Making the switch: Transitioning to a different graduate program

As a beginning Ph.D. student in Mathematics at Howard University, I was excited to finally spend my days doing what I loved!  Graduate courses seemed to build on much of the abstraction that I had only seen little of as an undergraduate student.  In my second semester, I took a Biostatistics elective taught in the Biology department.  All of a sudden, I was forced to analyze real biological data and draw scientific conclusions.  At the end of the semester, I had left my first love and fallen madly in love with Statistics!  The only problem was that Howard didn’t have a Statistics program.  I had to make the tough decision of whether to stay and finish a Ph.D. in Mathematics or to leave to pursue a Ph.D. in Statistics.

I was reluctant to give up the time that I had already invested in the Ph.D. program especially since I had passed a qualifying exam.  Ultimately, I chose to finish a Masters Degree at Howard and apply to Statistics programs for the following fall.  Although it meant “starting over,” I was a well-seasoned graduate student and easily hit the ground running compared to many of my peers.

It might also be the case that your current graduate program is not a good fit for you.  Perhaps you haven’t been successful in passing your qualifying exams or you aren’t able to find a thesis advisor whose research you’re passionate about.  If you find yourself in the position where you need to transition to another program, here’s a bit of advice:

1.      Find a professor in your department that you can confide in.  Whether you are leaving to try a different field or because the school isn’t a good fit, you will likely need recommendation letters from your current department.  Reach out to someone that will support and encourage your decision.

2.      Apply to schools that may have initially denied you.  Surprisingly, with a (soon to be) Masters Degree in tow, I looked more attractive to programs that I had gotten rejected from as an undergraduate student.  This was perhaps due to the fact that my transcript clearly showed that I could do graduate level work.

3.      Leave gracefully.  Remember that the graduate students and faculty at your former institution are likely to become your colleagues in the years to come.  Be sure to maintain respectful relationships and not burn bridges should you decide to exit.

By following the advice above, you can make a smooth transition from one graduate program to the next.  Ultimately, my decision to transition to a graduate program in Statistics resulted in me earning my Ph.D. in an area that I am still very passionate about!

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One Response to Making the switch: Transitioning to a different graduate program

  1. Gwen says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I am in a similar situation and am wondering how you maintained a good relationship with your advisor/committe when you left. How did you drop down to a MS from a PhD without incurring the wrath of your department?

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