How to successfully transfer Ph.D. programs (opinion)


Assumptions about graduate education often lead us to believe that pursuing a doctorate is a linear process. We apply, we are accepted, we begin the program and we eventually finish the program. Too often, our discussions are limited to exploring options within this trajectory.

Such a limited focus makes it taboo to talk about nonlinear paths, including how to pursue options beyond this trajectory. In my experience, I felt that it was off-limits to talk about transferring doctoral programs. Perhaps you have felt the same way.

Contemplating transferring Ph.D. programs can feel overwhelming. For me, even exploring the possibility of transferring felt like a huge leap of faith less than a year ago. I had never heard of a transfer Ph.D. student outside of those who followed their adviser to a new institution.

Yet since sharing about my decision to transfer, several colleagues have forwarded posts from graduate students and advocates who are curious about the transfer process — for themselves or those close to them. In reading and responding to those posts, I’ve realized that I was not alone in wondering about the feasibility of the transfer process. If you are a student who is committed to completing a doctorate but are considering a change, this essay is for you.

A Question of Fit

Part of what made the prospect of transferring feel daunting was that I had dedicated considerable time and energy in applying to, visiting and selecting a Ph.D. program to begin with. The thought of revisiting that process was less than appealing. For me, initially selecting a doctoral program was a heavy decision — I was torn between one program that I knew was a great fit and another that would push me out of my comfort zone. The two programs were in the same discipline, although one had a broader focus (urban education policy, with a concentration in higher education) while the other was more focused (higher education and student affairs).

After considering other important factors like funding and proximity to family, I chose the urban education policy program because it pushed me out of my comfort zone. Yet despite my desire to be pushed, I largely felt like I did not fit in.

More than a year into the program, I was still unhappy, despite being academically successful. In considering my options, I realized that transferring Ph.D. programs was rarely discussed. Instead, scholars have written about how to overcome roadblocks including changing advisers or pushing through. But after connecting with a colleague at a conference and pursuing alternative options, I concluded that I needed to transfer somewhere that would make me happy.

That fall, I emailed the program coordinator of my desired program — the same higher education and student affairs program I had turned down — and explained that I wanted to learn more about the possibility of transferring to their program. Eventually, I shared my transcripts and we discussed the process, my motivations, required application materials and what courses may or may not transfer. I applied alongside other new applicants and then informed my current adviser that I was considering transferring. This was the timing that worked for me, but every adviser-advisee relationship is different.

Fortunately, I was admitted to my desired program under my preferred adviser. At this stage, I was quite confident that I would follow through with the transfer because of the degree of thought that went into my decision and the depth of relationships I had with people from the program. Next, I attended the program’s campus visit day in order to meet potential classmates, reconnect with colleagues, explore housing options and confirm that the program was the right fit. Shortly after my visit, I verbally expressed my desire to attend, and I formally committed when I received written confirmation of my funding. At this point, universities were moving online because of COVID-19, so solidifying a funding commitment was a necessity and a relief.

This summer, I transferred to the program, which has continued to be a great fit. Throughout the process, multiple factors required attention and consideration — some of which have been written about here and here. Although certain factors may carry more weight based on your identity, needs and goals, I will share some of mine and the lessons I learned making the move.

Program selection and application. I only considered one program in my process — one I was already familiar with and within my discipline. However, you may reach out to multiple programs, and if so, I offer the following questions to guide your process: What is the specialization or content that best aligns with your research and goals? What courses, opportunities and resources will support your development?

Coursework and time to degree. Some my biggest concerns were transferring existing coursework and extending my time to degree. Since I stayed in the same discipline, a number of my courses transferred as electives or methods classes. I encourage you to research the policies of specific programs and institutions to learn more.

I felt comfortable extending my time to degree because the required courses will enhance my disciplinary expertise and open up teaching assistant opportunities. Further, given the effects of COVID-19 on the faculty job market, delaying my initial graduation date, with funding, provided additional security. I recommend you ask yourself: Are you willing to take additional courses? How flexible is your timeline to graduation?

Faculty and adviser opportunities. Faculty and adviser fit in terms of style and expertise were priorities for me. I felt more confident in my decision to transfer because my preferred adviser agreed to work with me. I encourage you to be communicative and direct with faculty members whom you are interested in working with. Ask about their capacity to take on advisees, their style and upcoming projects. Consider: What are your must-haves in an adviser?

Funding. You will want to identify necessary steps in the funding process. Is the process different for transfer students, or are you considered alongside other newly admitted students? Do you already have independent funding — say, an NSF or Ford fellowship? If so, what is the process for bringing that funding with you? It is also important to assess what other financial resources are available for doctoral students, such as professional development and conference funding.

Research. I also inquired extensively about research opportunities, such as research assistantships and volunteer involvement with ongoing projects. What projects are available for you to join? How will these projects further your own goals — for example, developing research skills, deepening content knowledge, providing publication opportunities? What support and funding are available for your own research?

Program prestige. Program prestige is an important part of faculty hiring. However, rankings provide an incomplete picture of a program’s strengths. I chose to transfer in favor of fit and opportunities to develop and showcase the teaching, research and service skills that I needed for the types of jobs I wanted. Further, I know the faculty, student and alumni connections from my current program will be an important resource. What skills, opportunities and connections will help you be a competitive candidate? How will the program facilitate your access to and development of those skills and connections?

Culture and climate. These can refer to a number of things, including but not limited to: Do you feel like you fit with the people in the department, including students, faculty and staff? Are there faculty members who share identities that are important to you? Will you have resources to support your well-being and success? Will you have the co-conspirators and mentors you deserve?

Location and other considerations. Moving across the country is not desirable or feasible for everybody because it is intensive and often more complex for students with dependents, partners and caretaking responsibilities. Further, proximity to family and other important sources of support can make all the difference. What resources and supports are essential for your success and well-being in graduate school? How/where can you access those resources?

The graduate school journey is not always as linear as we make it out to be. I chose to make the leap to a new program, and I am glad I did. In my experience, I found myself sacrificing my happiness by continuing down a path that was not for me. Perhaps you feel the same. And it’s often not too late to make a change.

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