Degree In Sight

If you find yourself dissatisfied early in your program, it can be a bitter pill, indeed. Yet a number of psychology grad students experience just that. While there are no hard data on how many students transfer programs, about one in five leaves before finishing a program, APA data find.

Most often, students move on because of a wrong fit with an overall program. Others quit due to an unsuccessful match with individual faculty members, financial problems or family considerations, says University of Scranton psychology professor John C. Norcross, PhD, co-author with Tracy J. Mayne, PhD, and Michael A. Sayette, PhD, of "Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology" (Guilford, 2006).

But when students may be tempted to ditch psychology completely, they should first consider another option: transferring.

"In the long run, losing some credits and doing an extra year of work are small sacrifices to make for gaining years of satisfaction over the professional career span," says Norcross.

To ensure you take the steps that are best for you, experts and students who have successfully transferred advise that you:

  • Look before you leap. First, list the pros and cons of leaving. Get input from family, friends or students in your program who you know will keep your quest confidential, experts say.

On the con side, consider how much time, money and coursework you may lose--factors that vary according to your particular situation, such as how similar or different your new program might be. Also be aware that you may feel uncertain and exposed if people find out you're thinking of leaving and you don't yet have an offer in hand, Norcross says.

On the pro side, finding a program that's a better fit can mean the difference between five years of drudgery and five years of enthusiastic learning, says psychologist Jason Burrow-Sanchez, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Utah. "You won't flourish at a place where you're not getting what you signed up for," he says.

Also in this initial phase, learn what transferring will entail, advises Holly Chalk, a fifth-year counseling psychology student at Ohio State University who left the school's psychobiology program for its counseling program. When she decided that bench science wasn't for her, Chalk went to the department secretary and found out that she'd need to apply to the new program from scratch. While that was a daunting discovery, she felt it was worth the effort, and she's been happy with her choice ever since.

  • Find a trusted professional adviser. Share your concerns about your current program and discuss your potential plans for transferring with a seasoned faculty member in your program whom you trust, says Norcross.

When it comes time to asking for letters of recommendation, consider using the same person, if possible. "You only need one of these people, so choose wisely," Norcross says. A major issue to face early on, he adds, is whether you're unhappy with the program itself or because of the general grad school environment, which tends to be less cohesive and supportive than undergraduate school. Stick it out for a semester to figure that out, he advises, and get your adviser's opinion, too.

  • Be honest but discreet. In dealings with your current and prospective schools, be honest and professional. At school interviews, for example, describe the situation as a professional mismatch that you plan to correct this time around. Never frame it as a problem with your program, experts say, and avoid bad-mouthing anyone or fudging your situation by, for example, failing to mention that you are currently in a program, Norcross says.

"There's a temptation to say, 'It was a bad experience, I'm not going to include it,'" he says. "But it's unethical to lie"--and it can quickly nix your chances of getting into a program, he adds.

  • Learn from the past. Take the wisdom you have acquired from past mistakes and use it to your advantage, Burrow-Sanchez advises. "The more thoughtful and careful you are about your application process, the better off you'll be in the long run," he says.

Kelly Dunn took that tack when she sought to transfer from the applied biopsychology program at the University of New Orleans (UNO) to a program that would enable her to conduct substanceabuse research with people rather than animals. To find a new school, she scoured journal articles for contacts in her areas of interest. She also considered where she might want to live for the next several years.

At interviews, Dunn asked highly specific questions about the departments' environments, and about their teaching and research requirements. She also asked if she could transfer the master's degree she had already acquired at UNO, and about what she'd need to know to take each program's qualifying exam-factors that vary considerably from program to program.

"Knowing all of that really helped me make an informed decision," says Dunn, now happily ensconced at the University of Vermont's human behavioral pharmacology program. "I love my program-it is exactly what I was looking for."

  • Follow your gut. In addition to researching programs, use your intuition to make the right pick, says one industrial-organizational (I/O) psychologist at a research-based consulting firm who declined to be identified by name for this article. When she originally applied to grad schools, she narrowed her decision down to two programs: one that her undergraduate advisers assured her had a stronger reputation, and another that felt like a better fit to her. While the first school had positive features including a strong I/O program, an internship requirement and a chance to gain practical experience at a university consulting firm, the second had qualities more to her liking, including more of an industrial focus and an apprenticeship model of training.

She chose the program her advisers recommended, but her gut was right: By the time she set foot on campus in August, everything she liked about the first program had evaporated. The main faculty member she wanted to work with had taken a job elsewhere, the program had eliminated its internship program and it had severed its ties with the consulting firm.

Luckily, the other program was willing to re-accept her for the following fall semester, and she never looked back.

"From my first day there, I never regretted it," she says. "It just felt right being there."

  • Don't burn bridges. If you get the offer you want, leave your program on good terms, experts emphasize. Chalk, for example, was in the middle of her first-year research project when she decided to leave her program, but she assured her adviser she would stay for the rest of the year and complete it, which she did. The effort paid off: Not only did she and her adviser maintain a good relationship, he gave her a stellar letter of recommendation.

That's sound advice, believes Norcross. "These people may well be your colleagues and networks in the future," he says.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.