Change of Direction / School Transfer

  • This has become our largest and most active forum because the physics GRE is just one aspect of getting accepted into a graduate physics program.
  • There are applications, personal statements, letters of recommendation, visiting schools, anxiety of waiting for acceptances, deciding between schools, finding out where others are going, etc.

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Joined: Wed Nov 07, 2012 7:46 pm

Change of Direction / School Transfer

Post by phx226 » Wed Nov 07, 2012 8:22 pm

Dear all,

First forgive me for the fact this question is really similar to a relationship question posted about a month ago. The only reason I am starting a new thread is that I suspect my situation is sufficiently different to warrant a new topic.

I am a first year graduate student in physics at a top ten physics program in the U.S. I've also found that while this institution very well deserves its rank for physics, I'm not super happy with my choice. A number of personal things have happened: I am in a long distance relationship with my significant other, who is still attending my alma mater (half-way across the country). We were originally under the impression she would be done by the end of this year, and we would go from there, but she switched track and it's going to take her at least a couple years to finish, and she plans to have extra schooling beyond her undergrad at a near by school in the same state now. I think we're sufficiently far along to warrant making some career adjustments, but I don't want to derail my career altogether. Also, my father is in poor health, lives in the same aforementioned state, and I suspect he won't make it to see me graduate a full PhD program.

Finally and most importantly, I'm sort of disillusioned with physics in general. I made a strong push to finish my undergraduate degree in physics in less time than I would have like, and cut short a degree in EE. I have realized that in picking research groups, I'm way more interested in whats happening in over in mechanical and electrical engineering. I've found that doing a dissertation with one of these groups I'm interested in would be too far afield to be able to provide a physics PhD. I have found that I am a person that has a hard time solving problems without application in mind, which may put me at odds with my current educational direction.

My current plan is to try to make it to the end of year two and walk with a masters degree. I was accepted early on to every single graduate physics program I had applied to, including all of the "number one" schools. I would like to go beyond a masters degree in physics (perhaps a PhD in EE or Applied Physics, or perhaps physics if I can find something to be passionate about), and there exists a top-25 physics school not too far from my alma mater that I was accepted to and fellowshipped, but I ended up turning down to come here. What are the odds of switching schools and tracks next year if I get a couple of decent LoRs from here? I suspect that above school might be a much much better fit for my current life direction, but it looks like transferring schools/starting over as a graduate student isn't nearly as easy as an undergraduate. Would it be possible to take some time off after finishing a masters degree to figure out what it is I want from life, and have realistic chances of coming back to a different (probably lesser) engineering or physics program to finish up down the line? I am willing to accept the career consequences of my choice to walk away from here with a masters if it boils down to it (I have absolutely no intention of staying in academia past a PhD anyway), but would like any input you all could provide. Thank you all for taking the time to read this, and I hope this doesn't sound like whining.

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Joined: Fri Feb 15, 2008 4:47 pm

Re: Change of Direction / School Transfer

Post by astroprof » Tue Nov 13, 2012 10:47 am

While transfers are relatively uncommon for graduate students, they
do happen occasionally. You actually have several options: (1)
as you outlined, stay at your current school until you have
earned a masters degree; (2) depart at the end of this year, regardless;
(3) stay at your current school until you have passed all coursework/exams
and then continue your research project supervised by an advisor in the
geographic location you prefer; (4) stay at your current school
and earn your doctorate. It is important to note that option (1)
may not take a full 2 years. If you decide now that you want to
leave with a Masters degree, you can usually take fewer classes
and spend more time on research.

Option (2) may actually be your best option. You should contact the
school that you are interested in transferring to and explain your
situation. At my institution, offers of admission are valid for
at least 2 years even if the student has previously declined the
offer. This is a very important distinction between your
query and the similar one posted a few weeks previous: you have
already been accepted to the school in question. Note, however,
that the funding offer is not guaranteed beyond April 15 of
the year it is made, which is why you need to contact the department
to see if they would be willing to "accept" you. In other words, you
probably don't need admission to the program, you just need funding,
and the department will want to compare your potential with the new
group of applicants before they re-offer a funding package.

Option (3) requires some negotiation and effort on your part to
identify a feasible path forward, but such arrangements are possible
in astronomy, where students who have completed all of the requirements
for degree other than the research may spend up to 2 years working at a
national observatory. Given the large collaborations involved in many physics
programs, you may be able to find a collaborator of your current research
advisor with the correct geographic match.

Option (4) usually goes with out saying. If you are willing to spend
2 years at your current institution to earn your Masters degree, is
it really that much more difficult to stay a few more years beyond that?

Given your concerns, your best path forward is to talk to your current
faculty advisors. Shockingly, faculty are often aware of alternative
solutions to these complex problems and someone at your current institution
may have an even more creative idea than the ones I outlined above.
I know that students are often hesitant to bring up these issues with
faculty, for fear that they will be labelled as a 'non-serious' student
if they are letting personal circumstances influence their educational
decisions, but, honestly, it is only the most curmudgeonly academic
that thinks that way any more. Most of us want what is best for our
students, and will work with you to find ways for you to be successful.

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