Making Drastic Changes in My PhD Journey

Making Drastic Changes in My PhD Journey Featured Image

At this point in my PhD journey, I’m looking to make some drastic changes. Of course, that’s not always easy, so I’m writing an article to map out all the details.

Table of Contents


At this point in my PhD journey, I am a year into the program. In terms of courses, I’ve completed all of the following:

  • CSE 5539: Computational Audition (2 credits)
  • CSE 5542: Real-time Rendering (3 credits)
  • CSE 5544: Data Visualization (3 credits)
  • CSE 6331: Algorithms (3 credits)
  • CSE 6341: Programming Languages (3 credits)
  • CSE 6431: Advanced Operating Systems (3 credits)
  • CSE 6559: Advanced Computer Graphics (2 credits)
  • CSE 8998: PhD Research CSE (4 credits)
  • MUSIC 7204.04: University Band (2 credits)

At this point, I’ve completed 17 graded credits in the CSE department for a 3.621 GPA. Then, this semester, I’ve added two more graded CSE credits with the following courses:

  • CSE 5521: Introduction to AI (2 credits)
  • CSE 6559: Advanced Computer Graphics (3 credits)
  • ENGREDU 7189.01: GTA Practicum (2 credits)
  • ENGREDU 7900: Professional Development (3 credits)

By the end of this semester, I should have 19 graded CSE credits.


At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’m laying out my course completion information. After all, what does my past have to do with my path going forward?

Well, as it turns out, my future is sort of up in the air right now. In particular, I’ve started to feel a bit anxious about doing research. After all, I’ve been going to seminar meetings every week for the past year, and I just can’t seem to get into it.

Of course, this realization sort of puts me in a tough place because my advisor is literally the person that allowed me to come the university in the first place. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t even be here, and that feeling made me want to make things work.

That said, I decided to explore other options recently which has opened quite a few doors for me. If you’re interested in that story, I wrote a whole other article about how my life is a simulation, so I won’t get into that here. However, I do want to dedicate the remainder of this article exploring those avenues.


At the moment, I’m sort of in a “waiting game” phase similar to when I was stuck waiting for applications to be accepted. Of course, now I’m waiting on my qualifying exam score. In addition, I have a lot of variables to consider moving forward.

Qualifying Exam

One of the biggest variables in my planning is the qualifying exam. At this point, I’ve already taken the exam, so it currently sits in a superposition of pass/fail. In other words, I don’t know how I did on the exam, and the result could be devastating.

If I fail the exam, I have to waste the next several months studying for it again, so I can hopefully pass it in March. If I’m studying, I’m not going to be doing research or anything else productive. In other words, I will literally be wasting time.

If I pass the exam, there are really no issues. All of my options are open. Obviously, this would be ideal. Of course, as you’ll see later, part of me hopes I fail it. After all, it dramatically reduces the decision making I would have to do.

Degree Program

Currently, I’m pursuing a PhD through the CSE department. However, depending on how my qualifying exam goes, it might make more sense for me to drop into a Masters program. That way, I don’t have to bother with studying for an exam. Instead, I can focus on getting at least one degree. Then, I can try transferring to another department for a PhD.

Of course, dropping into a Masters comes with its own risks. For instance, I’d have to choose a track: coursework, project, or thesis. Unfortunately, coursework is out since that requires passing the qualifying exam. In other words, I would be limited to the project track which requires 24 graded credits or the thesis track which requires 20 graded credits.

In either case, I’d need to come up with something to work on quickly, so I could “graduate” on time. Luckily, I already have some plans in the works. For instance, I’m already trying to support another Masters student in their music research.

In addition, there’s the issue of funding. If I drop into a Masters program, I may lose my funding. If that happens, I’ll have to pay a semester out of pocket to make this change, and that could be devastating to me financially.


Another variable to add to this mess is the department. Currently, I’m in the CSE department, but I’m interested in possibly transferring to the Engineering Education Department. Unfortunately, that means that I’d have to complete a transfer application which requires letters of recommendation.

If I choose not to transfer, then I’m stuck praying that I pass the qualifying exam. See my dilemma? Again, passing the qualifying exam would remove quite a bit of stress from the decision making process, but that’s out of my control now.

Of course, I’m already leaning toward switching departments. After all, one of the biggest benefits of switching departments is the culture change.

Right now, I feel like the CSE department is pretty cold and competitive. In fact, in one year, I haven’t made a single friend. To make matters worse, I don’t think I could give you ten names of peers. Even after going to the same seminar for the past year, I’d be hard pressed to hit that kind of number.

Yet, I’ve been in maybe 6 hours worth of engineering education classes so far, and I already know 10+ names. That kind of connection is incredibly important to me, and I’m just not getting that in my current department. Frankly, I didn’t really get any sense of community or belonging in industry either, and I think this kind of change would be good for me.


To add some complexity to my issues, it’s possible that there’s an advisor in my current department who would let me do CS education research. If that’s true, I’d still have to pass the qualifying exam, but I wouldn’t have to complete a transfer application.

In addition, switching departments means I’d have to pick up a new advisor. Naturally, that means I need to take the time now to meet faculty in the other department.

Of course, the last option is to stay in data visualization where I already of a decent connection with my current advisor. Unfortunately, I’m just not sure that’s where my heart lies currently.


At this point, there are a lot of moving parts, and I have quite a bit of time to figure things out. That said, there are a few obvious paths:

Option 1 (fail and switch departments): I could fail the exam. At that point, I’d make it an effort to drop into a project-base Masters program. Then, I would spend the following semester checking off all the boxes as I begin the transfer process to EED. By fall of 2020, I’d be where my heart lies (hopefully).

Option 2 (pass and switch advisors): I could pass the exam. At that point, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, but I would definitely explore staying in the department. That way, I don’t have to worry about not being accepted by the EED department. Instead, I could do all the same research I would be doing over there within the department. Of course, there is a pitfall in this path: the faculty I want to work with may not be allowed to advise me.

Option 3 (fail and switch advisors): I could fail the exam but decide to stick to the department anyway. With this decision, I’d still have to pass the exam, but I wouldn’t have to worry about the transfer process. In other words, I’d waste a ton of time studying, but I wouldn’t have to write essays or ask for any letters.

Option 4 (pass and switch advisors): I could pass the exam but decide to switch departments anyway. Obviously, this choice may be made for me as there may not be anyone in the department to work with. At this point, I’d probably opt for a coursework Masters, so I wouldn’t be walking away with nothing.

At this point, I’m sort of just waiting to fail my qualifying exam, but I’m really leaning into any option which allows me to switch departments. Honestly, I think a change of scenery and material will be really great for me.

Thinking Out Loud

Sometimes, I think it’s important to just map out your thoughts on paper. In this case, I had a lot of thoughts running through my head this past week, and I just wanted to write them down. Who knows where I’ll be a year from now!

As always, thanks for taking the time to follow me on this journey. If you’d like to support the cause, head on over to PatreonOpens in a new tab. and jump on one of my patron tiers. If you can’t share any cash, I’d love it if you got on the email list, so we can stay in touch.

In an article like this, I don’t feel like it’s appropriate to plug any Amazon products. At any rate, see you next time!

Journey to a PhD (49 Articles)—Series Navigation

As my current career trajectory shifts away from engineering, I find myself in a peculiar position as a PhD student. As I explore the latest concepts in Computer Science, you can find that journey documented here in my series titled Journey to a PhD.

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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