Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: A Few Good Reasons to Switch Graduate Programs

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Buyer’s remorse is a rite of fall in graduate school. The start of a new academic year means some students return to a Ph.D. program they feel dubious about, while others arrive for their first year worried about whether they picked the right place.

How do I know that? Because this past summer, as usual, I heard from graduate students seeking advice on whether to switch to a different Ph.D. program. They ask things like: When is it wise to change programs? And how can I tell if I should stick it out?

Obviously, the circumstances behind such questions vary considerably from discipline to discipline, campus to campus, and person to person. But I can describe some general scenarios in which it’s advisable to consider moving to a different Ph.D. program.

Life circumstances. I put this one first because — contrary to the implicit messages of academic culture — it is entirely valid to consider changing doctoral programs for personal, lifestyle reasons. Sure, it makes sense to consider the trade-offs of any particular situation. But it’s OK to think about moving if, for example:

  • You are ready to start a family, and you’ve discovered your current program and/or your adviser isn’t very family friendly.
  • You want to move closer to your aging parents who are having health problems sooner than you’d expected.
  • The local climate is triggering your asthma to a degree you hadn’t anticipated.

Those are all good reasons to weigh your options. It is not shameful or weak or "failing to keep your eyes on the prize" to assign your Ph.D. program relative — rather than absolute — value within the larger picture of your life.

To be able to balance your graduating-training goals with your personal values is good practice for later in life. Down the road, Ph.D. in hand, you will have to weigh those same considerations in deciding things like: How long am I willing to keep packing up house every year and relocating for another temporary visiting faculty position? Or, how many years am I willing to live in a different state from my partner?

Changing fields. This one is obvious. The heart wants what it wants, and if your heart wants out of a graduate program in anthropology and into one in business, then it is a no-brainer to follow that instinct.

Adviser issues. Note: I did not say "adviser problems," although they are a large subset of "adviser issues." Here are some of the issues that could start you thinking about a move:

  • Your adviser — who was the reason you chose your program — relocates to a different university. In many cases, universities can broker a deal that allows you to finish your Ph.D. with your current adviser. Sometimes you can do that long distance. Other times it may involve a move to follow the adviser to the new institution. If you have a good relationship with your adviser and if the grant funding works out to your advantage (or at least not to your disadvantage), it may be a good idea to change programs to ensure consistency of mentorship.
  • More grimly (but not without precedent), let’s say your adviser dies. Since you can’t follow your mentor to Hades, you have to evaluate whether your program is a feasible place to stay without that person. Ideally, your program has enough faculty members who can step in to make sure you receive adequate supervision while your dissertation committee regroups. But what if you are the lone student of the lone specialist in your topic? It makes sense to consider whether you can eke out a Ph.D. with existing resources, or whether it would make sense (especially if you are still early in your progress) to relocate.
  • Your adviser turns out to be toxic and abusive, whether that takes the form of emotional abuse, Title VII offenses, plagiarism of your work, or any number of other problems. In such cases, a lot hinges on how the department and the university handle the abuse and whether they have good safeguards in place to protect students. Don’t fall victim to the sunk-cost fallacy: If you truly want to make it in academe, it will be less costly to lose a year or even two — as often happens when you change programs — than to have your chances on the tenure-track market permanently tanked by a dissertation adviser who writes unsupportive letters with a poison pen.

Better money or reputation. If you have an opportunity to move to a Ph.D. program that is either significantly better-ranked and/or comparably or better-funded, you would be wise to consider a switch. It’s probably not worth it to lose a year switching from a No. 5 program to a No. 3 program. But going from a top-50 program to a top-10 one, or from a top-20 program to one in the top 5 could fundamentally alter your career trajectory.

Or not. Just last month, The Chronicle ran a story on Columbia University’s English department, highlighting the limits of prestige in an overcrowded academic job market — an issue that also sparked plenty of concern and conversation on Twitter. The article described how the English department had admitted 19 new students to its doctoral program, despite failing to place any of its Ph.D.s in tenure-track jobs in the previous hiring cycle. So clearly prestige shouldn’t be the sole factor motivating you to move.

Having said all that, here are some reasons that are not worth changing programs over:

  • You feel out of sync with your cohort. That could be in terms of what you study or how you study it — especially if you are that lone student of that lone professor (who you’re hoping won’t die on you). It can be disappointing to let go of the dream of an intellectual community. But you can cultivate an intellectual community around your topic outside your department. And even if you change programs over this, there is no guarantee that on the next go you will find the intellectual kindred spirits you long for, because some programs have cultures of isolation and competition even when everyone is ostensibly working on similar themes.
  • You hate the location. This can sometimes be a valid reason to look elsewhere (if your health is compromised, or if you feel unsafe as a minority student in a hostile town). But if what you’re feeling is more of a "this small town is boring" situation, it might be wiser to stick it out, especially if you’re thriving in the department and/or if it’s a top-ranked program. Use location as a data point when you are figuring out your job-market strategy and deciding where you are willing to move for a job.
  • Institutional incompetence. Kafka is a way of life in academe. So if it seems like your university is poorly run or governed, that’s probably because it is. But that also will be true elsewhere, and you will have to learn a brand new type of illogic if you plan to pursue an academic career.

Which brings me to the other question often paired with "Should I change programs?" — "Should I bother to look for a different program or just take it as a sign that I should quit academe?"

You can find no shortage of articles and commentaries on the overproduction of Ph.D.s, the increasingly unethical structure of the graduate-school pipeline, and the replacement of tenure-track positions with contingent ones. That’s not my focus here, but I do want to take the opportunity to say that, if you are considering changing Ph.D. programs, it is completely valid to add your tenure-track prospects into the mix:

  • Have the hiring trends in your field and subfield changed between when you entered the program and now?
  • Are there alt-ac opportunities that are legible and maybe appealing to you that weren’t on your radar when you were taking your GREs?

There is a door out of academe, and it’s OK to walk through it. Keep that in mind as you carve out the shape of your academic path.

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