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I transferred from one PhD program to another. One thing I would recommend is to try and complete a Master's from the first program. It's prevents having to explain in your application why you are transferring, and your cv will be better for having a completed degree from another institution.

I was nervous as well about asking my current professors for letters. I was already in a program that fit me well, but it was unranked, so I was mainly applying to get into a ranked program because the job market is so abysmal (although there were other reasons as well). I felt nervous because this felt blatantly mercenary, and I didn't want to appear ungrateful to my professors. However, I was wringing my hands trying to figure out how to "sell" the need to transfer to my letter writers without seeming ungrateful, when one of the writers told me I didn't owe the department anything. He reminded me that I was an employee like any other at the school, and I was getting paid $12,000/year. I'm not sure why I felt like the department had done me a favor for two years that I needed to repay in some way, because that's is definitely not the case. Although I enjoyed my time, I was getting paid peanuts, and the department's job placement record was abysmal. Economic reasons more than justify transferring and are no reason to feel guilty.

Although I expressed gratitude to my letter writers, I was upfront with them that I had a family to support and economic concerns were the primary reason I wanted to transfer. I also mentioned that I wanted to write my dissertation in part on a figure that wasn't covered in the program, but I could have easily written my dissertation at that program, so that wasn't a very big reason. Because my letter writers were younger professors, they understood the terrible state of the job market and were thus very supportive of my decision.

I ended up transferring to a school that is an even better fit (I wouldn't advise transferring to a ranked school that's a bad fit) and which more than doubled my stipend.

In short, I would echo Marcus' advice: express your enjoyment of the program and appreciation of your professors while being honest about your reasons. I think most decent people would understand. I would avoid directly criticizing the department as part of your justification (I was very indirect about this).


As an addendum, it is not my understanding that transferring programs is especially difficult, as OP states. I think it is a fairly common practice to transfer up out of an unranked program to a ranked one (or at least try). I know of at least two others in my program who attempted it. It may be more difficult if it is presented in your application as a transfer, but as I said in my comment above, there are ways around this.

A Paul O'Gee

There are several reasons why it's difficult to transfer "up" in the rankings after only two years.

(fwiw, I was able to transfer from out of the top-50 into the top 40, but I did so after my 3rd year in the former. Someone else from my non-top-50 program also did so as well, though others tried and failed)

--The student needs to be exceptional. After all, an admissions committee at a higher ranked program might wonder why they should accept a student who is not among the very best graduate student at a lower ranked program. And 2 years is not a lot of time for a graduate student to stand out from the crowd given journal reply rates, the number of conferences offered a year, etc.

--there is usually little time for the graduate student to have a good working relationship with faculty members in which case the letters may be tepid. After all, if you've taken only, say, one course from a letter writer how honest can this letter writer be about your awesomeness s/he has only read and commented on, like, one paper? Letter writers have to be honest.

--there usually needs to be good philosophy-related-reasons to move up a program as well as personal reasons. I imagine it would be hard for a student who is interested in the philosophy of science at a not-to-50 program wanting to transfer (for geographic reasons only) to, say, Cornell where no one does philosophy of science. [This was brought up to me several times when I visited prospective departments in person. I explained several (very good) personal reasons for wanting to leave my program for another. I often gave (very good) non professional reasons for wanting to be in a particular program, e.g., I wanted to be closer to home due to the failing health of certain relatives. But I was very frequently asked for (very good) professional reasons for transferring to some particular program].

--Get letters from the professors who both have seen a ton of your work and have given it good grades. But first ask them what kind of letter they would be feel comfortable about honestly writing given your relationship. Be totally honest about what the primary reasons for transferring are.

--Provide letter writers with everything they need to write a good letter. Given them papers. CV. Transcripts. Good reasons to transfer. Explain who you'd want to work with at the new department and why. Tell them where, how to send materials to departments. And give them all of this information in a timely manner (like, months in advance).

--If you are able to transfer and satisfied the requirements for earning an MA en passant, make sure that the degree is conferred before you leave.

--don't stress about making things awkward with your current professors. They will not take it personally or think you're arrogant or something. In fact, if you have great faculty and you were clearly doing so well that you belonged in a higher ranked department they should be encouraging you to transfer to help your job prospects!

--slightly stress about telling your fellow graduate students. Or at least don't make a big deal out of it. When I found out I was leaving, I was told not to tell graduate students until the term was over for fear that my news would be disheartening.

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