Dropping out of grad school
April 26, 2011 4:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning to drop out of grad school in a few weeks. My questions is, when do I tell my advisor? I would wait until the last day of the semester, but I have a big presentation that will require my thesis committee member's time. I really don't want to do this presentation so would telling my advisor before this happens be a good idea? I also feel it would be more decent of me to tell my advisor sooner rather than later, but I'm not sure what to do. My advisor can be really mean and may make my life a living hell for the final weeks/days that I'm there (though I guess I deserve it). Any insight is greatly appreciated.
posted by Lost82 to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You haven't told us how long you've been with them, roughly why your leaving, whether you are funded, what your adviser relies on you for, or where you plan to go. These things are relevant.

But from what you've explained so for, tell them and explain why. Your adviser deserves a chance to plan for your absence, unless of course they don't
posted by Blasdelb at 4:51 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

How could your adviser make your life living hell?

Which do you think would upset your adviser more: finding out you're dropping out, or going through the trouble of preparing for your presentation, attending it, doing all the work associated with it, and then being told that was all a giant waste of time? I'm guessing the latter.

Students drop out all the time. Your adviser might be particularly mean, but this isn't going to destroy his/her life. I doubt it will be in any way as big a deal as you think it will be.
posted by meese at 4:56 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

You should definitely tell your advisor. If he or she makes your life a living hell, can't you just stop showing up? You're dropping out, after all! (Also, you do not deserve to have your life made a living hell. There's nothing wrong with deciding that grad school's not for you. I did it, and I am much happier now.)
posted by cider at 5:01 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry for the lack of details. I'm in a masters program and this is my second semester. I have a fellowship and my tuition is waived. I do lab research for my advisor. I'm planning to get a job (been applying places). I've decided to leave because I realized a few months ago that science is not my passion and I do not enjoy my research at all. I also can't handle the stress of grad school. I've gone to the counseling center at my university and the counselor described me as being a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I couldn't agree more.

Thanks again.
posted by Lost82 at 5:01 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

This close to the end of the year, how much harder would it be for you to finish your outstanding work? (That's an honest question, not a rhetorical one). Will you feel better (either now, or a couple of years down the road) about leaving sooner, or leaving later but with your obligations completed?
posted by TruncatedTiller at 5:10 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

In my opinion you would be better off completing everything that is required of you by the end of the semester and then over the summer notify the admin and your advisor that you are going to leave the program.

I say this because burning bridges with these people is a bad idea even if you don't think that you're interesting in being in their grad program (what if 10 years from now you want to do a grad program and you need to get something from your current program).
posted by k8t at 5:14 AM on April 26, 2011 [11 favorites]

I think you should talk to your advisor and ask them how you should handle the leaving (E.g. should you do this presentation). The reason you should do this instead of just disappearing is that you want to leave on the best terms possible. Remember that science might not be your passion, but down the road you may decide you do want to go back to school whether for science or something else entirely. To do this you will have to provide your Masters transcripts even if you didn't complete the degree, so you don't want to have black marks on it because you didn't finish something. And generally if you've been in a grad program before, when you apply to grad school it looks best to have a letter from your advisor. Not having one makes people wonder why you don't have one. Leaving your advisor on the best terms possible is a good idea, here.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:15 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your school will probably have a student centre or similar. Go there and ask them about the procedure for leaving. They should be able to help you out. If not, it might be helpful to ask someone else in the faculty (e.g. in your department) on what the procedure should be. As others have pointed out -- avoid just "disappearing".
posted by gadha at 5:22 AM on April 26, 2011

Best answer: I dropped out of grad school last year. As a dropout, my advice may be different than some other advice here. I don't know how far away the end of your semester is, but IMO there is no reason to stay out of some sense of obligation. Go now.

Personally, I spent about ONE long/hard week cleaning up my stuff and taking care of details. Many things are easier to do while you are a student - your student number and library card and stuff will still work, in my case I still had keys to the building, etc. Just get that stuff done as soon as possible. It took me a week because the staff had dispersed after the building collapsed.

As for talking to your advisor, steel yourself. Just say what you said here and that your mind is made up. But DO THIS AFTER you have already handled all other details. You should already be dropped out when you talk to them. Your lab computer should be clean and you should have any files/documents you need. Have any research notes they might want ready to hand over. Leave other people with everything they need to continue the work you were doing. In other words, have your stuff together, go meet (briefly) before lunch one day, and then break it off. But do the mechanical part before talking to your prof.

Even if you do all that, expect to have a lot of communication immediately after dropping out. I got a lot of "where is this equipment" type questions, also requests for images, etc. Fortunately, I had put everything on a single disc and handed it over - so there was no question where anything was, really.

Oh yeah. My advisor asked me to finish out the semester but I refused. Once you've decided to drop, you're nothing but cheap labor to them. If they're already mean to you/high pressure, that pressure is not going to reduce in any way, in fact, it may only get worse, and likely your emotional situation will, too. And the university has nothing more to offer you except, perhaps, a small paycheck or two. You could earn that money anywhere. Get the details taken care of now and get out as fast as you can. Things are not going to be easier on you because you stayed on. It is much better to quit and feel the relief of being out as soon as possible.

Dropping out of a bad grad program may be the best personal choice I've made in the last 6 years - since that time, my life has improved greatly, as has my salary, my group of friends, and my sense of satisfaction with my work. You can check my askme history if you want more on that decision, but it was great for me. I suspect it will be great for you, too, and encourage you to do it now without delay.
posted by fake at 5:23 AM on April 26, 2011 [12 favorites]

And IMO, even if you decide to stay, you should not go through all the work of doing this presentation. They're not going to give you a degree, you should not be spending that time on the presentation, you should be spending that time looking for a new job or investing in yourself, sharpening your New Job Skillz.
posted by fake at 5:25 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tell your advisor and don't do the presentation.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:55 AM on April 26, 2011

Best answer: I feel for ya. Grad studies just isn't for everyone. I've known a few people who had serious problems during grad school. One girl I know was from Brazil and had our most notoriously evil old prof as her PI, after she was failing out due to stress and he threatened to send her back to whence she came, the rest of the department stepped in and had her transferred to a different PI. Another girl sat through a final exam, wrote nothing more than her name on the exam booklet, and sat there for 3 hours staring at the page... then handed it all in and went home, without a word. Then the next morning she told her PI what happened and a shitstorm ensued - same old evil prof just so happened to be the lecturer for that class. Even though it was sorted out, she packed up and went back to her family on the east coast and that was it. So, feel relief that it could have been worse.

Given that you've decided you're done, this isn't for you and you aren't capable of sticking it out, well there's no shame in that. But it's a small world, do your best to exit as gracefully as possible, and that means you do not go in to tell your prof as an emotional mess scared to approach him, using a million excuses why you're unable to continue. You say you've thought about this carefully, you've talked to the student counselor, and regretfully you feel that it's really not going to work out. You're going to wrap up your work well enough to hand over to someone else to continue - just means gathering all your literature and research files and the like, tidying up your workspace and making sure someone else who manages the lab stuff knows where you've put everything. They will try to talk you into staying and keep on working, you calmly say you've already begun preparations to go and your last day will be Friday. Butter the PI up and say you've learned a lot from working with him and his research group, good things are going on here and you wish them all the best. Sorry things aren't working out, thanks for everything.
posted by lizbunny at 7:11 AM on April 26, 2011

My advisor can be really mean and may make my life a living hell for the final weeks/days that I'm there (though I guess I deserve it).

This is an especially common and pernicious idea in science, but know this: No matter what you decide to do, you do not deserve to have your advisor make your life a living hell. The same thing has happened to me and a lot of other people I know, and we did not deserve it either. Everybody deserves to be treated with respect.
posted by lmindful at 7:24 AM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for helpful responses. I'm trying to make an appointment with the grad office to discuss my contract and leaving. I want to make sure I won't owe any money if I leave after the semester is over (contract says if I leave during a semester, I will be responsible for the tuition in that semester). I would have left months ago if it hadn't been for that. I'm also taking 2 classes this semester and I would like to finish them out so I'll have the credits. I will probably talk to my advisor at the end of next week.

Thanks again!
posted by Lost82 at 7:58 AM on April 26, 2011

Just one final thought. I had a really, really tough situation with my first advisor. I was hours away from dropping out, but I stayed. Why? I reached out to the head graduate advisor in my college, asked for support. She helped me find a new advisor and facilitated my move.

There are resources like that at most schools. There are people who care. If you think there is a chance your feelings about grad school/science might be more about your dastardly advisor than the science, I strongly encourage you to reach out to the resources you might have on campus before leaving. My graduate career was transformed by that phone call. IThere were still some awkward moments, but I've opted to treat my old advisor with sickening sweetness, to the point that he at times evinces bewilderment when he encounters me (because I am so friendly and genuinely interested in how he's doing!?)

If on the other hand you have just decided science is not your thing (or even grad school is not your thing) both are perfectly understandable. I would encourage you to finish out the semester. I'm continually surprised by how frequently old transcripts continue to be requested. This of course depends on your career (my partner who is the music business, as you might expect, has never been asked for his undergrad transcripts), but I now keep a half dozen of ALL of my transcripts on hand and regularly replenish them when I'm job-hunting, etc. Having an incomplete semester might require more explanations than you'd like.

Good luck! And trust your gut. (And feel free to send me mefi-mail if you want to talk)
posted by arnicae at 8:10 AM on April 26, 2011

In my field and with my advisor - who, critically, I love and trust to support me over his own interests - I'd try to give three to six months of notice so that there would be time to train a new person on my project, wrap up what I'm doing, and leave the place better than I found it. I know you probably feel both fear at the idea of such a big change, concern over reactions, and also a great sense of relief at having finally made the decision, but don't let these things spur you into dropping everything all over the place and cutting out. It sounds like your advisor can't be trusted to respond helpfully, so that does change the playing field a bit, but I think you're making the right decision to finish out the semester.

If your advisor is really a jackass, there may be nothing for it, but I'd at least work under the assumption that he or she will be reasonable and supportive - if that turns out not to be the case, you can always just walk out the door. But seeing as you'll probably need rec letters from this person, and given that your sudden disappearance may actually sabotage some of your labmates' work, I think it's worth doing your best to wrap everything up as best you can.

Good luck!
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:35 AM on April 26, 2011

Don't forget to update this question, and good luck with whatever you choose to do.
posted by fake at 4:23 AM on May 5, 2011

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