Charlena is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University transferring to the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in Fall 2018. Follow them on @cmichelleart or view their artist page.
Graduate and professional degrees have the potential to add another layer to one’s resume. By default, you are no longer a novice in your chosen field and have proved yourself to be an experienced researcher and/or practitioner. To dedicate the time and money to a graduate education requires a level of commitment that about 9.3% (Master’s) and 2% (Doctoral) of U.S. adults have completed, according to a 2017 article by Reid Wilson of The Hill. But what happens when you are no longer happy with your program or school? Do you leave or stay?
Unfortunately, many students are unaware that transferring graduate programs is an option. They assume that once you begin a program, you either stay and finish or leave the university and may return to a new program at a later date. I strongly believe that more graduate students should be aware of this option, as it can help more students negotiate better conditions in their programs, advocate for themselves, set new goals, or make the difficult decision to leave.
I have outlined three areas of concern that may help you determine if transferring is the right fit for you. I speak from experience: transferring programs and universities was the best decision for me to ensure I completed my graduate degrees and was happy with my investment.
Funding is a top concern for many students, especially as tuition costs continue to rise. Full-time graduate programs leave little room for full-time employment, thus exceptional funding packages are an attractive means to draw top students to universities. For non-STEM fields, funding can be extremely hard to come by; therefore some programs may offer partial funding during matriculation or none at all. What if you are awarded funding for year one and nothing for the subsequent years? Should you leave if funding ends?
While I can’t tell any student what they should do, I think that if funding issues cannot be resolved through some combination of assistantships, scholarships, and grants to offset costs, students should consider if they are able to continue in their program and the financial costs upon graduation. In undergraduate, my advisor and professor told me to never pay for a humanities degree. I have tried hard to stick to that advice; we live in a society that does not always value arts and humanities degrees, if pay is an indicator. During my M.A., I was offered full funding for the first year and subsequently told that I would not receive funding for my final year. As someone who had moved across the country with no financial or emotional support, I had to decide if it was worth the amount of debt I would take on, or, alternatively, worth the effort of finding a job to make ends meet. It is important to think about your return on investment of your degree and the type of career you intend to pursue. These costs greatly affect your graduate school experience and the opportunities you are able to take part in. Therefore, thinking about funding options is critical to your transfer decision.
Universities and programs with better funding options may have better experiential learning opportunities, which is critical for networking and helping students transition after completing their degree. Consider, then, all the options available to you. Your total compensation includes more than tuition remission, so include stipends, grants, scholarships, health insurance, and professional experience in your calculation as well.
Regardless of your program, completing the written or project component of your degree requires a supportive committee that can help you get to the finish line. The knowledge that your supervisors or advisors have extends far beyond your field and includes but is not limited to: helping you navigate the IRB process, tracking your degree progress, narrowing down your research topic, and securing travel funding.
For many programs, identifying professors you would like to work with in your application is vital to helping the selection committee determine if you would be a good fit. However, by the time you begin, there could be changes in faculty due to sabbatical, retirement, or even death. Identifying a new advisor as soon as possible is imperative to staying on track with your progress. Hopefully, your program will have an alternative – either working with another faculty member or allowing you to work with faculty in other departments, for example - though this is not always feasible. In addition, these changes do not account for other tricky issues with your supervisor such as unresponsiveness or differences in the goals of your research. Are any of these grounds to leave?
They could be, depending on your situation. Can you obtain another supervisor. Will you be able to fulfill the goals of your research with another supervisor. Can the conflict be resolved (consider talking with your university’s ombudsperson)? Previously, I faced many difficulties with my program and supervisor, some of which could not be resolved and took an emotional, physical, and financial toll on my life. If these issues cannot be resolved, it may be time to consider other avenues for obtaining your degree. Also, be sure to address them in your statement of interest when transferring. Only you know what is best for you and what is needed to help you complete your degree – because a good thesis is a finished thesis.
Upon entering your program, you were probably encouraged to think about a research question or foci. It’s a daunting task to formulate a research theme or question that will define the course of your graduate career for the next several years. However, during the course of your program, most questions adapt to the data you’ve gathered, seminar work you’ve done, and committee input you’ve incorporated. But what happens if your entire research interest and foci changes directions? Do you continue to write on a topic that you are no longer interested in?
If you are no longer interested in the research topic, this will be reflected in your writing or project and therefore it may be best to make changes if possible. Discuss the proper course of action with your supervisor. Will they be able to help you or enlist another faculty member so you may complete your thesis? If not, they may be able to help you identify a new program that will allow you to fulfill your research goals. During my M.A., my advisor helped me identify and apply for new programs that were a better fit for my research. We both knew that it would be difficult for me to complete my work and that transferring was the best option for my goals.
Open communication between my department and advisor was extremely important and helpful. Faculty members have networks with others across the country and globe, including but not limited to other academics and professionals. They may be able to assist you in making connections with others to help you make a final decision about transferring and find the necessary scholars to help you complete your thesis. Your advisor, cohort, and department may not be the right fit for you when completing your degree but they can be a great source of community after you leave and throughout your career. I’m still in touch with my faculty and classmates from my former programs and we enjoy sharing knowledge and opportunities with one another. Transferring isn’t a death sentence, but instead a space for helping graduate and professional students to think honestly about their academic and career goals and advocate for themselves.
Have you transferred graduate programs? Or maybe you’re considering taking the plunge. Share your experiences in the comments!
[Image by Eric Bailey and used under the Creative Commons licensing.]