prefer industry so research/job experiences are more important to me than a school's rank. If you want to be tenure track, I can see why you want to aim for the top 30s or even the top 20s. So just think hard about why high ranked.  

Apply between 10-50. Don't throw your eggs into one basket. You need to ask yourself did you as an applicant improve from your last cycle. If the answer is no, wait another year (become more exceptional). If the answer is yes, apply now but don't throw all your eggs in the top 10 or top 30 schools. Spread out between 10-50 only applying to schools with your subfield. If you get into the schools of your dream, that's amazing. If not, think long and hard because once you accept, you likely can not apply to another Ph.D. program in the future. It's unheard of to leave a Ph.D. program again for the second time to find your "best" fit. So just think long and hard. 

Edited by CeXra
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CeXra's advice is good. One big thing that I just wanted to extra-emphasize is the importance of having people from your current program recommend you. I know many people who have changed PhD programs, and almost all of them had multiple faculty from their current program write letters. There are rare exceptions to this, but it will make your life a lot harder. Make sure that you and your letter writers are on the same page about your narrative about you leaving. It should not involve you criticizing your department, e.g., mentioning the bad instruction. It should be about the subfield changing, the useful things you've learned, and what additional things you want to learn from a department with more people in your subfield. Stay positive about your current department and frame it as looking for specific opportunities that these other schools can give you.

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On 10/25/2022 at 9:25 PM, lkaitlyn said:

CeXra's advice is good. One big thing that I just wanted to extra-emphasize is the importance of having people from your current program recommend you. I know many people who have changed PhD programs, and almost all of them had multiple faculty from their current program write letters. There are rare exceptions to this, but it will make your life a lot harder. Make sure that you and your letter writers are on the same page about your narrative about you leaving. It should not involve you criticizing your department, e.g., mentioning the bad instruction. It should be about the subfield changing, the useful things you've learned, and what additional things you want to learn from a department with more people in your subfield. Stay positive about your current department and frame it as looking for specific opportunities that these other schools can give you.

Thank you, Ikaitlyn. You brought up a topic I had not really considered. What I am curious about is how the people you mentioned went about getting those letters. I imagine it would be very awkward, and what if you do not get accepted into the new program and stay at your current place? Wouldn't you be a persona non grata, and perhaps even be kicked out?

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4 hours ago, lorenzen said:

Thank you, Ikaitlyn. You brought up a topic I had not really considered. What I am curious about is how the people you mentioned went about getting those letters. I imagine it would be very awkward, and what if you do not get accepted into the new program and stay at your current place? Wouldn't you be a persona non grata, and perhaps even be kicked out?

So I can speak from experience (to an extent). I am currently a second year PhD student applying again to programs that are better research fits. I've secured letters from three members of my guidance committee, and they are the only three faculty at my school who know I'm trying to leave. You should be able to talk to your advisor(s) about the reasons you'd like to move to another department, and as long as they have your best interests in mind, they should offer you valuable feedback and advice. As long as your reasoning for wanting to re-apply is sound and you're open with the faculty you ask for letters, there shouldn't be any drama -- and if there is, it's unlikely you'll suffer any sort of consequences from your department as long as its culture isn't toxic.

Edited by saffasrass
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  • 3 weeks later...
On 11/2/2022 at 5:53 PM, saffasrass said:

So I can speak from experience (to an extent). I am currently a second year PhD student applying again to programs that are better research fits. I've secured letters from three members of my guidance committee, and they are the only three faculty at my school who know I'm trying to leave. You should be able to talk to your advisor(s) about the reasons you'd like to move to another department, and as long as they have your best interests in mind, they should offer you valuable feedback and advice. As long as your reasoning for wanting to re-apply is sound and you're open with the faculty you ask for letters, there shouldn't be any drama -- and if there is, it's unlikely you'll suffer any sort of consequences from your department as long as its culture isn't toxic.

Sorry you are in the same position, but it sounds like you know what you're doing. Are you mentioning your current institution in the SOP? And if so, how will you mention that? Thanks!

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On 10/24/2022 at 11:16 PM, CeXra said:

Hey! I have experienced something similar to what you're going through. I was accepted into a graduate program (2018) and it wasn't my top choice at all. I was rejected from my other top choices. On top of that, the program I was accepted to didn't have my areas of interest. The department was cool, and the environment was okay, but I made the decision to leave because there was no one there to help me with my core research areas. No room for me to grow either. In 2020 I was accepted into my top three choices and I can say it was the BEST decision of my life. I am doing more with my research and time, I don't even remember the previous years spent in my first program. 

I recommend reapplying but I also encourage you to think critically about these questions/areas:

What have you done so far to make your application stand out from the first time you applied? You mentioned that you wrote a bad statement, but was that all that made you a less desirable applicant? For me, I had to improve myself so I made sure to get all As in my first two years of coursework and apply to external fellowships/grants. These things (if you get it) make you more desirable to graduate committees. I got a three-year external fellowship after my acceptance to programs, which made me a more desirable applicant and opened the door to more funding. So think hard about the ways you can relay to other schools that you have grown.

If nothing has drastically changed for you to make your application stand out more from the last cycle, a possible suggestion is to complete two years and obtain your MA in sociology before leaving for another Ph.D. program. This is what I did, and there are short-term and long-term benefits. Short term, it tells committees you are able to take Ph.D.-level coursework. If you don't get any offers you can at least work in applied research and gain experience for the next round. The long term is that you may be able to transfer the majority of the course credits you have taken to your new program, which cuts down your course load leaving you with time to do more research. You mentioned you had MA/MS. If it's in sociology, disregard this. If it's not, possibly consider it.  

What will graduate committees think? Well, it depends on you. Sounds like to me, you have a legitimate reason for leaving. You can relay that they no longer have the subfield you want to specialize in; therefore, you are intentionally seeking programs that do what you want to do. Avoid applying to programs with 1-2 faculty studying what you want, because 1) you don't want this to happen again, 2) graduate committees will likely be weary of you; if they know you left because of a lack of people to work with, they will likely not want to invest time in you because they know you are prepared to leave if their 1-2 faculty in your area leaves. 

Overall, graduate committees don't care if you leave. They understand a person may have to leave their current grad program for numerous reasons. You aren't the first to do this so you should be fine. Just never bash the school you're leaving because new schools won't take kindly to that.

Who will recommend you? You need to think about who will write strong letters of recommendation for you when you apply elsewhere. I had my faculty in my first program write my recs and they did a good job. Committees will expect that most (or at least one) of your letter writers come from your current institution. Not having this can be a red flag for committees. So think about this carefully. Did you make deep connections with the faculty at your current institution to write a strong recommendation? If not, you may want to start now. 

Transferring? You aren't transferring. You are reapplying. Depending on the program you are accepted into, they may not care if you did a year or two years in your first Ph.D. program, in the sense that they won't let you transfer over credits... so essentially you may start over. With that said, it's good programs don't care because they won't be held against you! Graduate students leave their Ph.D. programs for a number of reasons. Just be confident and explain in your statement (and interview if asked) that your subfield is no longer being looked at within your current program so that is why you want to leave. So again, you aren't transferring. You are leaving your program and applying to another. Also, don't make it about you leaving, make it about your new institution and what they can offer you (and you them). 

Highly ranked programs? You mention this a lot. Why does this matter to you? Depending on the answer, it may or may not be as important as you think. You should focus on programs you can get into with your stats that have faculty that share your research areas. My new program is a top 30 school. It may not have been a top 10, but the resources and research, and external opportunities they have for my subfield make up for that. In addition, I don't want to be in academia, I prefer industry so research/job experiences are more important to me than a school's rank. If you want to be tenure track, I can see why you want to aim for the top 30s or even the top 20s. So just think hard about why high ranked.  

Apply between 10-50. Don't throw your eggs into one basket. You need to ask yourself did you as an applicant improve from your last cycle. If the answer is no, wait another year (become more exceptional). If the answer is yes, apply now but don't throw all your eggs in the top 10 or top 30 schools. Spread out between 10-50 only applying to schools with your subfield. If you get into the schools of your dream, that's amazing. If not, think long and hard because once you accept, you likely can not apply to another Ph.D. program in the future. It's unheard of to leave a Ph.D. program again for the second time to find your "best" fit. So just think long and hard. 

How wonderful that you are happy in your new program. And thanks for this thoughtful and super helpful reply. Could you discuss your SOP and how you discussed the transfer situation? Did you mention it? Some people are telling me to avoid discussing the current place I'm trying to leave. Others disagree, suggesting I should certainly discuss the reasons for leaving in an appropriate and diplomatic way.

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1 minute ago, lorenzen said:

How wonderful that you are happy in your new program. And thanks for this thoughtful and super helpful reply. Could you discuss your SOP and how you discussed the transfer situation? Did you mention it? Some people are telling me to avoid discussing the current place I'm trying to leave. Others disagree, suggesting I should certainly discuss the reasons for leaving in an appropriate and diplomatic way.

Don't give an explanation for why you are leaving your current institution. Rather, mention why you want to be in your potential new program. Your materials should explain why the potential school is the best for it, and how they are resources there that can grow you as a scholar/researcher. You want to be in a school that can support your research endeavors. You're also not transferring so avoid this word. You are reapplying to graduate programs. When you have an interview, you can discuss (if they bring it up) why you left, and again, you don't talk about what your current program lacks, rather you talk about what you can gain from this new institution. Framing is very important and you don't want your word count or interview to be used up by talking about another school.  

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15 minutes ago, CeXra said:

Don't give an explanation for why you are leaving your current institution. Rather, mention why you want to be in your potential new program. Your materials should explain why the potential school is the best for it, and how they are resources there that can grow you as a scholar/researcher. You want to be in a school that can support your research endeavors. You're also not transferring so avoid this word. You are reapplying to graduate programs. When you have an interview, you can discuss (if they bring it up) why you left, and again, you don't talk about what your current program lacks, rather you talk about what you can gain from this new institution. Framing is very important and you don't want your word count or interview to be used up by talking about another school.  

So do not mention the current school at all?

Did you send your transcripts from the previous school you left?

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1 hour ago, lorenzen said:

Sorry you are in the same position, but it sounds like you know what you're doing. Are you mentioning your current institution in the SOP? And if so, how will you mention that? Thanks!

When I transition in my SOP into discussing why the new program is a good fit, and who I want to work with, I have a line that essentially says "while I cherish my time at my previous institution and the opportunity it offered me to hone my research agenda, here's why I'm a good fit for your program." I know for sure that one of my letter writers is also going to mention that I am looking for a more methodologically rigorous program, which also helps.

So while I'm not directly addressing why my current program isn't the best fit, I'm hinting just enough that I have valid reasons for re-applying, and doing so in such a way that it doesn't take much critical thinking to realize that I've thought this through and it isn't me just hating where I am.

You will definitely need to send your transcripts, yes. Don't hide that you went to another institution before. Just focus your message on why their program is a better fit for you than your last one without bad-mouthing them (or even hinting at it) in any way. LORs from current faculty would help a ton, but if you can't get one, be open with them about your reasons and solicit their advice.

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7 hours ago, lorenzen said:

So do not mention the current school at all?

Did you send your transcripts from the previous school you left?

I sent my transcript over. It's not a secret, but explaining why you're leaving is not something that needs to be drawn out or mentioned unless asked. Students leaving programs to other programs happens a lot (lack of mentorship, relocation issues, funding etc). So you dont need to include an explanation.  Treat the situation as if you got your masters and you're applying to another graduate program. In this case you didn't get your masters from the school, but you can talk about the research activities and courses you've taken that prepared you methodologically. And now you're ready or more prepared to be in an institution that has your research interest. So again framing matters, there is a way for someone to understand why you left your current institution without explicitly saying why.

  • Rough example- this past year spent at my current institution, I have gained XXX experiences that has advanced my methodological training and prepared me to be a better researcher. Although my current institution has prepared me to conduct rigorous research and prepared me for PHD level courses, I need guidance and mentorship in XXX research areas. Being a student in this new program will give me access to faculty who specialize in this field. Dr. XX studies XXX. Dr. MMM conducted a project on XXX. With the assistance of these faculty, I will be able to complete projects that focus on XX. Currently, I want to explore [description of a project]. The program also offer courses in XXX that can advance my knowledge in this field and prepare me to undertake my proposed study. This program can advance my professional development and goals of becoming a professor/researcher that studies XXX. 

This example will give the committee a clear idea of why you left your previous institution, but more important highlight why you want to be in their program. I also recall you saying in your original post that you didn't learn anything from your current program. I don't know how true that is, but don't say that to any potential program. You never want to come across as bashing a program. 

Saying stuff like "I am leaving my current program because..." "My current isn't the right fit for me..." should not be in your statements. Anything that shows you're leaving for a negative reason isn't important. And the framing of you're leaving a program, is NOT important. The framing should be why do you want to "arrive" at the new program. My example above takes an "arrival" focus because the focus of your new program is key (but it also infers why you're leaving your current program).  

 

 

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