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 by Emma Burnett
, posted on 1 Feb '18

Jumping Ship - Switching University During a PhD

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m panicking. I have a meeting on Tuesday with my PhD supervisors, and I have some tricky news for them - I’ve been accepted to a different university, and I’m planning to transfer.

Transfers are not uncommon, you hear about them lots. There’s even a separate section on most applications for that. But I’m not moving with a supervisor, which is what you often hear about. I’m taking a leap into a new place, and leaving my current supervisors behind. Feels like that’s a little less common.

But, is it? A quick survey of some friends (n=5) shows that two moved during their PhD study. One because of a supervisor move, and one because she wasn’t happy where she was, so she up and left. She went on to complete a different PhD somewhere else, where she was much happier. 20 percent of my tiny sample size is actually a lot of per cents.

Reasons you might consider transferring:

So, why would you consider moving university during your PhD? Here are a few possible reasons:

#1 Your supervisor moves

This is one of those rare events that happens more often than you’d expect. Academics have to move around for jobs and sometimes this takes place whilst they’re supervising students. Still, a supervisory departure doesn’t have to be the end of the world (or your PhD). It could be an opportunity for you to move with them to a university that’s better suited to your shared research area. Alternatively, it could mean that a second supervisor steps up to lead your PhD into its final stretch, and you stay put. A discussion to be had with them, if it comes up.

#2 You got funding somewhere else

True story, this can happen. Not all universities run on the same entry schedules, and sometimes funding comes in at odd times. It could be that an application for a large pot of funding (e.g. Leverhulme) doesn’t come in in time for your predicted start date, but appears later. Funding is a strong reason to move.

#3 The current situation doesn’t work for you for structural or family reasons

This isn’t something that can be explained without getting personal. But if you feel that where you are isn’t supporting you, your family life, or your mental health, abort, abort, abort!

#4 You found a new focus with specialists elsewhere

That can happen, especially in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. You start doing reading, building a lit review, and your interest is piqued by something totally different. That’s actually an expected outcome, but it could be that suddenly you go from doing something your supervisors are really good at (and interested in), to something that’s not really their area of expertise (or interest). Sometimes, not a problem. Sometimes, problem.

#5 You found a new place you didn’t know about previously, and fell in love with their work

So… you though you knew your subject area really well. Then, you stumble across a whole new team of people who are specialists in just your field. Like, OMG. Love. So many emoji hearts. And that’s a powerful motivator, especially if you’re the only person in your current place doing what you’re doing. It’s less lonely to work in a group.

#6 You’re being headhunted and they love your work

It could also be that you made contact with this new group, expecting to just do some work with them in the future, or have some contact, and they fall head over heels for you. That’s a pretty epic feeling. Ride that love train.

#7 You just changed your mind…

Honestly, if that’s your reason it might be that PhD-ing isn’t for you. Have a good hard think about whether you’ll get anything better from somewhere else, or whether you’ll find yourself in the same place again in a year. In which case, maybe consider a Masters, instead? Another one, even. You’ll get the pleasure and excitement of a one-year programme, maybe some research to deliver on, and a chance to reconsider whether the PhD is really what you need.

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Emma isn't the only student to change their mind about a PhD. Ben's search for the right project actually meant passing up other research opportunities along the way.

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