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Laptopcase

Transfer to a different grad school for a nonprofessional reason?

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Hi everyone,

I am an incoming graduate student truly excited to pursue my research interests. The school I'm going to has a great STEM program, and I was very happy about my choice. However, even though the school itself has a great program, I am very unhappy about its location, and sadly, I'm considering transferring to a different graduate program. I have a few questions about grad school transfer for nonprofessional reasons.

 

I've looked at some posts, and it seems like personal dissatisfaction with the location is a totally valid reason to transfer to a different place. If so, when will be the best time to do so? I'm happy to spend one or two years because I'm sure I will learn a lot, but I will prefer to stay as short as possible. I've read in another post that applying to other schools in the second year may be better because I will then have some time to get to know some professors. At the same time, I read that students can apply off-cycle (in the spring).

 

The school I'm attending is quite prestigious, but I will definitely love to go to an equally prestigious or more prestigious school. Would that be too difficult? I'm sure I will be a more prepared, qualified candidate after some time in my current school.

 

Finally, because I'm attending a STEM program, I receive stipends. If I stop the current program in the middle and receive a Master's Degree, do I still get to receive stipends? Or do I need to pay for the tuition after deciding to transfer?

 

Thank you so much! I appreciate your help a lot! Honestly I don't know whom else to ask for advice... I'm happy to hear about any other concerns I forgot to mention!

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Hello!

Sorry to hear that you are unhappy in your location. You are right that being happy where you are is very important and it's perfectly fine to change schools because you don't like the location.

However, there are a couple of things I think you should also think about in order to make the transition smooth.

First, with very few exceptions, you do not "transfer" graduate school. So, when you start at the new school, you will likely start over from the first year. If you manage to get a Masters degree at a previous school, then that degree might count for some partial credit at the new school. However, especially at prestigious schools, you will likely have to start over from the beginning because they want you to meet their own program requirements.

Because of this, I think the two best times to change are right now (i.e. 0 years passed) or after you get a Masters (~2 years passed). But make sure the program actually allows you to leave with a Masters degree. Not all STEM fields allow for getting a Masters degree while in the PhD track. Some programs grant a Masters as soon as you finish the course requirements, others grant it after you get PhD Candidacy (usually after 3 or 4 years) and yet others will not award a Masters.

Second, you say you are an incoming student---does this mean you have not started (or just barely started?). I don't mean to question your own judgement, but 1) why did you accept this school's offer if you don't like the location and 2) have you been there long enough to adequately assess the location? Maybe you have already thought deeply about this or maybe you have a different reason to prefer another location that has nothing to do with this school's location (i.e. family or personal reasons requiring you to be somewhere else). So, for the rest of this post, I will assume you are 100% certain that you want to leave, but if you just arrived, I just want to say it's sometimes normal to feel unhappy when you first move somewhere and get settled in.

With that out of the way though, since you are an incoming student, did you have other grad school offers that you turned down when you accepted your current school? Are any of them in locations you would prefer? If so, contact these other programs right now. They might still have a spot for you in Fall 2016. Or, they might be full this year but they will still accept you for Fall 2017. Many schools will actually keep your offer valid for some time, even after you decline them. My school's physics program says all offers are actually valid up to 1 year, even if you say no (so if you go somewhere else for a few months then decide you want to go to my school instead, my school will likely still accept you).

Finally, the stipend issue is tricky. If you are serious about leaving, then you need to tell your school, for two reasons: 1) ethics: I think if you have fully decided to leave the program, you should let the school know and 2) pragmatism: if you are applying to new PhD programs, you will need support (LORs etc.) from your current program's faculty. Once you tell your school, it's up to them to decide how your funding will be determined. They might continue funding you anyways until the end of your 2nd year. They might force you to switch to a Masters track and only fund you until the end of the first semester of your 2nd year, or some other deadline (i.e. if you don't finish all of your masters courses by then, you will pay out of pocket). Or, they could just end your funding altogether. It depends on the department and how funding works.

So, this is why I think you are better off either leaving right now or staying for the entire Masters process if one exists. If you leave right now, your main options are to see if your other schools will accept you or just quit and reapply this fall for a Fall 2017 start date. Find something else to do between now and Fall 2017. If you stay for the Masters process, it will give you a year to prove yourself to the professors. It has some downsides though: 1) you will be in an unhappy location for 2 years potentially, 2) if you are already 100% certain you want to leave, then I'm not sure how ethical it is to stay for this long and get paid [on the other hand, if you are not 100% sure you want to leave, it's fine to re-evaluate the program after the first year and decide whether or not you want to leave with a Masters or stay for PhD], 3) you might end up not being funded for some part of your 2nd year, 4) you will need good LORs from your Masters program but telling people you want to leave might burn bridges and prevent you from getting good LORs, and 5) you will probably have to start again from scratch at a new program, "wasting" 2 years.

Honestly, my gut feeling would say that if you feel so strongly against this location, you should just leave now. If you are not sure whether or not you will "warm up" to the program and the location, then re-evaluate this in one year.

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From the phrasing of your post, I wasn't sure if you actually had started the program, or if you're going to start in the Fall. 

If you've not yet moved to the new location and started off, then I'd recommend giving it a semester at this new place. Location and happiness in said location definitely matters. But it's also hard to properly judge a place until you've spent time there. For example, as a Savvy Urbanite you might think that Small College Town would be a nightmare to live in...but in fact you find out that its relaxing, rather than boring. As a fellow STEM person, if you find a good PI/lab set-up then I'd urge you to hold on to that (those things aren't easily replaceable!). Your cohort matters too: it isn't always easy to make friends when you're in grad school, if you are part of a friendly cohort then you have a social circle/support network already in place. It is valid to transfer for non-professional reasons...but there are a lot of factors to consider when making the decision.

From what I've seen, "transferring" as a first year is the most common thing. However, people usually "transfer" to schools that had made them an offer in the last application cycle (the other school had evidently liked the look of you, so they are usually willing to take you as a new grad student usually without a re-application). But yes, you start over as a 1st year in a new program. 

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Thank you TakeruK and St Andrews Lynx! I appreciate your advice a lot. I understand that my explanation of the situation was unclear.

I have not started my first year at the school, and I'm starting my program this coming fall. I have accepted the offer because the school has the best program for my field among the schools that have accepted me. I'm happy to spend one or two years at the location because I'm sure I will be able to learn a lot there. However, because of my family, friends, and significant other with whom I will be apart, I do not want to stay at the school for more than two years. Even though I may have to start a PhD program from scratch, I think I'll be willing because it would have been the same if I had worked at a place for two years (I was debating whether to go straight to a graduate school or get a job first). I am 80% sure I want to leave the current school.

The school that I want to go to did not accept me. I think I was on the wait-list because they kept telling me to wait and told me they were accepting a few more students in April. Therefore I cannot leave the current program at this point, and I'm thinking of staying there for at least one year. If I'm certain that I want to leave around the end of the first semester, I will ask the department for advice and proceed with another round of applications.

Given that I will have to reapply to other schools, my remaining question is, should I apply this coming fall or next fall (Fall of 2017)? I understand that I will need a good recommendation letter from an advisor at the current place. I'm afraid that I won't have anyone that can write a good one for me by the end of this fall. Should I stay for the whole Master's program? St Andrews Lynx said "transferring" in the first year is the most common. Did you mean students who simply went to another school that had accepted them? Or did they also apply again?

Also, when would be the good time to bring up my plan of "transferring" (or starting my PhD at a different school) to my current program? TakeruK pointed out that Master's Degree is usually 2-year-long, so does it mean that I tell my advisor at the end of the first year? Or should I tell the department about my plan at the end of the first semester? I'm afraid, as TakeruK said, that my relationship with my advisor will become awkward too fast. At the same time, it is true that I want to stay ethical although even if I decide to leave, I will do my best at the current school.

Thank you so much for your response. I really have no one else to ask advice for. Have a wonderful day.

Edited by Laptopcase
change option for "notify me for responses"

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Your reasons for wanting to leave school A (the school you are about to go to) are yours, and that is up to you. Is this matter still open to your changing your mind? What is the problem with the location? Is there some way around that problem that could get you to want to stay at School A? I am not trying to change your mind. Just wondering if you could find a way to stay in what is at least in some respects a good situation, at least financially, or if the location is truly a dealbreaker.

Does school A have a Masters you can get on the way to the PhD? If it does, you could consider leaving at the end of the Masters. As TakeruK pointed out, it is likely that you will have to start your whole program over again in school x (whatever second new school you would get accpted to). You will also want LOR from school A, in order to apply to the new school.

How long do you expect your school A program to take, through comps? (Some people work more quickly than others.) Is your funding renewable for a certain amount of time (3 or 4 years, for example?)

School A is a sure bet. If you don't get other acceptances, would you stay at school A anyway? Or would you drop out altogether? What if you get accepted without funding to school x?

Do you like the professors in school A?

If you have been granted funding with tuition at school x, you will not have to pay back tuition at school A for the years you complete in good standing, as long as you fulfill the terms of your TA contract. You should be able to anonymously call school A and verify this in advance.

 

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@Laptopcase: Applications for Fall 2017 will be due in December 2016 / January 2017 so if you wait until you've been at your new school for 1 semester before deciding to reapply, it will be too late to get in good applications for Fall 2017. So if you are set on the "go to the current school and then reapply later on" then you should reapply for a Fall 2018 start, not a Fall 2017 start. This will give you at least 1 year at the new school to get a strong LOR.

However, and I'm sorry that this will sound very judgmental from someone that doesn't know you. It might even sound a little condescending because you might have already thought about all of this. So you can skip the rest of this if you have already thought long and hard about it. It also gets personal so you don't have to respond to the questions here at all, it's more a list of things I think you should think about, having been in a similar situation in the past.

First, what are your goals post-PhD and how do they mesh with your personal life? If your goal is an academic position (e.g. tenure track professor or something like that) then you need to realise that this career path means a lot of moving around. I'm not 100% certain if you are not happy with your new school's current location in particular or just because it's not the same location as your family, friends and SO. If it's the latter, then it's important to come to terms with the fact that you might end up for many years in a location separated from these people. There are ways to reconcile these things though. For me, my SO moved with me (we're married now) and we had made a plan. Basically, the plan is by the time 10 years have elapsed since the start of my PhD, we plan to live in the area that we grew up in (where our family also are) and that being in this area is more important to us than the type of job we work on. So, the goal of my PhD has always been to develop the set of skills and experience that will best qualify me for a job in a certain geographical area.

Second, it's important to take stock of your relationships with your friends, family and SO. How important are they to you compared to the other things you want in life? If you have always lived in one place for your whole life, change can be scary and that's okay. So, if you are unhappy/afraid of change and this is causing your unhappiness, then it's likely this will go away after spending some time at a new city and making new friends. But if there are other reasons that require you to be in the same city then time in the new city will still make you unhappy. Basically what I am trying to say is part of growing up beyond undergraduate education is having new experiences and leaving behind familiar situations to take on new challenges. This isn't general advice that works for everyone, so if you are just nervous/afraid of new situations, I'd encourage you to take on the challenge and give the new school a try for a couple of years. If you will seriously be severely unhappy or distressed away from home (for example, maybe a parent is really sick and depends on you for care) then you would be better off not moving away.

Third, I think it's important for you and your SO to have a talk about your future. Are they also an academic? Does their career also require them to move around a lot or does it require them to stay in the same city/state/country or is it flexible? How will you balance your aspirations with theirs? What compromises are you two willing to make? What aren't you willing to compromise? Are you thinking of marriage or other long term commitment yet? How does this affect your decisions on your career? Are you and your SO going to factor in the viability of this relationship when making career decisions? Are you two willing to be long distance? For how long? If you're both interested or planning on a long term commitment, what about things like: how will finances work? are you thinking of children? when? where do you want to live permanently? does it have to be in the US? in a certain state? within some distance of a city? etc.

There are no right answers to the above questions of course, but I think that's something you need to get sorted out first before deciding what to do. 

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