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I am very unhappy with my graduate program. Is transferring an option?


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Hi,

 

I am currently a first year PhD student in fairly high-ranked STEM program in the US. In our program, we are required to focus entirely on coursework for the first two semesters; we choose an adviser during the second semester and start research in the summer.

 

I am completely miserable at my current institution for two main reasons. First off, the "graduate-level" courses we took during the first semester were worthless because we were taught sophomore-level material (and the same thing is happening this semester). Also, these courses are strictly required and we were not allowed to choose any electives. Thus, although I am doing extremely well in my classes, I feel like I have learned nothing since I got here. When I was an undergrad, I took graduate-level classes and those were challenging and rewarding. Because of that, I almost feel like I downgraded institutions when moving to my program.

 

Additionally, it seems like only one or two of our faculty members are taking students this year and I don't want to work with any of them. I don't understand why my program admitted me when the faculty members I mentioned in my personal statement wouldn't be taking students. We are allowed to choose advisers outside of our department, however since I basically wasted a year taking useless courses, I feel like I'm at a disadvantage and will be disregarded because I don't have the necessary background.

 

I am so unhappy that my anxiety has returned and I am seriously considering changing programs. When I applied last year, I got into a number of comparable programs with funding. Has anyone ever emailed a school that you initially declined to ask to transfer to their program? Or should I just quit and apply again next application cycle? The only thing keeping me going at this point are my fellow first-year students, who feel exactly the same way as me.

 

Thanks in advance for the advice!

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Hi,

I am currently a first year PhD student in fairly high-ranked STEM program in the US. In our program, we are required to focus entirely on coursework for the first two semesters; we choose an adviser during the second semester and start research in the summer.

I am completely miserable at my current institution for two main reasons. First off, the "graduate-level" courses we took during the first semester were worthless because we were taught sophomore-level material (and the same thing is happening this semester). Also, these courses are strictly required and we were not allowed to choose any electives. Thus, although I am doing extremely well in my classes, I feel like I have learned nothing since I got here. When I was an undergrad, I took graduate-level classes and those were challenging and rewarding. Because of that, I almost feel like I downgraded institutions when moving to my program.

Additionally, it seems like only one or two of our faculty members are taking students this year and I don't want to work with any of them. I don't understand why my program admitted me when the faculty members I mentioned in my personal statement wouldn't be taking students. We are allowed to choose advisers outside of our department, however since I basically wasted a year taking useless courses, I feel like I'm at a disadvantage and will be disregarded because I don't have the necessary background.

I am so unhappy that my anxiety has returned and I am seriously considering changing programs. When I applied last year, I got into a number of comparable programs with funding. Has anyone ever emailed a school that you initially declined to ask to transfer to their program? Or should I just quit and apply again next application cycle? The only thing keeping me going at this point are my fellow first-year students, who feel exactly the same way as me.

Thanks in advance for the advice!

My professor has done this. Graduated from ucla. Attended Minnesota for one year. Hated it. Called up the dept at UCLA and begged to come back. They let him in. Hence, he did his undergrad and graduate work all at UCLA.

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Yes, people do transfer doctoral programs.  Whether you quit and apply again next cycle, or stay and "transfer", the process will be very similar - so really you should just do what you feel is right now re: quitting or staying.

The easiest way to do this is if you have the support of your home department.  I know you don't have an adviser yet, but you do have a Director of Graduate Studies.  I would talk to this person and voice that you don't feel like the department is a good fit for you anymore.  Don't disparage the classes; just state that no one who you wanted to work with is taking students this year, and that means that the program won't give you the research training you wish to have.  Hopefully the DGS will be sympathetic to that.  He or she may have some suggestions to fix the problem - but if your heart is set on transferring, just let him/her know that.

The next step is for you to start contacting PIs at programs that you'd be interested in "transferring" to.  I put "transferring" in quotation marks because it's not really like transferring in undergrad.  Many programs won't accept any of your course credits from your current doctoral program.  Some may accept a few.  Moreover, a much more direct connection is need - there needs to be someone willing to take you at your new program, and they need an assurance that you're leaving the old program because of fit/research issues and not any performance issues.  This is where the support of your department comes in - at least one of your recommendation letters needs to come from a professor at your current department (normally it would be your adviser, but you don't have one yet).

Anyway, these programs can be ones you were accepted to last cycle (easiest way to go, as they already have your credentials on file and you know that you are admissible) or they can be new ones.  Contact the PI that you wanted to work with and explain the situation neutrally - you came here, you're doing well, but the PI you thought you would be able to work with turned out to not be taking students and thus you are left with a less-than-ideal research fit.  (Don't disparage the program or discuss your dissatisfaction with the courses; that's irrelevant, and you don't want to seem like the kind of person who bashes your program.)  You may have to apply just like any other new student would have to, or you may have a more streamlined process - it just depends.

By the way, you will need to do this even if you decide to drop out and try again next season.  You can't just apply as if you never went to a doctoral program, because if you are found out you'll come off as dishonest (and it is VERY easy to find these things out).

Also, last thing: It's pretty common for doctoral programs to not give you a whole lot of freedom with free electives.  It is, after all, a doctoral program: they have a specific set of skills they want you to learn.

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Thanks for the advice; this seems like the best option for me right now. I know I should be careful in expressing my unhappiness (hence why I needed to rant on here, haha).

 

Also, I know doctoral programs don't tend to give you tons of freedom when choosing electives. My field is actually very interdisciplinary and I only applied to schools that would let me choose a sequence of electives outside of my home department during the first year. I asked graduate students and professors during my visit whether that was the case at my current institution and they all said yes. It's a minor annoyance, but it just adds to the list of reasons why I'm so unhappy here.

 

Yes, people do transfer doctoral programs.  Whether you quit and apply again next cycle, or stay and "transfer", the process will be very similar - so really you should just do what you feel is right now re: quitting or staying.

The easiest way to do this is if you have the support of your home department.  I know you don't have an adviser yet, but you do have a Director of Graduate Studies.  I would talk to this person and voice that you don't feel like the department is a good fit for you anymore.  Don't disparage the classes; just state that no one who you wanted to work with is taking students this year, and that means that the program won't give you the research training you wish to have.  Hopefully the DGS will be sympathetic to that.  He or she may have some suggestions to fix the problem - but if your heart is set on transferring, just let him/her know that.

The next step is for you to start contacting PIs at programs that you'd be interested in "transferring" to.  I put "transferring" in quotation marks because it's not really like transferring in undergrad.  Many programs won't accept any of your course credits from your current doctoral program.  Some may accept a few.  Moreover, a much more direct connection is need - there needs to be someone willing to take you at your new program, and they need an assurance that you're leaving the old program because of fit/research issues and not any performance issues.  This is where the support of your department comes in - at least one of your recommendation letters needs to come from a professor at your current department (normally it would be your adviser, but you don't have one yet).

Anyway, these programs can be ones you were accepted to last cycle (easiest way to go, as they already have your credentials on file and you know that you are admissible) or they can be new ones.  Contact the PI that you wanted to work with and explain the situation neutrally - you came here, you're doing well, but the PI you thought you would be able to work with turned out to not be taking students and thus you are left with a less-than-ideal research fit.  (Don't disparage the program or discuss your dissatisfaction with the courses; that's irrelevant, and you don't want to seem like the kind of person who bashes your program.)  You may have to apply just like any other new student would have to, or you may have a more streamlined process - it just depends.

By the way, you will need to do this even if you decide to drop out and try again next season.  You can't just apply as if you never went to a doctoral program, because if you are found out you'll come off as dishonest (and it is VERY easy to find these things out).

Also, last thing: It's pretty common for doctoral programs to not give you a whole lot of freedom with free electives.  It is, after all, a doctoral program: they have a specific set of skills they want you to learn.

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I am completely miserable at my current institution for two main reasons. First off, the "graduate-level" courses we took during the first semester were worthless because we were taught sophomore-level material (and the same thing is happening this semester). Also, these courses are strictly required and we were not allowed to choose any electives. Thus, although I am doing extremely well in my classes, I feel like I have learned nothing since I got here. When I was an undergrad, I took graduate-level classes and those were challenging and rewarding. Because of that, I almost feel like I downgraded institutions when moving to my program.

Classes at graduate level aren't designed to be too challenging (unless you go to an ultra-competitive school that is trying to weed out new grad students before Comps). Most grad programs (i) assume that in getting into the program you already have a strong background in the subject (ii) don't want their expensive grad students (whose tuition they are covering) to have their GPA slip too low and get kicked out of the program. Other PhD programs might challenge you more with their coursework...but then again they might not. They also don't last for more than a couple of semesters. As soon as you start the research - which is what grad school is really all about - you will get all the challenges you could possibly want!

 

Either way I don't think "finding the grad classes too easy" is a valid reason to transfer grad school in itself.

 

The fact that you are missing a good PI fit is a more serious issue. And that your entire cohort will be competing for a spot in "one or two" lab groups. It could be the case that other PIs are still waiting to hear back about their grant applications and that more labs will be recruiting students soon. Talk to the PIs you are interested in directly to see if they have spots, if you haven't already. At least that way you won't have to waste your energy speculating.

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^This is also true.  I found my graduate classes to be very easy.  There weren't a lot of assignments, and many of them were basically discussion hours with a paper at the end.  The point is more to feed you the information that you need to do your research.

 

But once my third year hit, ish got really real.

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I am in a similar situation to the OP. My PI just recently decided to leave academia and none of the other profs here are a good research fit. After speaking with the chair and DGS, they both advised me to apply elsewhere. As already mentioned above, this is important because it gives a lot of credence to your application to go elsewhere. I have had to re-apply, but I feel it is more important to have a fulfilling graduate education.

It is not an easy decision to make, but it is very rewarding in the end...

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Funny how much this sounds like my own department.  With the first year courses, at least through my experience, they do not offer much, but merely serve as refresher courses that bring everyone up to speed.  With interdisciplinary courses, everyone coming in has a different background, educational/work experience, interests, etc and these "try" to level the playing ground.  Unfortunately, yes, they can be sophomoric.  

 

With the advisor situation, if you're not interested in who is available, transferring might be a great option.  If you're currently doing rotations, really take a moment and dive into what kinds of work are relevant to their expertise first, you may find some surprising options for projects.  If you do decide to transfer, get a solid idea of future prospective advisors' funding, publication activity, and availability earlier on so you don't walk into the same problem again.  Best of luck to you!

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Two thoughts:

 

For the courses, it's possible you may feel like you're not learning from the foundational coursework in any institution. This can happen when programs try to "standardize" learning for all PhDs who enter with different backgrounds and strength areas. Generally I don't learn the useful things from my courses, I learn from doing research, so I saw them as a bunch of hoops to jump through to prove my worth before getting into the fun stuff.

 

For the faculty, are they not taking students right now, or not taking students this fall? If your first year is mostly coursework, but you suspect a professor might take you on in your second year, it might be worth the wait. Sometimes there's an anti-first years bias as faculty want to see what students get weeded out (or weed themselves out) before investing their time and energy. If they are definitely not taking students in the second year, either, and there's really no one else you want to work with, then I would seriously look into transferring. Keep in mind that some schools may make you redo the coursework, though, so you could lose a year.

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