Changing Graduate Programs: How Doable Is It?

What happens when you're grad school and then decide you'd like to (or realize you need to) change directions?

So. You’re in grad school. You’re doing the work. You know it’s where you’re supposed to be. But what happens if you get started and then decide you’d like to—or realize you need to—change directions?

You can accomplish such a move, but it’s not without risks. You can lose credits in the process, not to mention facing possibilities ranging from alienating professors who feel they have invested in your career to losing an assistantship or financial aid. And there is no guarantee that you will be happier in the new program.

With the right planning, however, a change in directions is doable. In fact, the end result can be a degree, and eventually a career, that’s a better fit than your initial choice.

As a starting point, be sure to do your homework about the program or school to which you’re attracted. You certainly don’t want to switch programs only to find out it’s really not the best choice after all. To avoid that problem, take a course-by-course look at the curriculum you will be studying. Talk to professors and other grad students. Check out the university’s career center and explore the kinds of jobs graduates are finding. If possible, visit places where grads work and get a feel for the environment.

Once you've settled on your new choice, take care in making the transition. John Cullen, Associate Dean of Graduate Programs in the Carson College of Business at Washington State University, recommends seeking advice before making a change of this magnitude, whether it involves pursuing a different discipline at the same university or switching to another school. “Both often involve starting over, although some course work may transfer,” he says. “If you’re considering switching to a different graduate program, speak with an academic advisor for additional insights on the program and how credits may transfer.”

It’s also important to avoid acting abruptly. In addition to conducting the necessary research, be sure to complete any courses in which you’re enrolled. Even if they do not transfer to your new program, you never know when those credits might prove useful in the future.

For doctoral programs, finishing a master’s degree before leaving for another university can be a good move if that option is available, according to Cullen. In résumés and job applications, this may show a logical progression in your academic preparation.

A note of caution: even if you’re not satisfied with your graduate program or with individual professors, avoid the temptation to voice harsh criticisms (and more importantly, to put them in writing via e-mail or social media). Such comments can follow you in unanticipated ways, perhaps even painting you in a negative light with professors in other programs or potential employers.

Once you get started in a new program or university, try to build on past experiences. When applicable, use knowledge gained in previous courses to supplement new information. And stay on track in pursuing your new objective.

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