Don’t Like Your Ph.D. Program? Transfer

Students often feel powerless to change and see dropping out entirely as the only option, but that's simply not the case, writes Kevin Singer.

January 29, 2019

I remember the whirlwind of applying to Ph.D. programs, waiting what felt like an eternity for decisions and experiencing the anxiety of choosing between offers. Hours turned into days of deliberation, prayer, soliciting advice and finally making a decision. Then came buying a house, saying our goodbyes, making the big move, then finding a preschool and a church, trying to make new friends, and getting used to a totally different area of the country.

I encountered a few difficulties during my first semester -- some of them common to most Ph.D. students and some I never could have anticipated. By the end of my first semester, it was clear that the program wasn’t the right fit for me. I won’t delve too deeply into any specific experiences, but here are four general categories in which things weren’t lining up.

Institutional culture: I struggled to acclimate to, or make sense of, some of the unwritten rules governing conduct and communication inside and outside the program.

Relationships with faculty members: In addition to a lack of mutual interests, those relationships began to suffer from a lack of rapport and trust. Given the differences between our personalities and experiences, that seemed inevitable.

Graduate assistantship: When I arrived on the campus, my graduate assistant role evolved in ways I wasn’t expecting. That isn’t unusual. But I then discovered that my supervisor and greatest advocate would be retiring at the end of the year. That meant additional changes to my role, ones that didn’t lend themselves to my professional goals.

Program design, content and goals: The program had a very specific vision for forming students, one that lent itself to a particular institutional type. I was aware of that entering the program, but I had underestimated how pervasive this vision would be in the program’s course offerings, curriculum and opportunities. Although it was enjoyable to learn about, it wasn’t the vision I had for myself.

As I began to realize all those things, I started having a hunch that one of the institutions that had offered me admission a year before would be a much better fit. I applied and was fortunate to be offered admission again.

And after one year at this second institution, I can say with confidence that it is much better fit in each of the four categories above. The institutional culture resonates with my personality and experience. My relationships with faculty are on a positive trajectory. My graduate assistant role aligns nicely with my professional goals. And, finally, the program is more malleable to a diversity of perspectives and philosophies, giving me the space to develop my own.

Somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of doctoral students drop out, with the highest rates of attrition in the first two years while students are adjusting to doctoral study. Research suggests that is primarily due to systemic issues at institutions, despite the tempting narrative that there must be some deficiency in departing students. For example, the culture of a program might be built on critique rather than support. As a result, students may develop doubts about their competence, a key predictor for dropout, while becoming isolated and overly paranoid about what their professors think of them.

Students in such situations often feel powerless to change or improve their circumstances, which only makes things worse. They may see dropping out as the only option.

But that simply isn’t true. I hope that my story can help to normalize another viable option: to transfer to a different college or university.

Some people might interject that it is unlikely that the second institution allowed any of my credits to be transferred. Admittedly, my current institution did not allow this. However, I also figured in the opportunity cost of not transferring, which for me outweighed the loss of credits. The second institution provided pathways to achieving my goals that I knew would prove invaluable in the long run. My new adviser was also willing to discuss how I could avoid repeating courses that I took at my previous institution.

Another counterargument is that you could be risking your academic reputation by bailing on your first program. I would respond by saying that, compared to perpetual bouts of self-doubt, paranoia and alienation -- or dropping out altogether without a backup plan or financial safety net -- transferring to another institution can, in fact, seem relatively less risky.

Fortunately, the faculty members at my previous institution understood my decision and the rationale I shared with them. I intentionally kept up a dialogue with them throughout my decision-making process so that when I made the decision, it did not come as a shock. I have had positive interactions with most of them since, both at conferences and over email. I recently submitted a manuscript for publication that I wrote for one of their classes, and I will be listing them in the acknowledgments. While transferring institutions could certainly present an opportunity to burn bridges and stockpile resentment, it is not inevitable.

Even in ideal circumstances, you may be required to forfeit hard-earned academic credits and some of the rapport you have built with faculty members and others in the higher education community. But remember, if you dropped out, this would most likely happen anyway. The key here is to perform a thorough cost-benefit analysis, reflecting honestly on why you started the doctoral process in the first place, what you need to be successful and what your goals are.

You might actually discover that your current program is challenging you in some really healthy ways and to transfer would short-circuit your opportunity to grow in important areas. Whatever the case may be, be sure to solicit honest feedback from trusted friends and mentors. Receiving input from such people on my thought process, as well as their endorsement of my final decision, is one of the reasons why I have no regrets today.

Finally, you need to take into serious consideration your mental health. Mental health is the most important thing needed for success in doctoral study, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves because of the powerful stigmas surrounding it in academe. At my first institution, certain experiences put significant strain on me mentally and emotionally. Although I was able to maintain balance and composure, I was concerned that I might encounter more such experiences at that institution in the future.

In short, be honest about your limits: what you can adapt to and what you cannot, what you can change and what you cannot. Such reflection played an important role in my decision.

And in closing, I would say that once the decision has been made, own it. Don’t dwell on the past. Embrace the exciting future that awaits. It’s there for the taking.


Kevin Singer is a Ph.D. student in higher education at North Carolina State University and a research assistant for IDEALS, a national study of college students’ attitudes toward other worldview groups.


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