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Programs Transferring Math PhD Programs?

  1. Jun 18, 2016 #1
    Math grad student here. I'm currently finishing up my first year in a PhD program, and I based on my experiences so far I can definitely say graduate school is something I want to continue. I spent my first year taking courses in preparation for prelims rather than doing research, but I did well and feel as though I gained alot from them.

    Since I also like the people in my department, it would be nice if I could finish the degree at my current institution, but there's one issue: the research interests of professors here. I had some idea going in about the type of research I'd want to pursue, and throughout this year I've become more and more convinced this area would be the perfect niche for me.

    For my fellow math/physics people out there, I'm really fascinated in mathematical General Relativity. I always knew I was interested in the physics of the theory, but my course load this past year has taught me that I also really like the math behind it (PDEs and differential geometry). So it feels like a perfect fit. The only problem is that nobody in my department is involved in the mathematical GR community. There are some profs here with related research interests (PDEs in complex geometry, Fluid dynamics on relativistic backgrounds), but noone doing bang-on what I want to do.

    Naturally the uncertainty is getting to me, and the way I see it I have 3 options:

    • Pursue GR research independently under the supervision of a professor here
    • Find a different research area
    • Transfer PhD programs
    I'm not sure about the first option. Like I said, there are profs here who have related interests, so it might be possible to arrange something where I explore the topic on my own as they keep track of my progress. But from what I've heard, theses that students come up with themselves seldom work out as well as theses that advisors guided them through. Plus, it would be harder to get involved with the community of GR researchers, so there are some major drawbacks.

    The second option is a little more viable. There are other topics that appeal to me that professors here are working on; for example many-body quantum systems are an active area that I could get on board with. But it would be somewhat disappointing to give up on my original vision.

    Transferring is an option that I'm seriously considering right now. I've looked into where mathematical GR is happening and who is currently working on it. I have a list of five or six places that I would apply to later this year if I decided to go ahead with it. But I'm not sure how common it is to transfer mid-Phd program. Would the fact that I'm already enrolled in a PhD program help or hurt my chances of getting into these places? Would the admissions committees be skeptical about me? I'm mostly looking at places with roughly the same academic ranking as the program I'm at right now, but a few are probably a tier above mine. Would I have a realistic shot at these too?

    Whether or not professors here would write letters of rec knowing they would be allowing me to leave the program, and even just getting letters of rec with little research experience here in the first place, is another issue. But that's another issue for another post :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 20, 2016 #2


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    The largest hurdle I can see to transferring is that many schools have restrictive policies about transferring graduate coursework...so you may be forced to take nearly another full year of courses. Aside from that, as long as your graduate GPA is solid and you have not given your current school any reason not to recommend you, I would imagine you should be fine.
    Of course, the research part of your PhD is simply the first step in your career as a research scientist, so if you do choose option 2, you may still have opportunities to explore your interests after completing your degree. However, like you said, it helps to have the built-in network provided by having an advisor and research team that you want to continue working with for many years.
  4. Jun 20, 2016 #3


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    My two cents:
    Getting a PhD from a Physics department means that they are willing to stake their department reputation on your overall knowledge of physics. So you can expect them to require you to pass a significant number of graduate physics courses and preliminary tests. If your overall general knowledge of physics is not that good, you may be better off staying in the math department and looking for some kind of cross-registration with the physics department.
  5. Jun 21, 2016 #4
    Yeah, I'd probably be set back 1-2 years on my PhD if I moved, but I would honestly rather get a doctorate at 28 for something I love than at 26 for something I like. My GPA is pretty solid; not as high as my undergrad GPA but still ~3.8 in a pretty rigorous PhD program. I don't think I've given any of my professors a reason not to recommend me, but I only have a rapport built up with one or two of my professors, and my lack of serious research experience does concern me a little bit.

    I've actually heard that some people believe it's a better idea to do a thesis on one topic then move to a different topic afterward. But I'm pretty sure I know what I want to do, so if I know I'd rather do it why take a detour knowing I could move in immediately? I'm also worried about getting my foot in the door in the GR research community if I conduct research independently at my University.

    I've heard very different perspectives about how admissions committees look at transfer applicants. I've been told everything from "It's nearly impossible to change grad programs" to "It's actually easier to make it in as a transfer student than as a newcomer". I guess it varies across departments and depends on the transfer applicant's specific situation. I feel like I have a pretty legitimate reason to move though.
  6. Jun 21, 2016 #5
    Oh, my plan is to stay in a math department either way. Most of the GR research that I want is actually going on in math depts. rather than physics depts. But I would say my physics background is pretty strong . . . Math/Physics double in undergrad, legit physics grad courses under my belt, decent subject GRE scores, and several physics-intensive math courses taken the previous year. So I was musing over going back, but probably not.
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