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Leaving a Stats PhD Program with a Master's, Then Re-Applying


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If I am a current, funded, PhD student, and I don't feel completely satisfied with my program... would it be prudent to leave with a one-year coursework (so non-thesis) Master's in hand, and then re-apply to PhD programs after a few months?

 

I would have a full year's worth of coursework to show on applications, and my program is well-regarded.

 

Nothing in particular is wrong. I just don't feel particularly content, and I'd rather nip this in the bud than have it continue on and exacerbate. 

 

Would adcoms even know I was initially in a PhD program, if my recommenders don't mention it? To what extent would I be obligated to explicitly communicate this? If they do know, Would adcoms be suspicious, and/or would I need a good story? 

 

Would it affect recommendations from my current school, i.e. to what extent would my current professors be displeased/offended, even if I did well in their courses? 

 

I imagine this would be a bit different than straight-up transferring (hopefully not as provocative), and is not that rare of a situation. It does seem like a substantial risk, but it's a risk I may be willing to take. 

Edited by m.cyrax
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I don't see how you're going to be able to do it personally. Are you not going to have anyone from your current program write you letters? I think it would look fishy for you not to have at least one professor from your current program write you a letter--it might raise the suspicion that you are already a PhD student. At least if you transfer, you're being honest from the get-go. It might not work in your favor to try to blatantly lie to other programs.

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I've had profs tell me that leaving a program, if not for like a medical reason or huge family reason is "the kiss of death" for trying to reapply. I would highly advise against this. You'll be fighting an uphill battle about what is going on. They'll be really hesitant to take you as you are considered a risk since you bailed on one program, so not a great record to start with.

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I don't see how you're going to be able to do it personally. Are you not going to have anyone from your current program write you letters? I think it would look fishy for you not to have at least one professor from your current program write you a letter--it might raise the suspicion that you are already a PhD student. At least if you transfer, you're being honest from the get-go. It might not work in your favor to try to blatantly lie to other programs.

 

This would be a few months after I obtain the Master's; receive in the summer and apply in the winter. I would be circling back to the Professors I've had for graduate courses to ask for letters. 

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I've had profs tell me that leaving a program, if not for like a medical reason or huge family reason is "the kiss of death" for trying to reapply. I would highly advise against this. You'll be fighting an uphill battle about what is going on. They'll be really hesitant to take you as you are considered a risk since you bailed on one program, so not a great record to start with.

 

Thanks for the feedback. Were you considering this at one point yourself? 

 

Although not specifically on leave-with-Master's-and-re-applying, I've seen feedback on transferring range from "it's going to burn all your bridges and be a kiss of death at any school you apply!" to "it's perfectly fine and normal as long as you're not a jerk about it, my friend/classmate/Professor has done it before!"

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It's going to be awkward but I think it's possible. Path of least resistance in my opinion is to portray it as "I am now really interested in this topic (e.g. machine learning) and schools X, Y, and Z specialize in it." You have to figure out what the topic is.... And it's a bit of a fib... But it gives you an explanation. Actually to be honest I'm not sure I recommend this. But I'll post it anyway as an idea.

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Thanks for the feedback. Were you considering this at one point yourself? 

 

Although not specifically on leave-with-Master's-and-re-applying, I've seen feedback on transferring range from "it's going to burn all your bridges and be a kiss of death at any school you apply!" to "it's perfectly fine and normal as long as you're not a jerk about it, my friend/classmate/Professor has done it before!"

No but one of the applicant's this year had left a PhD program and everyone knew about it.  This came up in that discussion.

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Ask your letter writers.  If they are supportive of it, you'll have no problem.  If you earned a master's degree and your letter writers are supportive, there's no reason to worry.  However, make sure you actually want to leave, as I don't think your current program would be happy if you tested the waters and then wanted to come back.

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No but one of the applicant's this year had left a PhD program and everyone knew about it.  This came up in that discussion.

 

Did the candidate get the Master's along the way? Would the candidate have been competitive if not for having left a PhD program previously?

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Nothing in particular is wrong. I just don't feel particularly content, and I'd rather nip this in the bud than have it continue on and exacerbate.

This part is really important. You can leave your current department for whatever reason you like, but then you're going to have to make the case in applying to other programs why it'll be different there. I think it's a big problem if you can't articulate why some other institution is the place for you while your current one isn't, both from an admissions perspective and from a, like, just being satisfied with your life choices perspective. If the problem is that a PhD in general isn't right for you and not specifically that the department isn't right for you, then you're still going to be unhappy elsewhere. I have a few friends who left their original programs and went to different PhDs, but all involved a change in research focus that made their previous program not suitable.

 

And no, I don't think hiding that you were a PhD student in that previous program is prudent, or even necessarily doable. It's likely that at least one of your recommendation letters will say "I had m.cyrax in my X course while he was still a PhD student here in the Y Department of Statistics". Frankly, a letter that didn't mention this fundamental fact would have to lack context in other ways so as to be not a very good letter, I think. There's also probably going to be a Google breadcrumb trail indicating you were a PhD student there, and if you're a serious candidate for admissions somewhere, there's a decent chance you will get Googled.

Edited by wine in coffee cups
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And no, I don't think hiding that you were a PhD student in that previous program is prudent, or even necessarily doable. It's likely that at least one of your recommendation letters will say "I had m.cyrax in my X course while he was still a PhD student here in the Y Department of Statistics". Frankly, a letter that didn't mention this fundamental fact would have to lack context in other ways so as to be not a very good letter, I think. There's also probably going to be a Google breadcrumb trail indicating you were a PhD student there, and if you're a serious candidate for admissions somewhere, there's a decent chance you will get Googled.

 

Thanks for the response--I didn't mean I would actively try and hide it, just that I wouldn't necessarily explicitly bring it up or dwell on it.

 

In a personal statement, I could just mention that I got my Master's, then moved on to do something else for awhile, and am now looking to join a PhD program. 

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Thanks for the response--I didn't mean I would actively try and hide it, just that I wouldn't necessarily explicitly bring it up or dwell on it.

 

In a personal statement, I could just mention that I got my Master's, then moved on to do something else for awhile, and am now looking to join a PhD program.

The catch is that your recommenders say will matter 10x more, doesn't matter how much you downplay your previous program. Those letters are the most important part of your application! Members of the admissions committee will be extra keen to hear what the faculty at your current program think about how you stack up relative to other students and whether you are a good candidate for a PhD. You have little control over whether and how your letter writers frame your leaving their program beyond whatever reasons you share with them. It will not look good if what they write is in any way at odds with what you write.

 

There is some relevant discussion in an old thread about transfers  a couple of biostatistics faculty who post, and a little more about recommendation letters from the perspectives of those same faculty starting  think to succeed in your plan, you need a firm handle on exactly why you are leaving and why you will be happier in a different stats PhD program. Then whatever those reasons are, you need to figure out how to make them sensible and palatable to the faculty in your program who will write your letters so that they can support your move. This means handling your withdrawal this semester and managing those relationships very, very carefully. You just aren't going to have great recommendations if they don't think you left for a good reason or know what you want.

Also, what are you doing in the year in between leaving and enrolling somewhere else? Is it going to be that much better for you than completing your second year in your current program?

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Also, what are you doing in the year in between leaving and enrolling somewhere else? Is it going to be that much better for you than completing your second year in your current program?

 

I would be looking to get a statistics-related industry job, something that could help cultivate future research interests. I could also do one more semester, and leave after the fall semester. This would give me almost one full year before starting applications, but set me back another year.

 

But at that point, I may as well complete two full years...

Edited by m.cyrax
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I would be looking to get a statistics-related industry job, something that could help cultivate future research interests. I could also do one more semester, and leave after the fall semester. This would give me almost one full year before starting applications, but set me back another year.

But at that point, I may as well complete two full years...

Oh, I assumed you had something more concrete planned for time in-between. If what you're looking for is a way to cultivate research interests, why not join a working group or start an RAship with faculty in your department? Like, normal grad student exploring topics stuff. Nothing like jumping right into an area to to help you figure out whether it's interesting to you or not, and you're not committing yourself to an advisor or dissertation topic.

If you truly feel that you need to work away from your university, I would see if you can arrange an extended internship (e.g. a 6 month term) rather than taking a full-time position, and go on-leave rather than dropping out. A company that actually does enough serious statistics-related work to potentially steer you towards a research topic (e.g. some of the big tech companies) might be amenable to this. I imagine most places would prefer to employ you on a defined term rather than have you suddenly up and quit to go to school somewhere else, which is another bridge you risk burning under your original plan.

On-leave status would be viewed more favorably by your program than outright dropping out. I think the discussions you need to have with your advisor and the grad chair about how you are doing in the program and your future will be much more productive if you go on-leave to do something in particular rather than quit, too. Maybe they will even agree that the program isn't working for you and can be actively helpful in resolving your issues or smoothing the way to transfer, who knows? Dropping out is the nuclear option and it doesn't sound like you are certain enough about anything for that to be a good idea.

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Oh, I assumed you had something more concrete planned for time in-between. If what you're looking for is a way to cultivate research interests, why not join a working group or start an RAship with faculty in your department? Like, normal grad student exploring topics stuff. Nothing like jumping right into an area to to help you figure out whether it's interesting to you or not, and you're not committing yourself to an advisor or dissertation topic.

If you truly feel that you need to work away from your university, I would see if you can arrange an extended internship (e.g. a 6 month term) rather than taking a full-time position, and go on-leave rather than dropping out. A company that actually does enough serious statistics-related work to potentially steer you towards a research topic (e.g. some of the big tech companies) might be amenable to this. I imagine most places would prefer to employ you on a defined term rather than have you suddenly up and quit to go to school somewhere else, which is another bridge you risk burning under your original plan.

On-leave status would be viewed more favorably by your program than outright dropping out. I think the discussions you need to have with your advisor and the grad chair about how you are doing in the program and your future will be much more productive if you go on-leave to do something in particular rather than quit, too. Maybe they will even agree that the program isn't working for you and can be actively helpful in resolving your issues or smoothing the way to transfer, who knows? Dropping out is the nuclear option and it doesn't sound like you are certain enough about anything for that to be a good idea.

 

Thanks for the pointer!

 

I considered this as well and I agree that a leave of absence would be viable option... I was just concerned that this would burn bridges even harder at my current school if I were to drop out after the leave of absence, since going on a leave of absence would imply that I'll be returning. And from the perspective of my current department, that I dragged out the process of departing instead of biting the bullet and being up front. 

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I considered this as well and I agree that a leave of absence would be viable option... I was just concerned that this would burn bridges even harder at my current school if I were to drop out after the leave of absence, since going on a leave of absence would imply that I'll be returning. And from the perspective of my current department, that I dragged out the process of departing instead of biting the bullet and being up front. 

No, I think it's the opposite actually: they expect it's reasonably likely you won't return if you take a leave of absence. And I think they'd rather have the chance to address some of your grievances (if you have anything specific) and keep you rather than have you drop out without warning. Are you ruling out the possibility of making your current program workable? I'm curious why.

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No, I think it's the opposite actually: they expect it's reasonably likely you won't return if you take a leave of absence. And I think they'd rather have the chance to address some of your grievances (if you have anything specific) and keep you rather than have you drop out without warning. Are you ruling out the possibility of making your current program workable? I'm curious why.

 

That's a good way to look at it, as well.

 

I'm certainly not ruling out the possibility of just waiting and seeing if things turn for the better--but I'd rather not chew up more of the department's time and resources, and my own time, if I were to stay longer only to eventually leave. 

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If you can't articulate your dissatisfaction with your current program how will you be confident that you won't run into the same or similar problem at a new school?  How will you even know what to look for when searching for a new school to apply to?  "Not content" is a vague enough problem that it could apply to almost anyone in any department.  I bet the number grad students in the entire US who are fully content with their programs can be counted on one hand.

 

I suggest you sit down and ask yourself hard questions about what you really want to achieve.  And if the answer to part of that is to earn a PhD then I'd say your best bet is buckle down and figure out a way to either fix or at least paper over your dissatisfactions and focus on finishing your current program.  I think there are just too many risks, ifs, and unforseen difficulties in taking a masters and then reapplying to different PhD programs later. 

 

You've already scored a big success by getting into a funded PhD program in the first place.  Take the bird in hand.  Letting it go and going searching for a different one with better feathers seems like a real longshot.  Especially since you can't really say what's wrong with the current bird.

Edited by Severina
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