How do people quit grad school?
February 7, 2012 7:05 AM   Subscribe

How do tell my advisor that I am dropping out of grad school and finding a job?

So I’ve searched around here for people in similar situations, and I am slightly relieved that there might be life after grad school, but still very much freaking out about the next steps in my life.

The Situation:
I am at a very good university in a stats PhD program with a very well regarded, well connected (and actually quite nice) advisor, so the opportunities after graduation would be very good – for someone interested in being in this field. I am in the middle of the first year of the PhD program, after doing 2 years in the Master’s program, working with the same research group. I have done very well in coursework, and been relatively productive in terms of research, but I completely failed the qualifying exams (generally not common, but >1/3 of people failed last year). You get 2 shots at the exams, and my advisor was surprisingly supportive after this.

The Problem:
I am very unhappy in my program. I am overworked, and way too stressed out all the time. I am uninterested in my research, and do not want an academic job in the future. I am not completely disinterested in the research aspect, but I really just don’t care about the topic enough to feel a need to get a PhD. I have immense trouble sleeping, and have recently sought help for depression. I feel like this price is too high. In short, I just don’t give a crap, anymore, I’m burnt out. I would rather salvage what’s left of my sanity and health and live without all the pressure and expectations.
I think that I did not have the best reasons for getting going to grad school in the first place, and have always had doubts. I struggle a lot when people ask what I’m interested in, cause honestly, not a whole lot. I thought I could fake it long enough to find something that I thought was cool, but I’m ready to give up on that hope. I’d rather work less hours, have weekends off, and get better compensation. (is that naïve?)

I am almost certain that I am going to leave the program after this semester, my friend tried to drop out during last semester, but they told him that his funding would be revoked and he’d have to pay for the term out of pocket -- so I guess I will finish the term and cash out. What I am not sure how to do is how and when to bring it up with my advisor. I am also terrified of the process of getting a job, interviews, and such – grad school was partially meant to delay all that. How to I spin dropping out on my resume/CV (I have 2 years of master’s classes, + 1 year of PhD classes)? How do I make it sound like I’m not a slacker or a quitter? Do jobs require letters of recommendation, or references, or whatever, and would an advisor write one for someone leaving his group (I know this is probably case-by-case)? Is it ridiculous to give up on an amazing opportunity?

And how do you explain this to people who live and breathe academia (I have a hard time with disappointing looks and guilt trips)? I’ve talked to other students in my program, and they look at me in shock that I could consider anything other than working for a research institution.
posted by rjbiscuit to Education (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Hi. I was you five years ago. I realized that I was wasting my life chasing after a PhD in physics that I didn't feel confident about. I quit one year in. I didn't take two class finals. Quitting was the best decision and I'm happily employed as a computer programmer now. I like being able to go home and have weekends to myself now.

You already have your undergrad and your masters. You can be honest and tell employers that you didn't feel confident about your future in academia. They're not going to judge you.
posted by DetriusXii at 7:23 AM on February 7, 2012

Many years ago, I left a grad program despite having 2 years left on the best four-year fellowship the school offered. Like you, I wanted to stay through the end of the year while I made plans, so I didn't tell anyone official until the semester was ending. I put my coursework on my resume as just that: "2 years graduate coursework in blah blah," and included any particular skills I had picked up. In my case, that was survey research, polling, and some statistics, so I made sure to emphasize those skills. I was able to find work doing data analysis for a market research firm. In my case, I found my first job through a friend-of-a-friend. You will need references, but you can use peer references--my partner used to have a job where the policy was for supervisors not to give references, so he and his co-workers were each other's references when job hunting. You can certainly ask your advisor for a reference, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was willing to give you one. Any faculty member you've worked for as an assistent would be a good person to ask, too.

I never regretted leaving my Ph.D. program. It was actually quite freeing to realize I didn't have to be a college professor! I didn't do a lot of explaining to friends and peers, just said that I'd been unhappy and was leaving. They made up their own stories (including that I dropped out to be with a girlfriend in another state), but who cares? With one or two exceptions, I never saw any of those people again.

Good luck!
posted by not that girl at 7:24 AM on February 7, 2012

Relax. It's going to be okay. People drop out, don't finish, get pregnant, spend years ABD all the time. Life happens, and you're not a bad person or a slacker or a quitter when it happens to you.

I'd tell your advisor what you're telling us: that you are burning out, that you've seen enough to know you don't want to see much more. You tried this and it wasn't for you. You truly do appreciate your advisor's support this far, and you'd like to make sure that you are leaving on the right foot. What can he tell you about how to leave and how not to leave?

Chances are your advisor has had this conversation with other grad students. It's even possible that he is anticipating having it with you. (When I'm depressed, I often think I'm holding it in and doing a great job with my brave face on. I'm not. You're probably not either.)

If your advisor is a decent person, or even a decent advisor, he will support and guide you as you close this chapter of your life. Maybe he will tell you about the grad student who degaussed all the backups before leaving on their last day, or whatever horror stories he has, and encourage you not to do that.

If your advisor is a pompous asshole who thinks his time is only worth spending on people who are going to Do Important Work for the Program, then you'll have a different conversation. It will be shorter and less helpful. He will still write you a letter of recommendation, and it might not be the glowing letter that you were hoping he would write to the hiring committee a few years down the road, but it will still help you. That's your worst case scenario: you learn that your relationship with your advisor was only as good as your performance in your program, and now he's done being your friend. So what? You're done now, you're free, you have an M.S. (right?) and some good work that you can point to.

You have the rest of your life ahead of you. You tried something and it didn't work for you. You're not disappointing anybody who understands anything: your fellow grads are participating in the shared illusion of the ivory tower. When you tell them that you're thinking of leaving, you are breaking the social contract that says The Program is Worth It, and they are unsettled by that. It's worth it to them (maybe), but it's not worth it to you, and you are the only one who has to life your life.

You are going to be fine. Good for you.
posted by gauche at 7:28 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I actually did this two weeks ago, after being here at my program for coughahemsix years. My reasons were much the same as what you describe - I could almost have written them vebatim - and I certainly didn't go into the decision lightly, but still I was afraid of telling my advisor, letting her down, confirming everyone's opinion (in my head) that I was a total screw-up, etc etc etc.

Really, I did it just by doing it. I had a meeting with her where I was meant to be discussing the work I was doing, and instead I just sat down, let her know I had been thinking about this for a very long time now and realized that the best decision for me was to not continue. Instead of the head-shaking, tut-tutting, obviously disappointed response I "knew" I was going to get, she was incredibly understanding. She asked a little about why I'd come to this decision, was quite empathetic about the whole thing, told me that if I changed my mind I would still be someone she could see working in the academic world ... and then that was pretty much it! A few days later I summoned up the courage to tell the grad director of our program, and another professor I was even MORE sure would want to just launch me out of the program with a cannon after hearing the news; the former reacted much the same way as my advisor and even started making suggestions as to what to do next; the latter gave me advice on contacts I might get in touch with to look into the thing I'm considering for my next act.

So far the whole thing has gone SO much better than I ever would have though it could. I kept reminding myself that I was by no means the first person to make this decision and that all of my professors have seen it happen before ... what may be a big deal to me is just one of the things that happens in grad school to them. Ever since I came out and told my advisor I have been feeling SO much happier - having the energy freed up to actually start pursuing new avenues makes me feel excited about my future career potentials in a way I haven't in a while. Just take a breath and do it - you'll be glad you did.

Feel free to memail if you'd like to talk with someone going through much the same thing this semester. Good luck!
posted by DingoMutt at 7:39 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to talk about failing qualifying exams and what that does to one's psyche, memail me.
posted by hydrobatidae at 8:09 AM on February 7, 2012

The culture of my grad school as driven by the professors was based on the logical fallacy that if one must be the smartest, the most passionate, the most creative, the most dedicated, to fight your way to the top of the heap, get funding, get published, get tenure, and earn respect as a research professor, then anyone who was not trying to be a highly respected research professor was admitting they were neither smart nor dedicated. The idea that their job was not for everyone, this was a concept that the professors could only understand by saying "of course it's not for everyone, we're better than most people". By the time I left grad school, I was able to see that as blindness on their part, not a failing on mine.

Think about what you like about your grad program. You say you're not that into the research as a general thing, but there must be something you like. For me, I didn't care so much about the wider implications of my research. I didn't care what project I worked on. I found the idea of dredging up some kind of passionate plea for funding to be totally horrifying. Academia was totally not it. But I loved the actual lab work. Using a temperamental apparatus to take a measurement, and stringing together sets of measurements to define a system, was a challenge that I really enjoyed rising to meet.

What was really key for me was acknowledging the negativity around Leaving Academia, and turning that into a positive experience of Moving On. Grad school meant having discovered some things I like, and starting a job search that was really keyed into what I wanted. Your grad school advisor will definitely write letters of recommendation for you, and serve as a reference. If you sit down and explain what's important to you in a job and talk about what you think your skills are and how you want to use them, you are much more likely to get letters that are relevant to the jobs you'll be applying for. I felt like focusing on what I did want and was good at, instead of what I didn't want (academia) I was helping to introduce the idea that not every capable person wants the same thing, and that skills don't determine desire, or lack of desire to lack of skill. Ask your advisor who they know outside of academia - it's possible they have other former students in their history who they could put you in touch with, and it's just that they don't talk about these "failures" unless asked.

(also, is there any way you can use this last semester of work to convert your 3 years of classes into a Master's degree? Maybe dropping classes so you can write up a research paper?)
posted by aimedwander at 8:09 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I’ve talked to other students in my program, and they look at me in shock that I could consider anything other than working for a research institution.

They don't have perspective and experience. Your advisor does. I've advised lots of Ph.D. students and have talked careers with many more. We know not all our students become professors. We don't think that's bad and we don't think less of the people who don't choose that course.

On the other hand, I thought about quitting grad school all the time when I was a first-year, and I'm glad I didn't. If a student came to me and said they were thinking of quitting, I'd try to help them figure out whether they were more like me, or more like the many people I know who have happily left academic math behind.

Short version: you don't have to worry about how to tell your advisor. Just tell her.
posted by escabeche at 8:25 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I quit my second year of a five plus year PhD program, fully funded, top university. I was miserable, for various reasons. Is it naive to think that life will be easier or better outside of academia/grad school? A bit. I have no regrets about leaving, nor any regrets about getting my MA, even though I not only don't work in that field, having the degree has actually hindered my job search (different story). Do you have a terminal masters?

I had no problem telling my advisor, my committe, my mentor, my friends/family, my decision to leave because a) I had thought about it long and hard and wasn't waffling at all and b) it wasn't a secret that I was unhappy. Most people were understanding. Academia is not for everyone. People looked at me like I was crazy for going on the first place; yep, people looked at my like I was crazy for leaving. Most of my professors understood, and in fact many of them wrote me letters of recommendation for other grad programs and jobs. My reasoning has always been honest and brief - the program was not a good fit for me at this time and I'm looking forward to the next step of a different adventure.

Also, I wouldn't worry about the guilt-tripping you might get from cohort-mates or other people in your program. The one thing that I (and my best friend, who also left his program around the same time) learned is that after a few months you won't even talk to many of these people anymore, anyway -- it's one of the consequences/benefits of leaving the bubble.
posted by sm1tten at 8:46 AM on February 7, 2012

A guy with whom I was good friends at the time was really unhappy in -- and didn't drop out of his PhD program -- until he had pretty much derailed his entire life, and I think in hindsight, at least to this outside observer, a lot of those mistakes were made because he was avoiding the issue didn't do it right because he was so embarrassed to be having this conversation -- especially wanting to avoid any conflict and disappointing looks and guilt trips (oddly this is probably while a relationship between he and I wouldn't work -- because we're so similar -- I totally get where you are coming from too); not taking the actions he should have to get the result he wanted (and was a lot less sure of wanting than you seem), made "re-railing" his life a lot harder because of that.

It doesn't sound like you're anywhere near this point -- but, and I doubt he'd disagree with me, don't follow his lead. The longer you wait, the harder it will be, and the sooner you do it, the better (though obviously waiting until the money/financing issue isn't an issue.)

Good luck!
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:33 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

My vitals: Astronomy PhD from a fairly prestigious University (very prestigious undergrad; so-so for grad in Astronomy), two teaching-friendly postdocs, just starting a faculty job at a small liberal arts college.

I can totally understand where you're coming from. I considered quitting many times throughout my time as a grad student. I ended up finishing, although it was more of a momentum thing more than anything else. I've always been much more interested in the teaching side and, if I hadn't finished, I probably would have seen if I could have gotten a job at teaching high school. Honestly, one of the reasons I didn't quit is because I really had a strong desire to teach at the college level; that was one of my driving goals. If I hadn't had that goal, I probably would have not finished. However, my program was not a high-stress program and, moreover, I'm not the type to get very stressed about that stuff.

As many others have said, I think that your adviser will be more understanding than you think (s)he will be. Faculty understand that grad school isn't for everyone. I think your leaving at a very reasonable time (i.e. after the Masters, but early on in the PhD path) and at a point where your adviser should understand. There are jerks out there, but given your description of your adviser, I wouldn't be surprised if (s)he was not only understanding, but actually actively helpful in aiding you in your next steps. Aside from the academic side of things, advisers often build personal relationships with their students and want to see them succeed, regardless of if that's inside or outside of the grad program. You'll have a much better sense of this once you have "the talk" with your adviser, I think.

For your resume/CV, I think I'd spin it as:

M.S., Economics, XXX University, 2011
Additional Coursework, XXX University, 2011-2012 [with maybe some details here]

Good luck!
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:19 AM on February 7, 2012

Oh! And one of the reasons your cohorts may look at you like you're crazy is because you have been so successful in the program. They may think, "How can rjbiscuit be leaving the program?! (S)he did so much better than me in classes, has this great adviser, and is one of strongest people in the program."

That very thing happened with me, actually. My grad-school classmate (who always seemed to do half a grade better than me in every class) left after two years. He actually went to grad school in another subject and has an incredibly successful career outside of academia that makes him really happy.
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:25 AM on February 7, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I have only had time to briefly read all these, but I just wanted to say thanks for the quick responses.

If I go talk to my advisor NOW, then I still have 3 months of awkward hall passings, group meetings and such, which as cowardly as it sounds, I'd rather avoid. Plus everyone else knowing (we have a very gossipy department).
posted by rjbiscuit at 1:29 PM on February 7, 2012

Start looking for jobs now to get a jump on things rather than waiting until the term's over. You can easily spin that one year of the PhD, especially if you were TAing/marking/etc. during that time (i.e. you were employed by the university); even if not, plenty of people take a year away. See if your school offers any programs or workshops for people who want to leave academia and take them to learn how to best change an academic CV into a real-people-job resume.

If your advisor's awesome and you have a good relationship with him/her, then you could float the idea of leaving to them now. If not, I'd wait maybe till the beginning of April or so.

You will absolutely be fine. (Says the girl who left her PhD program after FIVE years. It's nice on the other side. Green grass and all.)
posted by pised at 2:12 PM on February 7, 2012

you're making a career decision. you're not personally rejecting everything they stand for. just keep that in mind.
posted by cupcake1337 at 2:51 PM on February 7, 2012

Response by poster: Right, but if I start the job hunt now, would they contact my advisor to ask about me? I really have no idea how that stuff works! I really don't want him to find out second hand, but I would like to get going with the jobs and such, so that I have some idea what is happening in the future, cause this speeding approach to limbo/freedom is scary.

Thanks again for all your help and support!
posted by rjbiscuit at 4:58 PM on February 7, 2012

Is there anyone outside your graduate program who can give you a reference? I don't think potential employers will contact your advisor unless you list him as a referee. I agree you should not tell your advisor you're leaving the program until the semester is over. At that point you can ask him to be one of your referees in a non-academic job search.

Pick up a copy of "So What Are You Going to Do with That?", discreetly take advantage of your university's career services (they're not just for undergrads--and you can start with a general "how the hell does a job search work" counseling session), and do a little sleuthing through LinkedIn or Facebook to find other people in your extended friends-of-friends network who have left the program without finishing the degree. Hit them up for informational interviews and ask for advice on the transition.

And how do you explain this to people who live and breathe academia (I have a hard time with disappointing looks and guilt trips)?

Stay positive, stay confident, and To Thine Own Self Be True. Were you ever taught to give an "elevator story" about your research? You just need a new, positive elevator story about your new career. Don't say what you're escaping from, but what you're moving towards. "I decided I want to __________ / work with ___________ / work in the field of ________ / apply my skills to __________ / explore __________, and I want to get started now. Let me know if you hear of any opportunities!" If you present it as a normal, positive thing, and not like you're slinking out the door with your tail between your legs, people are more likely to respond in a positive fashion. And if they don't, never mind. The academic track is just one path to one type of career and it's not morally superior to any other. When I was in college in the late '90s, our career center director told us that people of our generation were expected to change careers—not just jobs, but careers—seven times in our adult lifetimes, on average. Changing careers is 100% OK and normal and smart. If someone acts like you're leaving their cult, then the problem is with them, not you.
posted by Orinda at 9:05 PM on February 7, 2012

« Older We don't just talk any more.   |   How many times did Baltar save Roslin? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.