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Once you choose to enter a graduate program, you typically plan to stay in that program until graduation, right? Well, plans don’t always work out and the only constant is change. You learn these lessons fairly quickly as a graduate student. One of the biggest challenges you may encounter as a graduate student is the prospect of switching to another program.
I began my doctoral program with sheer optimism for the graduate experience. I had settled into a new city, made new friends, and found comfort in my coursework and research endeavors. Importantly, I had also established a good working relationship with my advisor – which can be crucial to a graduate student’s success. Not only does an advisor serve as a mentor, they facilitate and monitor your progress, guide your research projects, assist you in career development, and more. The relationship that one has with their doctoral advisor can largely impact a students’ development (Schlosser, Lyons, Talleyrand, Kim, & Johnson, 2011). Additionally, having a mentoring relationship in graduate school is mutually rewarding for both the student and faculty. For students, especially, having this type of relationship is beneficial for timely degree completion and research productivity (Dohm & Cummings, 2002; Hollingswoth & Fassinger, 2002).
I had settled into a new city, made new friends, and found comfort in my coursework and research endeavors. Importantly, I had also established a good working relationship with my advisor – which can be crucial to a graduate student’s success.
In my opinion, the advisor-advisee relationship is the most important relationship established during doctoral training, as this is the person with whom you conduct research and receive training. For these reasons, my graduate program decision was largely impacted by my choice of advisor. In fact, I chose my specific program to conduct research with and receive training from my advisor.
As stated before, plans just don’t always work out as planned. Four months into my training, my advisor let me know that they were moving to another university. I was then presented with the opportunity to follow them to this different program – one that I never considered in my graduate program search. Initially I thought the idea was crazy. I had just recently uprooted myself with the intention of staying put for the next few years, but was now faced with this unexpected challenge.
In retrospect, I now realize that the decision to switch graduate programs is quite similar to any other big life decision. There is a lot of time spent wavering between the options, and at many points you may feel like you will never be able to figure it out. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few of questions that you may want to ask yourself:
In retrospect, I now realize that the decision to switch graduate programs is quite similar to any other big life decision. There is a lot of time spent wavering between the options, and at many points you may feel like you will never be able to figure it out.
With those questions in mind, I’ll walk you through my personal decision-making process.
1. Decide what is important to you in your graduate program - What do you care about? What experiences do you want to have?
For me, it was helpful to make a list. This included: funding, goodness of fit with the faculty and students, location, relevant training experiences, publishing opportunities, program reputation, and the advisor-advisee relationship.
2. Research and visit the other program if possible.
Since doctoral programs require years of commitment, it pays off to scope out what could potentially be your new home. On this visit I spoke with faculty, met students, asked tonsof questions about their program, looked at potential housing options, and explored the area. I also talked with current students to get the student perspective of the program. I asked them for their opinions on funding, training, and the program’s culture.
3. Weigh the pros and cons of each program, and figure out which has the most pros.
Again, I made a list. I wrote down the names of both programs, and noted which one was superior in the things that I found important to me (e.g., funding, training opportunities). I also took into consideration the costs of moving, and whether the move was worth the cost.
Of course, this was the most difficult part of the process. Even once I had my completed lists of pros and cons, I changed my mind daily and revisited the conversation over and over again with friends and family. I gravitated towards moving to the new program, but still had difficulty coming to terms with leaving the friends and life I had created for myself.
After months of deliberation I made the decision to move with my advisor.
After months of deliberation I made the decision to move with my advisor. All my credits were transferrable, and the program turned out to be a good fit for what I wanted in terms of research and practice. Re-locating again within a year (back to the other side of the country) was certainly not ideal, but as an advanced doctoral student I can now say that I made the best choice for me.
Being asked to follow your advisor is a unique opportunity that many doctoral students do not have. First and foremost, being asked to re-locate with your advisor means that they see potential in your abilities as a student and researcher. Though there were some challenges associated with this, the benefits far outweighed the stress I endured. I have made lifelong friendships with students at both programs, established professional connections in both locations, and gotten experience seeing the inner-workings of how different doctoral programs are run (which is a big plus when considering a future in academia).
In sum, most life decisions are difficult. But with careful consideration and attention to your needs, the decision you make will likely be the best one for you.
Dohm, F. A., & Cummings, W. (2002). Research mentoring and women in clinical psychology.
Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 163-167.
Hollingsworth, M. A., & Fassinger, R. E. (2002). The role of faculty mentors in the research
training of counseling psychology doctoral students. Journal of Counseling Psychology,
Schlosser, L. Z., Lyons, H. Z., Talleyrand, R. M., Kim, B. S., & Johnson, W. B. (2011). Advisor-advisee relationships in graduate training programs. Journal of Career Development, 38, 3-18.