What should I expect when I tell my adviser I'm leaving?
November 8, 2011 11:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to tell my adviser I want to leave to program. What should I expect from the conversation? Will she cut my funding on the day-of and refuse to help me find work?

I'm about to tell my adviser I want to leave the PhD program. In the past, whenever the question of choice of career came up, my adviser has given me encouragement to keep with the program, and arguments for why this is the best thing for me. In theory, advisers have a responsibility to place the student's need first. In my case, I feel my adviser is first concerned with the continuation of her research program. If I leave, it will certainly put her in a pickle, which taints her advice.

There are a number of interlinked reasons why I want to leave.

-- My adviser insists on a thesis topic which appears (to me, 2 of my committee members, and the department chair) to be much larger than reasonable. I am looking at another 3 or 4 years of work before I can graduate. I have tried to negotiate this downwards for the last 10 months, with little gains.

-- A number of people who recently graduated with PhD degrees similar to mine have had a terrible time finding jobs. I heard from people inside the larger companies hiring us, and their experience do not encourage me to pursue these jobs any longer.

-- The skill set I am acquiring is very narrow, and marginally marketable outside of academia (which is unusual for my dicipline.) This does not correspond my adviser's promise to me, when she invited me to the program. I feel I would learn more, and grow more as an individual, if I had a real job.

-- Over the two years, I have not established much ties with the members of my extended research group. If I graduate and become a professor, I would be dependent on their good will for much of my research program. I don't see these relationships developing enough to get such support. I am not ready to gamble that they would.

-- A number of members of the group have rather grating personality. I have deal with the outbursts of two of my closest co-authors with some regularity. I don't need this in my life.

-- Over the two years, my interests have shifted somewhat, and I am now less interested in academia, and more interested in a different kind of work (sorry, I'm being vague.) For one, the people I meet in this new community are better company.

-- The work relationship with my adviser has degraded over the last six months. In part because, as a result of the factors I mentioned so far, it became difficult to find focus and motivation.

I have a master from a different university. I am two years into this program. We published 4 papers already, and received one 'best paper' award. I have completed all my coursework except for one course. I still need to propose and pass the comps exam. I don't have a next job lined up yet, but I have done a few interviews. I am an international student, so in addition to worrying about losing my funding suddenly, I also worry about losing my visa status.

What should I tell my adviser about my reasons for leaving, if anything? My goal is to encourage my adviser to shift her focus towards helping me find employment. If I cannot expect to actively help me, I would like at least a supporting letter of recommendation.

Are there any further diplomatic considerations I should keep in mind?
posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total)
Once you leave the program, you are on your own. Since you're not graduating from the program, your advisor has no obligation to help you find a job, and in fact, is poorly suited to do so, given that you've decided to strike out in another direction.

If you had a good relationship with your advisor, and you thought she had some useful contacts, then maybe she could help. But as it stands, I'm perplexed why you think she would -- or even could -- help you.
posted by canine epigram at 11:15 AM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Agree w/ canine epigram. Aside from the second-last paragraph, this is remarkably well-reasoned and level-headed bit of thinking, so my congratulations on that given the difficult time you must be facing. But once you leave, you leave. She should certainly be willing to help you with letters given your publication success, but this is a professional courtesy she would be extending, and not an obligation, as all such obligations end once you quit.

I would imagine your funding will probably terminate the moment your status shifts from 'full-time enrolled' to 'not enrolled'. Likewise your visa status, though that I have no idea about. I'm not sure what triggers the status change; it will be a procedural thing from your university and it will likely require your signature on something to confirm your withdrawal, but your adviser might insist you sign such a form immediately, and with good reason frankly. It's thus in your interest to delay having this conversation until you are prepared to have your funding immediately suspended -- ideally because you already have a job lined up.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:25 AM on November 8, 2011

Your advisor is concerned with getting ahead in academia, not in getting you a job outside of academia.

Congrats on bailing, it's all too easy to continue without consulting external reality.
posted by benzenedream at 1:01 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you change degree programs at the university?
posted by feste at 1:27 PM on November 8, 2011

It's hard to give specific advice without knowing the details of your funding and visa situation, but I generally advise you to have your financial and visa situation fully planned out for after you leave before you notify anyone within the department that you plan to leave. It doesn't seem like you're at that stage yet. Fake it for a while and work on your exit plan, in case there is a surprise when you start making it official.
posted by Kwine at 1:40 PM on November 8, 2011

Before you tell your advisor anything, I'd suggest that you figure out what you're going to do next, especially with regard to your visa.

I'd keep in the PhD program until you have a firm job offer with a visa sponsorship in hand.
posted by k8t at 1:47 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like leaving is a smart idea, but I agree you need to sort out your visa first, and maybe don't talk to your advisor until everything is ready to go. You don't want to be forced to continue working with someone who might be annoyed with you.

I would have said only a terrible advisor would not understand your arguments about what is best for you, and wish you well in your new plans. But what you say about your work being something your advisor needs for his/her own research, and that your relationship with him/her is already difficult, is troubling. I don't imagine that your funding would be cut off immediately - if you are prepared to keep working until you finish some target that would help your advisor, e.g. complete an experiment, or finish a paper, then I imagine they would keep funding you until then, but every department and university works differently.

I agree with others that your advisor is not well placed to help you find work if you are looking outside of academia - he/she probably has few contacts in the industry you are considering. But you should absolutely confirm that he/she would be willing to write you a positive reference letter, at least.

I think you should lay out your reasons for leaving exactly as you have above. Focus heavily on the fact that you have realised that the academic job market leaves something to be desired, and that your interests lie more outside of academia. No one can argue with those points.
posted by lollusc at 2:12 PM on November 8, 2011

I wouldn't have this conversation unless you have a clear plan for what to do if you lose your visa. Your advisor is not going to be invested in having you find non-academic work. Moreover, job-hunting is a slog, and job-hunting for companies that will sponsor you, doubly so. Depending on where you are and what your area of specialization is, you could be looking at 6 months or more before you get a job offer.

I've done the academia to industry transition in the life sciences, though a bit earlier than you. You've been deliberately vague here, so it's hard to tell how much of a plan you've formulated as far as the job hunt goes, or what kind of position you think you'd prefer. But memail me if you want someone to bounce ideas off of; I'd be happy to chat.
posted by deludingmyself at 2:59 PM on November 8, 2011

I would also keep mum until you have a better idea of where you are going and what you are doing so as not to exacerbate a deteriorating situation as well as to keep from pre-emptively jeopardizing your living situation. I've left academia myself but I was a citizen of that country and my funding was yearly, so my situation was different, but my reasons were similar.

There's nothing wrong with your reasoning, but you also want to be in a position where your advisor respects your decision and doesn't try to keep talking you into staying. However, your advisor doesn't owe you anything and unfortunately there's no way to guarantee a letter of recommendation/reference, nor any way to gauge its usefulness. Your best bet is to be respectful, honest, but firm. Thank your advisor for their guidance (even if you don't really mean it) and hope for the best.

But in general, I think you need to be far less concerned about diplomatically leaving the program than with the nuts and bolts of how you are going to live outside of it. Work visas being not a snap to get, and I'm guessing you also lack experience, you may want to seek advice from someone else - a committee member, someone you know in the industry you seek to enter, etc.
posted by sm1tten at 3:48 PM on November 8, 2011

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