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Changing (PhD) majors in graduate school?

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Hi everyone. I'm a little new to gradcafe so I'm not sure if this is the right category to post in but here it goes. 


I recently matriculated into a materials science and engineering phd program and will be starting this fall. I'm planning to do research in nanoscale electronic materials and devices for microelectronics. I've recently been looking more in depth into the department and it turns out most of the professors are focused on solar research. I consulted some grad student friends about this. They said there are also electrical engineering profs doing research I'm interested in and recommended me to contact them to set up an interdepartmental collaboration. But, looking deeper into the program, I realized that working with a group in the EE department and switching majors completely may suite me better. 


My question is it uncommon to switch majors while in graduate school? For my case, I would probably take classes from MSE and EE either way and would most likely to fulfill the course requirements for either degree (my research in very interdisciplinary and course requirements for both majors are very flexible). However, it would probably be more helpful to my research if I took more EE classes. Thanks everyone for your help! 

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Not uncommon at all. I did it, and it usually isn't a big deal. Once you're in, you're usually in (does that make sense?)

I see that you're not even matriculated yet. I wouldn't rush things. Just get in, maybe go a semester, and see how things go (especially since there's overlap). Things always make more sense and are clearer on the inside!

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It's interesting, I was getting ready to post the opposite thing. 


From what I understand, you're in one department (Materials Engineering) and want to transfer to another department (Electrical Engineering)?


Or maybe I misunderstood, and both are different concentrations under the same department?


If it's two separate departments, you can't just "transfer", or change your major. Most grad school admissions are handled at the departmental level- which means Materials and Electrical Engineering have separate pools of applicants, and separate pools of funding to pay for said applicants. If you were to switch to the other department, you'd likely have to apply to transfer. If might be a bit easier than a fresh application, but I'd highly doubt you could just switch, unless there was a huge excess of funding in the department you're transferring to. 


If it's two programs or tracks within the same department, there probably won't be any issues. 


Also, you could look at trying to set up collaborations and stay in your current program, but take more EE classes and do collaborative work with EE faculty/groups. 

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This is something that will obviously differ from school to school. But in most cases, I'd guess that it's possible but kind of a hassle. I actually have two anecdotes about this... take them for what they're worth:


The lab that I will be attending in the fall is in an entomology department, but the PI who runs it is an adjunct professor in the neuroscience department of the same school (her research focuses on the neurobiology of insect behavior, so this makes sense). I applied to her lab through the entomology department, but when I met with her, she told me that I could transfer to the neuroscience program if I decided that I wanted to. I would have to get the DGS of both departments to sign off on it, but it is possible. That said, in my case it might be relatively easy because (1) I meet all of the admission prereqs for both programs and (2) my funding wouldn't change, as it's through my advisor's grants and she is affiliated with both programs. In your case, funding might not transfer over, and that's something to consider.


On the opposite side of the spectrum, I know someone who tried to switch departments and couldn't. This was at my undergrad institution-- a graduate student working with my former advisor in the entomology department had a serious falling out with said advisor, and decided that she couldn't work in her lab anymore. She tried to transfer over to another lab in the EEB department which investigated similar questions on a different model organism. However, she was told that she not only had to formally apply to the new department, but that she also had to formally reapply to the graduate school as a whole (LORs, a SOP, trancripts, GREs... the whole package needed to be redone and resubmitted, and she had to interview again, etc.). In the end, she was rejected from the school even though she had been admitted during the previous year! Somewhat fortunately for her, she scrambled and applied to another school in a different state and got in there.


This just goes to show that it really depends on the school/program as well as the specific details of your situation. If you're curious about this, ask the DGS in your department and see what s/he has to say about the matter. Explain why you want to switch and ask what the policies are, including what happens to your funding.


That said, I agree with MoJingly-- why not try out the MSE department for a little while before deciding that you want to transfer? For all you know, the MSE department could provide you with exactly what you need. You could also arrange to have one or more EE faculty on your committee but stay in the MSE department. You could still take the EE classes, and perhaps audit a few extra ones in that department if you're really interested.


One other thing to note: the school that I will be attending also allows PhD students to get minors in other disciplines; my current plan is to get my degree in entomology with a minor in neuroscience. If your school offers something similar, perhaps that could be something that would suit your needs? An MSE major coupled with an EE minor? I don't know how common PhD minors are, but it's worth looking into.

Edited by zabius
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Do you "have to" switch departments??


Electrical Engineering and Material Science are so intertwined today that I'd figure that you could do all of your research work with an EE advisor (you haven't been paired with an advisor yet, have you?) but still graduate with a material science degree.


If you really care about what the words on your diploma will say, you will probably have to transfer formally, but to do research? I don't think so.

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