Recently, one of our readers shared a post-hoc admissions dilemma about transfer credit. In brief, they accepted an offer of admission to a PhD program believing there to be a reasonable chance of transferring credits from their previous institution. However, once being admitted, they were initially informed that their credits would not transfer - so they wrote into us at the Cocoon asking us for advice. A few days later, the same reader wrote in with an update: their program reconsidered, and accepted one (but only one) of their previous courses. That's good news for them of course (as Amanda wrote, it's better than nothing!). However, the reader's general situation--both before and after the update--raises an issue I think might be worth discussing: how liberal should PhD programs be in granting transfer credit or adjusting course requirements for transfer students?
What do you all think? As I've never run a program myself, I may not be in the best position to say. However, I have been on the student side of things, and thought it may be helpful to share my own experience.
I began my graduate career at Syracuse University in the late '90s. I was in the program for two years, and received A's in all of my courses during my time there--including courses on metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language with John Hawthorne (now at USC), Ted Sider (now at Rutgers), Dean Zimmerman (also at Rutgers), William Alston, and some other really good people. I think part of the reason I did well at Syracuse was that it was such an exciting experience: I was reading really high-level stuff (Lewis' On the Plurality of Worlds, Williamson's Vagueness, etc.) for the very first time, and because I found it so new and exciting, I found myself inspired like I never had before. I was intensely motivated to understand the stuff I was reading, debate it with my classmates and professors, come up with new arguments, and so on.
Alas, during my second year, Hawthorne, Sider, Zimmerman, and Brian Weatherson (now at Michigan) were all hired away by other schools. Because I was worried about how their leaving would affect my professional prospects (they were the professors I had worked most closely with while I was there), I decided to transfer to Arizona. And, all things considered, I'm glad I did! I'm not sure I would have ever gotten into moral and political philosophy had I not transfered there - not to mention the fact that I ended up taking all kinds of cool courses I might never had otherwise taken, including courses in AI programming, computational linguistics, and philosophy of biology and physics. All things considered, Arizona ended up being great!
However...there was one thing that gave me a lot of trouble: you guessed it, their transfer credit policy! I don't know what their policy is like now, but when I entered I recall them accepting only two courses from Syracuse. While that's better than nothing, it wasn't the lack of transfer credits that bothered me so much as the courses I needed to take because I couldn't transfer more credits. Because here's the problem I faced: I ended up having to retake several courses nearly identical to ones I had already taken at Syracuse. Why was that a problem? Well, maybe I should have responded better, but the honest truth is that when I first got there, having to retake similar courses led me to become a bit bored and listless. It just wasn't exciting to have to read Frege, Russell, and others on proper names all over again; or to have to once again learn about internalism and externalism in epistemology again, and so on. I had just spent the last two years reading, thinking, and debating those things! Because I felt like I'd "been there, done that", for the first time doing philosophy I felt uninspired. It just wasn't fun to have to read the same things again, debate the same things again, write papers on the same things again, and so on.
I know, I know: I should have been better than that. Maybe I should have found a way to be inspired by the chance to go through important philosophical works again. Fair enough (it probably didn't help that I went through my first big romantic breakup at the same time - but that's another story!). In any case, I didn't handle it that well. Because I wasn't excited about having to retake classes, I got off on the wrong step: my concentration wasn't there, my work was a bit uninspired...and I ended up losing my confidence and struggling to find it again (which, fortunately, I did). Anyway, I'm not going to blame my difficulties on the fact that I couldn't transfer more courses. Again, I think I should have handled it better. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder whether grad programs might consider these kinds of possible side-effects in their transfer policies. For, even if one can handle it well, I can't help but wonder whether other transfer students find similar situations dispiriting - and whether it might be good for programs to have transfer-credit policies that don't put new students in dispiriting situations.
What might such policies look like? Allowing more transfer credits is one obvious possibility. But it's not the only one! Notice that, for my part, it wasn't the lack of transfer credits that bothered me. I loved philosophy, and would have been happy to take more courses, not fewer. The only thing I had trouble with, again, was having to retake courses I had basically already taken. So, maybe--even if an institution has limits on transfer credits--a better policy would be to permit students to substitute different classes for classes taken at their previous institution. Of course there should probably be some limits on that - but, if I were a transfer student now, something like that would sound really great to me.
Anyway, what do you all think? How do PhD programs handle transfer credits these days? If you were a transfer student, were you satisfied with your institution's transfer credit policies - or, did you have trouble with them? I'm curious to find out!