Degree In Sight

The news came as a shock: Maria Martinez was in her first year and Kelly Bhatnagar in her second year of training at Case Western Reserve University when their adviser, pediatric bipolar expert Eric Youngstrom, PhD, told them he was considering a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He asked both students if they wanted to transfer with him and did everything he could to make the transition smooth, even offering to help Bhatnagar's husband transfer to the law school at UNC if she wanted to follow him to the graduate program there.

Nevertheless, a big decision loomed, and they had only a few weeks to make it.

Bhatnagar had to mull over whether or not to leave a department that was a great fit for her interests, and also whether it was worth it to uproot her husband's education.

Martinez, also happy with the Case program, had to decide whether she could afford to lose the time and money a transfer might entail.

"It was pretty daunting to be settled into a program and a new city and suddenly be thinking about the possibility of making a move again," Martinez says.

"It was difficult," Bhatnagar agrees. "My husband and I had many long discussions."

In the end, Martinez followed Youngstrom, and Bhatnagar stayed at Case.

Here are some of the considerations they—and others who have lost advisers—thought through to come to the decision that was best for them:

  • Do I have support where I am? Losing an adviser can happen to anyone. If your adviser is an early career psychologist, he or she may move to a more prestigious position at another university. Even tenured researchers get courted by other programs. What's more, not all departing faculty or new institutions will accommodate student transfers: Faculty are not obligated to take you, and whether a new institution accepts the faculty's grad students depends on his or her star power and negotiating skills, experts say.

    Buffer yourself from such uncertainties by fostering good relationships with other faculty, supervisors and students, so that if you lose one source of support, you have others to fall back on, advises W. Brad Johnson, PhD, professor of psychology at the U.S. Naval Academy and author with Jennifer M. Huwe, PsyD, of "Getting Mentored in Graduate School" (APA, 2002).

    Bhatnagar had such support from faculty and others in her program. "Numerous faculty members offered to become my adviser and mentor or to assist me with the transition." She ended up pursuing a new interest in eating disorders with another Case faculty member and has found the path rewarding, she says.

  • What are my options? Meet with the departing faculty as soon as possible to discuss the pros and cons of leaving or staying with him or her.

    "Ask all of the questions that come to mind because it's the little things that will affect your quality of life wherever you go," says Derek Snyder, who followed his adviser, Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, from Yale University to the University of Florida.

    A major consideration is where you are in your program, many say. If you're near graduation, staying is probably wisest. If you're relatively junior and are committed to your adviser, "it may make great sense to move, assuming it's not too much of a hardship," says Johnson.

    Then, if you're leaning toward staying, ask how the adviser's departure will affect your ability to complete your master's thesis or doctoral dissertation. If you're working together on research, some universities allow you to collaborate long-distance, says Linda M. Forrest, PhD, a counseling psychology professor at the University of Oregon.

    If your university won't do that, ask for help finding a new adviser. Also ask if your departing adviser can stay on board to write you letters of recommendation for future internship or job applications.

    If you're interested in following your adviser, ask about moving expenses, your financial options at the new site, and how much academic time you'd lose if you made the switch. The more coveted the faculty member, the more accommodating the new program is likely to be. And the more established the institution, the more likely it is to provide benefits like good stipends, says Forrest. Be aware that more tangential perks like moving expenses are likely to be your responsibility if tough economic times persist, she notes.

    Also be sure to talk to the department head at the program you're considering transferring to about how much of your coursework will transfer and any other implications of changing schools, advises Martinez.

  • Can I be more flexible? If you're thinking of staying, creatively assess your training goals and seek faculty who can help you meet them, suggests doctoral student Eric Lester, who stayed at Ball State University when his adviser Molly Tschopp, PhD, left for the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

    Another faculty member specialized in his interest area of health psychology, but that professor wasn't available to be his adviser, so he found others with related research and clinical interests. They enabled him to keep his original dissertation topic, exploring people's eating habits following bariatric surgery. In fact, by tapping the methodological expertise of his new adviser, Lawrence Gerstein, PhD, Lester feels he ended up with an even stronger project than he might otherwise have had.

    "It was important to me to be active in decisions involving my future and goals," Lester says. "I didn't want to passively sit by, especially since I was facing a big change that could potentially impact my career."

  • What can I gain from a new situation? If you're thinking about moving, be bold and tell your adviser what you want from your new institution. Your adviser may be able to negotiate for you, Snyder says.

    In Snyder's case, Bartoshuk bargained for and got everything Snyder asked for, including letting him remain a Yale student so he could avoid navigating another admissions process, and becoming an employee at the University of Florida, which allowed him to earn more money than he got at Yale. Ryan Winter, PhD, enjoyed great perks when he moved twice with his adviser Richard Weiner, PhD. His adviser negotiated free tuition and a stipend for Winter at The City University of New York and a free master's in law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "Those were perks I couldn't pass up," Winter says.

  • What does my gut tell me? Heed your inner voice when making your decision, advises Jeanne Duax, who also had the option of going to UNC with Youngstrom but stayed at Case Western instead.

    "It's important to gather as much information as you can to make an informed decision, but deep down, you already know where you're leaning," she says.

    Besides academics, there are a thousand other factors that play into the decision. Cleveland was closer to Duax's family than Chapel Hill, and she had established good friendships and professional connections there that she wanted to maintain.

    For some, factors like geography and climate might play a role, too.

    Whatever path you choose, know that you will be OK, especially if you see the upheaval as an opportunity for growth. Snyder learned how to negotiate for his interests and set up a lab, Duax developed new research interests, and Winter got extra training that expanded his academic clout, for example.

    Bhatnagar and Martinez are extremely happy with their decisions, as well. After completing her coursework at Case, Bhatnagar is finishing an internship at the Children's Hospital in Denver. Martinez is in her fourth year at Chapel Hill and anticipating a career as a researcher in pediatric bipolar disorder.

    While making the choice can be tough, treating it seriously can have long-term payoffs, underscores Martinez.

    "Going through the process of deciding what's best for you and making a sacrifice can be valuable," she says. "For me, it's worked out great, and I'm sure that if I'd stayed at Case, things would have worked out well, too. But it's nice to know that I made a good decision for me."

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