MS to PhD Transition Guide

Last Updated: 09/12/2020

What should I do if I’m an MS (Plan I) student looking to join a lab and transition into a PhD?

Disclaimer: The transition process isn’t easy. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. There are many factors that affect success in transitioning into the PhD. Many students will stress themselves out over trying to make this work and sometimes this causes them to settle for a lab or research they’re not quite comfortable in just because they want to go immediately into the PhD; only you can decide whether or not this several year sacrifice is worth it to you. Even then, nothing is guaranteed in the transition process; some students fail their qualifying exam and then fail to transition, and sometimes students pass all that and still leave the program with an MS and not the PhD.

Should I transition to the PhD?

This is not the end all be all to doing a PhD. Several students who have not been able to transition into the PhD in our department have gone onto different PhD programs at UCSD and other institutions. Please consider whether or not the lab is a good fit research-wise and environment-wise before trying to commit to transitioning in that lab because you’re committing to several years. If you have a good relationship with your PI, who has the funding available to support you and is willing, and your research project seems like one that could be extended into a PhD project, then you’re in a good situation to transition. 

The main requirements

The main requirements for transitioning into a PhD are having a 3.4 GPA and finding a PI who will commit to funding you and pass the qualifying exam

The hardest part is finding a PI who will commit to you and commit to funding you as a PhD student. A strong rotation performance is typically the most helpful. If the PI has funding but isn’t fully committed to supporting your transition or if the PI is fully supportive of your transition but doesn’t have the money to support your transition, anything can happen. Transitioning is not guaranteed.

Regarding the 3.4 GPA, having a higher GPA does not necessarily increase your odds of transitioning.

Once you satisfy the first two conditions and have your PI fill out the paperwork, you can schedule a qualifying exam date. You need to pass this qualifying exam to finally transition into “PhD student” status.

When can I transition into the PhD?

The earliest you can transition is the spring quarter/summer of your first year. Vanessa will email out the details and deadlines for filling out the transition paperwork in the Spring quarter. There are qualifying dates in June, July, and August. If you’re unable to get the paperwork done by the initial deadline, consult Vanessa; usually students who need an extension on submitting the paperwork can take the late August qualifying exam date. As long as you have the paperwork and meet the GPA requirement, you can schedule the qualifying exam for the end of the fall and winter quarters. Usually, the latest students transition is during the summer of their second year, but you get a third fall quarter as well to finish an MS thesis, so you can also transition then as well. The drawbacks to transitioning in the second year are that you’ve got reduced chances for fellowships; you are no longer eligible for the NSF GRFP, and training grants might fund you for only one year. 

How to navigate asking your PI about transitioning

Different people and different PIs have navigated this process in different ways. However, here are some guidelines. We recommend that you at least mention that you’re interested in transitioning into the PhD when you meet with the PI to set up a rotation. They will tell you whether they have funding available or not for you to do so. The response can be a range from a flat out “no” to something nebulous like “let’s see how you do” or super supportive like “sure thing!”

See if you can set up another meeting with the PI at the end of the quarter or the next quarter to evaluate whether this is a good fit for the two of you.

After working with a PI for 2 quarters, consider having another conversation about the possibility of transitioning. If the professor is not ready to commit, but they don’t flat out reject your transition, you need to consider what your priorities are. Many students interested in transitioning have encountered PIs like this, and a variety of things have happened; some students were unable to transition, some students cut their losses and found a different lab to transition successfully in, and some were able to transition with this kind of PI.

Some things you can consider are the following:
1. Do you like the project you’re working on?
2. Do you like working for this professor and lab?
3. Is your priority to transition into the PhD?
4. Are there any other labs that you’re interested in?

Ways to show the PI that you're serious about transitioning

Showing up regularly to your rotation lab is a great start. The PI and/or the other graduate students/post-docs will notice how often you’re in the lab. 

Making some research progress. This can be pretty difficult to achieve, especially if you are not experienced in the research techniques of the lab. Most transitioners probably spend the most time on this. It does feel like, as a transitioner, one must have a higher work ethic than the PhD students since the PIs will select them first for any funding openings over you. However, this is a fine balance with maintaining the GPA requirement.

Talking to current graduate students in the lab, especially those who have gone through the transition process, about their projects, progress, and working relationships with the PI.

Enthusiasm/ game plan for applying for fellowships. 



For more up to date information and to hear experiences of successful transition students, BEGS holds an MS to PhD Transitioning Panel in the Winter or early Spring quarters. 

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