Skippin' out...
February 14, 2010 8:03 AM   Subscribe

[GradSchoolFilter] What's the most graceful, or rather least ungraceful, way to withdraw from a graduate program?

I'm in the first year of a graduate program at school x. After having some troubles with the administration (of the standard "here's what you mentioned I could work on in the recruitment phase, and here's the not as good deal I'm getting now" sort), I sent off some applications to other schools, not especially expecting any positive returns.

Last week I got a call from big name school y saying I had been accepted. School y is better for me than school x in more or less every way; significantly more people doing work in my subarea, a better reputation in the field in general, they're offering a much better funding package than school x, and the geographical area they're in is exactly where I want to be. There is pretty much nothing school x can offer to get me to stay.

What's the least ungraceful way, for both my record and for school x, for me to withdraw from their program? Is it sensible for me to stay out the semester? Should I tell the department administrators about school y, or just say I'm withdrawing? Likewise, what should I tell the professors I've been working with here? There are a couple of professors in particular who I'd ideally love to keep in touch with, but at least I hope to not be remembered by them as "that jerk who jumped ship and left for y." Aaand... what do I tell the friends I've made at x? I'm hoping that there's people here who've been in similar situations and can help me be as non-jerklike as possible / cause the fewest problems for the people I'm leaving.
posted by anonymous to Education (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
First, wait until you have the acceptance letter in hand. Then, just be upfront and honest. I'd tell your advisor first, then the graduate chair, and say something like "After having come here, I realize school x isn't really a good fit. Rather than stay on, I think it's best for both me and school x to part ways at the end of the semester. Thank you for the opportunity."

I'd stay on through the semester. I don't know that it's strictly necessary to initially tell them about school y, but I wouldn't hide it, either. There's always the chance that there will be some hard feelings, but who cares, you know? You'll be going to a new school with new professors who want to have you, and the resentment from school x, if it's even there, will fade.

I left my Ph.D. program and my advisor was surprisingly supportive, more or less saying "People have left before, and will leave again, and if leaving is the right thing for you, then I'm behind you." I think most professors will see it the same way: it gives them an opportunity to work with students who definitely want to be there and to repurpose the funding package for other students, and will appreciate you just being upfront.

As for your friends at school x, do the same (be upfront, say you're leaving b/c it's not a great fit, etc). If they think you're the jerk that left for school y, they're not really friends, and you'll keep in touch with the ones who are important to you.
posted by The Michael The at 8:27 AM on February 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can keep it simple. "I've decided School Y is a better match for me, thank you for giving me the opportunity to study here. Goodbye."

There's nothing jerklike about deciding a school isn't a good fit and pursuing another opportunity. When I was in grad school, it never occurred to me to think people who transferred elsewhere were "jerks."
posted by jayder at 8:29 AM on February 14, 2010

Yes, @The Michael The and @jayder are right. If you think it's a good move and there was a bit of 'bait and switch'-esque stuff going on, all you need to do is say it straight (without any neg about current program or situation). Anybody who was interested in supporting you, will support you through the switch, and will likely not be surprised by your move.
posted by kch at 8:35 AM on February 14, 2010

I run graduate admissions at a top-15 department in my field. You have nothing to be worried about here. If one of our students applies to transfer to Princeton and they get in, we understand completely and there are no hard feelings. And if I admit a student from a different program who wants to transfer here, there's no sense that the student is doing anything wrong. When we admit you, we are making a commitment to you, not you to us. We want people to get their Ph.D. where they want to.
posted by escabeche at 8:59 AM on February 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, department chair and previously long-time director of grad studies here: this is just business and no hard feelings, especially with only a year invested in your education. Don't overthink it, and just be businesslike and gracious.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:15 AM on February 14, 2010

Did you receive a stipend during your first year? That's the only hitch I can see. I'm currently receiving a stipend and had to sign something that said that in exchange for the money, I would complete my PhD. I'm not sure if they could ever declare me to in breach of contract (ie, if I left), but you might want to make sure that you would not owe your current program anything in return for the first year you spent there.

Good luck! :)
posted by DavidandConquer at 9:34 AM on February 14, 2010

Just tell them you have to move. Don't burn bridges, don't say anything negative. Tell them you need to be closer to relatives to help with whatever, and you have to move.
posted by anniecat at 9:47 AM on February 14, 2010

If you're taking classes, I'd definitely stay on to the end of the semester and submit assessed work, if any. Some places/organisations will want to see all transcripts and it's always better to keep nasty "withdrawals" off of your transcript. I very much agree with the advice to sit tight until you have an acceptance letter in hand!
posted by lumiere at 10:05 AM on February 14, 2010

Everyone has good advice, but please keep The Michael The's first line in mind! Don't do anything until you have it in writing that you'll be attending School Y. You never know what could happen between a phone call and an official acceptance letter.
posted by asciident at 10:34 AM on February 14, 2010

I had a similar thing happen to me, though at law school. For a couple reasons, it wasn't worth staying in place for the summer term I had started at X, but besides the original awkward (on my part) discussion with the dean, the rest was pretty straight forward. I think the administration and faculty understand. If they received an offer to work at Y, they'd probably go, too. If you made commitments regarding working as a TA or something, you might have a more complicated exit, but it's nothing they haven't seen before.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 12:40 PM on February 14, 2010

Absolutely have everything in hand before you tell your current school that you're leaving. Given the nature of graduate schools you want to give them as little chance as possible to do anything to you.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:55 PM on February 14, 2010

You are not breaking new ground here. Keep it simple. I would wait to tell them until the end of the term. Being a lame duck for three months sucks in terms of both friends and school. At the end of the semester tell them you are transferring to school y because you feel it is a better fit. Then stop talking, thank the department chair, give her your contact info already written out and tell her to call you if you can be of any help at all. If they start asking you why and sort of getting defensive, tell them that you really enjoyed your time here, learned a lot and thank the faculty for all the hard work and help they gave you, but you are transferring.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:42 PM on February 14, 2010

I wouldn't worry about it very much. There is nothing wrong with leaving one school if you've gotten a better offer at another. As long as you are courteous and explain your situation to whoever cares in your department.

At least this is at the very start of your graduate career and your department hasn't spent a lot of funds on you. Have you signed a funding contract as a TA or with a research lab? That might make it more complicated, but again, if you explain that you have a very good effort, people should be able to understand. If you aren't walking away from an existing research partnership with a professor, this is a plus too.
posted by albatross84 at 8:37 PM on February 14, 2010

There is no possible way that a stipulation that you would have to finish the PhD in exchange for accepting a fellowship in the first years (or any years) of grad school would be either legal or enforceable. That's absurd.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:21 PM on March 7, 2010

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