Meet the Expert
Dana Bearer, M.Ed Associate Director of Graduate, Transfer and Adult Admissions; Clarion University Read More
Written by
Shelley ZanslerRead More

FAQs About Transferring in Graduate School

It's natural for students to have questions and uncertainties about transferring graduate programs. After all, many graduate students don’t even know that transferring may be a viable option for them. These frequently asked questions can help prospective transfer students get a better understanding of the graduate transfer process.

  • Yes, although the process may sometimes be closer to applying as a first-year student. In general, students apply to a program and then request that previously-earned credits be considered for transfer. Since some master's programs have curricula and research specific to a university, certain credits may not be accepted. However, this varies by school and program of study, and students can contact advisors and admissions specialists to see how feasible the process is.

  • Some schools do allow students to transfer PhD programs, but it's not as common as transferring master's programs. Many PhD programs have students work closely with an advisor to conduct research, which can make transferring difficult, especially if they have made considerable progress in their studies. Students who transfer after earning a master's degree may have more opportunities.

  • This varies by institution and individual program. Between nine and 15 is common, but the number of transferable credits can range from three to 30 or more, depending on the program and degree level. PhD programs that allow transfer students may accept more transfer credits than master's programs.

  • Graduate programs typically must be completed in a specified amount of time, like five, six or seven years. Students can usually transfer credits that fall within that time frame, but they should be mindful of how those credits will affect the amount of time they have to complete their program. For instance, if a student applying to a 36-credit graduate program transfers nine credits earned four years earlier, and the program has a required completion time of six years, the student only has two years to earn the additional 27 credits needed to graduate.

  • Schools may require students to submit transfer credit requests within a certain period of time after starting their program, such as within the first semester or year. Students should contact admissions, a transfer advisor or the registrar's office for specific information before applying to ensure they have enough time to prepare their transfer credit request forms.

  • Yes, but the circumstances in which this is possible may be limited. Typically, students can transfer graduate credit between degrees if the degree programs are closely related. For instance, students who switch into an MBA program from another business-related master's program, like accounting, may have crossover between courses and can successfully transfer credits.

  • Students should be able to transfer between online and on campus programs, as long as prior coursework was completed at a regionally accredited institution, and the student's prospective school finds that the coursework meets equivalency standards. As with traditional transfers, credit transfer between online and on campus programs may be determined on a case-by-case basis.

  • It's possible. Whether or not credits earned outside of a degree program will transfer into a degree program depends on the particular courses taken and whether or not a student's prospective graduate school deems the coursework appropriate and equivalent to coursework within their program. Students who earn a B or higher in non-degree classes can submit a transfer credit request to their school and see if they are granted credit.

How to Transfer Grad School Credits

Transferring credits from one graduate school to another can take some time, but the process is fairly straightforward. Exact procedures and transfer eligibility guidelines vary by institution, so it's important that students check with their prospective graduate schools for details. The following steps should give students a general idea of what they can expect when transferring credits.

  1. Check your school’s graduate transfer page

    This is where students can find the detailed steps and requirements for transferring graduate schools. The University of Oregon, University of Indiana Bloomington and Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences provide good examples of what students should look for. Students should make sure they meet all transfer requirements delineated on their school’s graduate transfer guidelines page before proceeding. Contact the school directly with any questions.

  2. Request official transcripts from your previous institution

    A student’s prospective graduate school will need to see proof of course completion before granting transfer credit. Ordering and receiving official transcripts can take a few days or weeks, so it’s wise to do this step early.

  3. Fill out a Request for Transfer of Graduate Credit form

    Students usually have to complete a transfer credit request form, often titled Request for Transfer of Graduate Credit, or something similar. This form generally involves writing out which credits the student would like to be considered for transfer, including a description of the coursework and how it meets the requirements at their prospective graduate school.

  4. Submit transcripts, request form and any additional documents or letters

    When submitting their transfer credit request forms and transcripts, students may also need to include other documentation, like their previous institution’s course descriptions, letters of recommendation or test scores.

  5. Wait for written approval from both the graduate school and your department of study

    Sending in the request does not guarantee credit transfer. Wait for written approval to be sure that credits have successfully transferred.

A Note for Prospective PhD Transfer Students PHD Transfer Graphic

Depending on their program, PhD students may have to meet with an admissions committee to explain why they want to transfer out of their previous school and into a new one. This may take extra time and preparation, so students should plan their time accordingly to give themselves the best chance at getting accepted into a new program.

Questions to Ask Before Trying to Transfer Grad Schools

Transferring graduate schools can be intimidating, but a little preparation can help. Students can ease their nerves and make sure they are ready to begin the transfer process by asking themselves a few key questions.

  1. Does the program I want to attend accept transfer students?
  2. Is there a minimum GPA, and do I meet it?
  3. Are additional entrance exams needed that I haven't already taken for my current/previous program?
  4. Do I meet the new program’s admissions requirements, or can any be waived due to experience?
  5. How many credits am I allowed to transfer? How many will I lose?
  6. Why do I want to transfer?
  7. How will transferring affect my research or thesis?
  8. How long will it take for me to complete my program if I transfer?
  9. What will additional time in the program cost me?
  10. Will work or family life be a conflict?
  11. Why did I choose the program in the first place? Was the school a bad fit, or is it the area of study?

Grad School Transfer Tips

Deciding to transfer graduate schools is, for many students, a significant step toward successfully completing their graduate studies. These tips can help make the transition process as smooth and stress-free as possible.

  • Sometimes, transferring is a student’s only option, but it’s often important for students to consider why they want to transfer schools as graduate students. Doing a self-assessment can help students figure out if transferring is going to work for them.

    Dana Bearer, Associate Director of Graduate, Transfer and Adult Admissions at Clarion University, notes that there are several things students should take into consideration when deciding whether or not to transfer, such as why they chose their program, how much time a transfer will add to their completion time and whether the issues that caused them to leave their initial program will be problematic in the future. "Students need to be prepared to put in the necessary work the second time around to complete their program."

  • Many schools make transferring at the graduate level easy and streamlined, but starting early will help students make sure they meet all program requirements and have adequate time to fill in any gaps. Discovering you need to take a series of exams and gather recommendation letters from former instructors a month before the term begins can be a huge setback that’s best avoided.

  • Bearer stresses the importance of accounting for credits lost during the transfer process and the extra time it may take to complete a program at a new institution. She also reminds students of the possibility that none of their credits will transfer, and they’ll have to start over. Students may want to see if they can request transfer credit evaluations at multiple institutions before applying to a new graduate program.

  • While transferring as a master’s student is usually pretty simple, PhD students may have to do some considerable legwork when it comes to changing schools or programs. Admissions committees may be suspicious or skeptical of a student’s desire to transfer schools. Is their research going poorly? Do they not work well with their advisor? Did they attend a "safety school" but want a degree with a more prestigious name?

    It may be crucial for students to spend some time crafting a smart statement of intent or, in cases where students meet with the admissions committee in person, a verbal explanation of their transfer request.

  • In circumstances where students need to defend their decision to transfer, it may be smart to request recommendation letters from doctorate advisors and instructors. Sometimes this is a requirement, but even if it isn’t, a strong set of recommendations may help a student transfer into PhD programs, which typically have limited seats and numerous applicants. Requesting recommendations from an institution you plan to leave can be uncomfortable, but a sincere and honest approach can aid in a successful transfer.

  • "Students should talk to their advisors before they transfer and make every effort to complete the program before they stop out or transfer," says Bearer.

    If students are unable to work out the issue that’s leading to their need to transfer, they should ensure they don’t repeat the same problem in their new school. "Students should talk to an advisor at the other school they’re considering to ensure the program is a fit for them before they begin," says Bearer. "Most issues can be solved before students begin their programs."

  • Transferring schools may not be the only or even the best solution for graduate students. Considering why they want to transfer and other potential ways to meet that end can help students make the right decision for their academic, professional and personal lives.

Why You Might Want or Need to Transfer Grad Schools

Like undergraduates, graduate students may find themselves in a wide range of circumstances that lead them to transfer schools. However, the common reasons graduate students make a change in their program of study are usually different from or more nuanced than undergraduate woes and may require more reflection.

  • One of the most common reasons I see graduate students transfer is cost," says Bearer. Students may find that after starting a graduate program, they are not able to sustain their studies for financial reasons. Whether something unexpected happens with their financial aid, a work situation changes, the program takes longer to complete than expected or something else, students may need to look for a different graduate program in order to finish their degree.

  • Bearer notes that job and family issues often play a role in causing graduate students to transfer. She says that family or work will cause students to drop out of a program for a length of time. “At that point, they usually decide that their work or family life conflicts with the program, so they stop enrolling.” However, transferring to a program that provides the flexibility or proximity they need may be a better solution for graduate students that allows them to finish their degree.

  • Usually students go into their graduate programs with a pretty solid idea of what they want to study, but sometimes students find that the program isn’t what they expected and another field might better suit their interests. In this case, students may be able to transfer graduate programs within the same school, which can increase the possibility of credit transfer if the programs are closely related.

  • Graduate students, especially PhD students, may conduct extensive research as part of their degree programs. Students often choose their graduate school based off their research interests and how closely those interests align with their department’s expertise. However, students may begin their research only to find that their advisor’s interests lie elsewhere, and they don’t get to conduct the research they wanted. Graduate students may feel that transferring schools is will give them a better opportunity to conduct research that fits their interests and goals.

  • Sometimes students don’t do as well as they expect in their graduate program. "Unfortunately, a student may be earning failing grades and have been dismissed from the program, thus resulting in a need to transfer," says Bearer. If a student’s overall GPA causes them to be dismissed from their program but they’ve maintained a B or higher in a few classes, they may be able to transfer those particular credits to a different graduate program.

  • PhD students work closely with advisors to conduct research and develop their theses. Every now and then an advisor will pass away or switch schools, leaving students with a difficult decision. For the sake of their research, students may officially follow their advisor to their new school or opt to find a new advisor elsewhere.

Alternatives to Transferring Graduate Schools

Transferring graduate schools isn’t as difficult as it may seem, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the best option for all students. Students should carefully consider why they want to transfer and see if any alternatives make more sense given their circumstances and goals.

Take Some Classes Online

If family or work obligations, or other circumstances make attending classes at the same schedule impossible, students can consider taking some of their course requirements online rather than transferring to a new program. More and more schools are offering online options, so it may be possible to complete some courses online even if the student originally enrolled in a fully on-campus program. Check with the admissions department to see if it’s possible.

Get a Terminal Master’s Degree

If students can stick their PhD program out for at least two years, they may be able to transfer out and receive a terminal master’s degree instead. Students can then switch to a different PhD program or stop at the master’s level.

Collaborate With Other Schools

Students who have advisor-related issues, like differences in research goals, may be able to collaborate with students and instructors at other universities while still completing their coursework at their current institution. Similarly, if an advisor moves schools, students may still be able to work with that advisor for research without formally enrolling in the other school.

See if Your School Will Grant Your Degree After Transferring

In some cases, Bearer suggests that a student may be able to complete a small number of credits in a new program and transfer those to complete a degree in the student’s original program. “This might be an option if the student is only a few classes from completing the program and their home school is willing to accept the classes,” she says.

Schools cap the number of credits a student is allowed to transfer, so those who need to transfer near the end of their programs could be at a huge loss. However, if they are able to take the last few credits they need at a new institution and then transfer back to their original program, students may be able to make the most of an unfortunate situation.

Start Anew

If students transfer credits after a significant hiatus, they may not realize how little time they have left to complete a program, especially if not all of their credits transfer. “Consider the cost of transferring and how many credits you have left to complete the program,” advises Bearer. Sometimes it’s more cost-effective to start fresh rather than transfer a few older credits and risk not finishing a program on time.