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Ecologist stuck in a top tier medical biology PhD program - do I transfer?


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I'm about to finish my first semester in a biology PhD program. I'm at a highly ranked program at a private university that is mostly focused on medical biology, though my background and research interests are in ecology and evolution. I expected to be one of very few EEB-minded people here, but upon arriving I have found that "few" really means one other grad student (who hates it here and is trying to graduate as soon as possible) and one PI. I thought the PI and I were a good match prior to coming here, but after rotating in their lab, I think it would be a mistake for me to join it. This leaves me pretty much stranded without any EEB research options, connections, relevant visiting speakers, etc. Instead, I am force-fed cell and molecular biology, which I hugely dislike. I also had concerns about the completely non-collegial atmosphere before coming here, and they have been completely confirmed. I like my cohort, but everyone in the department seems to treat this place like a job, and people don't really socialize. There are also too many Republicans (said a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but it's real and does make me uncomfortable). I am stuck at a lab bench and have no opportunities for field work (the one EEB PI had made it seem during the interview like a collaboration with a lab at another university would allow me to do international field work. When I met with that lab's PI, that quickly proved to not be a viable option). 

Contrast to the other program I seriously considered. It's a public university with a stand alone EEB department that is well-respected in the area of research I wanted to join, but otherwise not ranked nearly as high (top ~50 instead of top ~20). When I interviewed, I felt immediately at home. I liked a great many of the professors and their research topics. The PI whose lab I would have joined and I got along extremely well and seems to be the exact kind of PI I need. I would have been guaranteed to be doing international field work on a topic that excites me to no end. The students were philosophically like-minded, tight-knit, and supportive of each other. I wanted to go there so badly. 

I chose my current institution because of the money. The base stipend is roughly 10k higher than the one at the public institution, and I was awarded a fellowship on top of that, worth another 10k per year. I'm legitimately making post-doc level money right now, and roughly twice what I would've gotten at the public university. I would have to TA far more semesters at the public university (I like teaching, so the main detractor here is the time commitment out of lab). I am unbearably discontent with my program, though, and the public university stipend, while much, much smaller, is livable. I regret my decision immensely, and I'm not very happy here. This is notable, since I am typically a highly flexible and optimistic person. 

I'm considering three things:
1) Treat this like a job, study something that really does not excite me, somehow actually finish my PhD and go to a postdoc position that is more in my wheelhouse.
2) Treat this like a job for a few years and leave with a M.S. if it doesn't get any better. Figure out if I want to do a PhD elsewhere after that, or leave academia and get a job doing field science somewhere. 
3) Try to transfer to the public university.

Fwiw, I have wanted for a long time to ultimately be a professor, probably doing research. I am open to other paths. My first semester grades will likely be straight B's and my first rotation was not very productive, but I think I could get at least one decent letter of recommendation from someone here, but that would mean exposing the fact that I'm considering leaving. 

The public university program application deadline to be fully considered for funding and the interview was this past week. The final deadline is at the end of the month. I know that neither student who interviewed for that lab joined last year and two students graduated last year, so they need grad students. Should I contact the professor there who I want(ed) to work with? Should I do that ASAP, or can I wait until I know for certain that no other labs here are a good fit? I'm currently trying out a neuro lab, which is going OK - I have no neuro background, but could maybe get into it. Should I expect to have to submit a new application to the public university? How do I do this without making enemies? 

Any and all advice greatly appreciated.

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I don't know that you'd lose much by contacting the public university now. Depending on the response you get, that may eliminate what you've listed as option 3 here. Maybe you'll get lucky and they still have funding for you. But, if they don't, then you'll have to decide whether to make lemonade out of lemons (that is, figure out how to make your current program work) or leave with your MS and try to get into a PhD program elsewhere. The latter will be made more difficult by getting straight Bs in your coursework and because there's often a negative stigma attached to "mastering out" of a PhD program.

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If your goal is to do EEB field research, and you really don't think you can make it work with the EEB PI at your current program, then I think you should consider contacting the other program PI(s) now. They may just tell you to reapply next cycle, which will give you a year to decide if another lab at your current program interests you. 

Leaving with an MS is less preferable if your plan is to apply to another PhD program after, but some people do it successfully, so it is an option.

I don't think it's a good idea to trudge through a lab-based PhD in your current program with the assumption that you will get a field work-based EEB post-doc position after. If your PhD research ends up being completely unrelated to what you want to do for a post-doc, then you will be at a disadvantage when trying to write post-doc fellowship applications and/or applying for advertised post-doc positions.

If you do change programs, unless you can get the NSF GRF or another external pre-doc fellowship, then you will just have to accept that the stipend at the other program will be less (I'm assuming you've already considered cost of living differences when comparing the stipends).

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  • 4 months later...

Whoa! I was about to put myself in the exact same situation as you, but ended up choosing the university that offered less money but more fieldwork (I guess similar to the choice you turned down). I also am an EEB student so I completely understand the importance and passion for fieldwork... There needs to be a fine balance between lab work and good fieldwork for us EEB students :lol:

Honestly, I think you should go with your gut. And it sounds like you want to transfer PhD programs. Do it!! I mean, what would be the worst case scenario? You don't get in anywhere, and so what?! If that happens, go do fieldwork somewhere awesome for a year and then try again! You'll be even more competitive! And if you get in the first time, then you will love your program and be proud of your work. Honestly, I do not see why anyone should finish a PhD that they are not passionate about.

I know the path ahead is difficult and risky, but I say re-apply to another PhD program... Apply to lots, not only the one you have mentioned. There are many good EEB programs out there :D Good luck!!!!

Edited by Fossey
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Hi GoOutside, I too feel that if you have a PhD in a non-EEB field, it will be hard for you to get into an EEB post doc. Also, if you have an undergrad and possibly an MS in EEB, you should consider applying to top EEB programs the next cycle. If you however can compromise and work in medically centered topics for all your PhD postdoc and thus for your future tenure, you can do it- it will PAY off!  However, the stipends at top EEB programs would also be nice ones, so if you get it, it will be good. If you don't get into an EEB program while you pursue your current PhD, finish it. 
Also, you can search for a lab that has EvoDevo wetlab work and maybe some fieldwork, if that seems to be more relevant to your interests. 

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