Think of this hypothetical scenario. Your advisor has some news. They got a new job at a different university. It’s not unusual. There are likely many factors that led to that decision. But you are left to triage this situation and make some tough decisions: stay at your current institution, move to a new university but finish your degree at the first university, or transfer to the new university.
This happened to me last year. My advisor got a new position across the country, and I had to make these decisions. I had the option of moving from Indiana University to Oregon State. Ultimately, I decided to both move to Oregon and transfer to Oregon State. Making this decision did not come lightly. I spent hours on Zoom with my advisor and program director asking dozens of questions, followed by emails asking even more questions. I was excited about the prospect of being in an engineering program and having in-person meetings with my advisor again. But also had to weigh if I wanted to move, take additional courses, and form a new community. I reached out to others who had experienced this and sought their advice as well as advice from mentors. Now that I am on the other side, so to speak, I want to share my perspectives, wisdom, and advice I received from others in the midst of this tough decision.
Here are some important considerations when deciding if you should stay, go but not transfer, or transfer altogether:
Money is not everything, but as graduate students, our pay is far from luxurious. Needless to say, when considering these three options, the financial aspects have to be considered. For starters, what is the cost of living in the new city? The cost of living in Oregon is much higher than in Indiana. Moving to Oregon but staying at my original university meant my pay would stay the same, but living in a more expensive place. Transferring universities meant I was compensated for the increased cost of living because I had a higher salary.
Also, moving can be expensive. Do you have a lot of stuff? Is it a far move? Will you have to put down a deposit at a new place? Ask your advisor if the university will cover moving expenses.
Finally, inquire about admission requirements and fees. I was able to get my application fee waived at Oregon State University, but still had to send transcripts and write a personal statement.
Universities have varying degree requirements. Will a transfer slow your progress? Will there be a lot of hoops to jump through?
I had already passed my qualifying exams and was done with my coursework. But the new institution would not transfer my qualifying exams, meaning I had to go through the grueling process of qualifying exams again… I also had some additional coursework that was required. All of my classes transferred, fortunately, but the university required some classes that my previous university coursework could not substitute for.
Also, it is important to consider if your committee requirements will change. I had to, at minimum, add another committee member. It’s important to ensure your new committee member(s) understand the circumstances.
Are there differences in what is required for the dissertation/ thesis? Some universities have set requirements (such as three chapters plus an intro and conclusion, or requiring one of the chapters to be published). Others leave it up to the advisor. Make sure the expectations are clear.
Make sure you understand what the new university will require and if those requirements will significantly delay your graduation, and if the requirements are worth transferring. In the end, I estimated that my progress would be slowed by 6 months – annoying but not the end of the world.
Personal and Professional Relationships
Consider how your relationship with your advisor might change. Should you decide not to move with them, you’ll be working remotely. Can you still get the same support you need over zoom as in person? After nearly 3 years of a global pandemic, it might not make much difference to work together over zoom. For me, it was imperative to be physically close to my advisor as I wrap up my Ph.D.
Also, consider what others in your lab are doing. Lab groups are many peoples’ scientific community, and losing community support can be a jarring experience. Is your lab group a cohesive unit and are the others moving? Or are they far enough along in the program that moving doesn’t make sense? Having folks you can go through this together can help whether you all stay or leave. Find ways to stay connected with your current group like weekly zoom work sessions.
Finally, if you decide to move, consider the community at the new university. Grad school is hard. Check out whether there are good graduate student communities at your new institution. For myself, the new university had a professional and social student group that allowed me to meet others in the program and find the community I had lost since the pandemic.
Considering things outside of school
Graduate school can be incredibly lonely. For many, it takes years to create roots in a community. Consider whether your quality of life outside of your program will decrease by moving. Are you moving away from family, friends, and non-academic support systems? Do you have structures in place to mitigate these losses?
Remember, it’s not only OK but necessary to ensure your metaphoric cup is filled. Your work will suffer if you are miserable
Here are some other things to consider that don’t nicely fit into the categories above, but I think are still important.
How do university resources (e.g. libraries, computer labs, writing centers) between the two institutions compare? Are you gaining or losing anything by changing institutions? Does the new university offer classes you don’t have access to at your current institution or vice versa? Also, look to see if there is a graduate worker union at the new university (non-exhaustive list of unions here). If your current university has one already, how do they compare? Unions can help support graduate students in ways that the university alone does not.
Also, consider what access you might not have if you move but don’t transfer. Do you still get full student access or just visitor access?
A logistical consideration is how / if your contract might change and if there is a graduate worker union at either campus. Were you previously a research assistant but now have to be a teaching assistant? Look at how insurance compares between the two universities, and if you decide to move but not transfer, will your insurance be covered in the new city/state? It’s important to understand if your funding or your advisor’s funding will transfer universities. Some fellowships are through the university, others are with the grantee. Depending on if funding will move with you can determine if you go from a RAship to a TAship, or if you stay but the funding goes with your advisor you might have to be a TA for the remainder of your graduate education.
Final pieces of advice
Read the graduate student handbooks at the new university if you are considering transferring. Make sure you understand what will be required and what classes you need to take, and don’t be afraid to ask the program director if you have questions.
Your advisor is also still learning. They probably won’t have all the answers, but likely can point you in the right direction to someone who does.
Seek advice from others who have transferred, stayed put, or moved with their advisor but stayed at the original school. They can provide perspectives on their experiences and what they learned.
Do what feels right to you. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all for what to do in this situation. Choose what will be best for you and your goals – academically, personally, and career-wise.
Ultimately, I decided to move to Oregon and transfer to a new university. This did not come without its challenges, such as taking qualifying exams a second time, taking some additional classes, and learning the new rules and procedures, but it was the right choice for me. I spent a lot of time talking to mentors, my advisor, friends, and colleagues who also encountered this situation. Make the best decision for you, and hopefully, this post will help you do that!