Is it possible to transfer to another field to continue a Ph.D. or will I have to reapply and start from the beginning?

Date: November 2018


Dear Cornell Grad Dean,

I’m currently in a Ph.D. program but my committee has let me know that they don’t think I’m ready to take my A exam. My committee chair has suggested that I use the spring semester to wrap up my work and leave with a master’s degree. I really want to continue on in a Ph.D. program and have been looking for a new committee chair, perhaps in a different graduate field. 

Can you tell me, is it possible to transfer to another field to continue a Ph.D., or will I have to reapply and start from beginning?

Best regards,

“Trying to Transfer”


Dear “Trying to Transfer”,

I’m sure it was disappointing to learn that your special committee members don’t believe you are prepared to successfully pass your A exam, but it’s good you had this difficult conversation now so you can explore other options during the spring semester. It’s also helpful for you to hear that they support awarding a master’s degree. You would not have as many options available if you proceeded to take your A exam and only then found that you didn’t pass.

Any student in the Graduate School may request a program change by completing the student program change form and submitting it to the Graduate Student Service Office. Of course, before you make this formal request it would be best to have conversations with the DGS and other faculty members of the field you’d like to transfer into. If you have identified another potential committee chair in the new field, she or he may be able to offer you guidance on the transfer process. Most fields do conduct a review of students seeking to transfer, similar to the review process used for new applicants. They may also want to understand if there were problems in your first program or ask for letters of recommendation from someone who is familiar with your work at Cornell.

It’s important for you to know that it may not be possible to receive both a terminal master’s degree in your current field and also transfer to a new field. Graduate School policy permits a non-thesis terminal master’s degree to be awarded under three conditions, according to the Code of Legislation  (page 31):

  1. The student successfully completes the A Exam; or
  2. the student fails the A Exam, but performs at a level considered equivalent to a passed Final Examination for the Master’s Degree and withdraws from the Ph.D. program; or
  3. the student successfully completes a Final Examination for the Master’s Degree and withdraws from the Ph.D. program.

You’ll note that options “b” and “c” are only available to students who withdraw, so would not apply to students who transfer and continue on in a Ph.D. program. I would encourage you to stop by 172 Caldwell Hall to speak with the Student Service Office staff about the program change process, the possibilities for a non-thesis master’s, and the requirements your current field might set for you to earn a master’s degree.

Lastly, it’s natural to feel stress or anxiety while you plan your next steps. Please know that the Graduate School and the staff at Cornell Health are here to help and support you. I encourage you to make an appointment with the career services office so you have additional options. My colleague Janna Lamey, assistant dean for student life, and I are happy to connect you with any resources that you need.



Jason Kahabka
Associate Dean for Administration