Leaving PhD program without burning bridges?
May 2, 2012 2:10 PM   Subscribe

I am currently working on a Ph.D. but may have an opportunity to enter my field early. Is there a way I can drop out without burning bridges? When should I speak with my adviser about it?

I'm somewhere around 4 years into my Ph.D. I have completed my masters and I'm preparing for my prelim. I have no interest in staying in academia, and I don't think the Ph.D. will necessarily help me in my future career. In general I enjoy being a student and I like the program, so I was planning to finish up (~2 more years) because I am happy.

Recently, however, I was contacted out of the blue (by another student who dropped from my department) with an opportunity to leave early and enter my field of interest. I am scheduled to interview for this position in about 3 weeks. If I don't get the job, I would be content to stay and finish up my degree. If I do get the job, I am leaning (strongly) towards accepting it. The position is in a somewhat related field, with potential for (limited) interaction with people I work with now, and I am concerned about burning bridges.

I am not sure how or when to broach this subject with my academic adviser. My family/friends are divided on whether to bring it up a) as soon as possible, or b) only after (if) I am offered the job. Obviously I have to look out for what will make me happy even if that means closing doors behind me, but I would appreciate any advice about handling this situation gracefully. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Never bring up a competing job offer to a current employer (or whatever) until it's an absolutely sure thing. Like, in-writing-offer sure thing. Otherwise, when it turns out you don't have a new job, everyone is going to be treating you as if you've got one foot out the door, and you don't want that.
posted by griphus at 2:27 PM on May 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

b, b, b! Don't bring it up with your advisor.
posted by mskyle at 2:30 PM on May 2, 2012

I am not sure how or when to broach this subject with my academic adviser

Not until you have actually signed a contract for the new job. Then you say "Oh, advisor, I have so loved working with you, but I was offered this job I just couldn't resist! You know how it is with the academic job market so tight, there was just no way I could turn this opportunity down."

They will understand, because they know how immensely hard it is to get a job in academia right now. Honestly, your advisor is likely to be happy for you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:37 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

What exactly do you mean by burning bridges?
You didn't describe your current activities in too much detail. It is one thing to be in the middle of a project and your leaving half-finished work for team mates would be an undue burden on them, but it is another if you've been working independently and leaving would not be an upheaval.

I'd try to find a way to ask about the concept in general without letting on that you have a specific potential opportunity. Does your institution have much invested in you? Will your leaving impact their graduation/completion percentage? Are there others waiting in the wings to fill your shoes?
posted by markhu at 2:47 PM on May 2, 2012

Only mention it when you've signed a contract.
posted by mleigh at 2:51 PM on May 2, 2012

In my department, it is pretty easy for somebody to take a "leave of absence", with the possibility of coming back in a year or two if the new job doesn't work out. Of course, this really depends on department culture and your advisor, and mine is probably far from normal.

I'm in a similar position, but I'm applying for internships/short term jobs, and fully intend to return to finish my degree. I contacted my department head and advisor before applying for anything. I made it clear that I was planning to finish up my current project before taking time off, and everybody has been incredibly supportive. The sense I got is I could have said "I'm not sure a PhD is for me, can I try the real world for a while and then decide for good", and they'd have been equally supportive. So - if there's any chance you'd want to return if the new gig doesn't work out, maybe look into a leave of absence?
posted by Metasyntactic at 3:14 PM on May 2, 2012

In an at-will employer-employee relationship in the U.S. is that the employer can terminate you whenever they feel like it without notice and for no reason. For someone in one of those positions, it seems only fair that the employee shouldn't feel a special obligation to inform their employer in advance that they might be leaving.

Your relationship with your school and your adviser, however, is not a traditional employer-employee relationship and I wouldn't treat it like one. Your adviser has significant obligations to you—he can't dispense with you without significant notice and reason. If your adviser left, they would be honor-bound to help you finish your studies somehow, potentially even taking them with you if they went to another university, and there would probably be a long lead time. Because the university and your adviser have significant obligations to you, if you appreciate the investments they've made in you, you should provide more than the minimum possible notice. I would, at the least, let the adviser know once you have an offer, before you've signed.

If your adviser is funding you, that funding may have come from an external agency that expects results in exchange for the money, and it can require a significant amount of lead time to replace you (another consequence of this not being a traditional employee-employee relationship). Not producing the results could result in bad consequences for your lab.

Obviously there's an exception if you think your adviser is a real asshole who will crucify you for leaving. I know some advisers who would, but everyone knows they are like that. Personally, I would understand if one of my students wanted to leave and write them good letters of recommendation, but I would be pretty annoyed if they told me at the last minute, thus preventing me from doing any planning. That would badly flavor my opinion of them, but if they told me they were thinking of taking an external job and didn't end up doing it, I wouldn't think less of them at all.

It looks like my opinion is in the minority so far but I'm not sure who else is in academia. The leave of absence suggestion is a good one.

It is one thing to be in the middle of a project and your leaving half-finished work for team mates would be an undue burden on them, but it is another if you've been working independently and leaving would not be an upheaval.

Actually, in many cases the latter can be worse because there will be no one else around to finish your "independent" project and when someone is found eventually there will be no continuity between you and them.
posted by grouse at 3:19 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm in academia — and if this were me, I'd let my advisor know ahead of time, and I'd expect him to be happy for me.

But then, my advisor is a decent person and I've got a decent relationship with him. Not a great relationship, we're not best friends or anything — neither of us is the easiest person in the world to get along with — but I basically trust him to behave ethically and not be an asshole. On the other hand, many of my friends in other programs have really awful, toxic and exploitative relationships with their advisor, and if they were facing this sort of decision, my advice would be "Fuck no, don't tell him! You know he's going to make his life miserable over this!"

So it really just depends on what sort of person we're talking about here. Which is probably why you're getting conflicting advice from your friends and family.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:37 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your adviser is likely to be happy for you, but they will be happier if you can complete the projects you're working on, and help push out some publications, and maybe even find a way to complete that degree. At minimum, the courteous thing to do would be to offer to assist in transferring knowledge to whoever takes over your work, and to assist in writing any related publications that are in the pipeline. This would help ensure the research doesn't just vanish in a puff of smoke, which would put your adviser in an awkward position, especially if it was funded from an external grant.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:27 PM on May 2, 2012

I think it may depend on your field and what kind of work you do/what your leaving suddenly would mean. In some fields, you have the kind of relationship with your adviser that not only would s/he probably know you are not wanting to stay in academia and would hopefully support you in finding a job outside of it. In others, not so much. In some fields, your adviser gets funding for you. In others, the school provides it. So I think more detail would be helpful, about both your program and the relationship you have with your adviser.

Anecdotal: Both my good friend and I left our Phd programs because we wanted to be outside of academia (he was in hard science, I was in social science) - his external funding made it a much more of a contractual obligation for him to finish projects (and not burn bridges) whereas my internal funding meant that once the academic year was over, I was out. His adviser knew he was unhappy; mine didn't, but I would not have used him as a reference at any future point in my career anyway, and we had a distant enough relationship where I would not have confided in him prior.
posted by sm1tten at 4:48 PM on May 2, 2012

I don't understand the "burning bridges" bit. You may want a reference down the road, but if you're leaving academia for a real job then you're going to want professional references from now on.

Don't say anything until you sign a contract and if you do, pleasantly tell your advisor that you're moving on.

More than likely they'll be happy you've found work in this economy. And you'll be opening up a spot for somebody new.
posted by bardic at 9:48 PM on May 2, 2012

While I'd be happy for my students who got a job, the manner of leaving is *critical*.

If you are on a lab-based project where your expertise is critical, and you bail, forget about EVER getting a reference letter - especially if others in the lab depend on the data/expertise. This would put my lab back quite severely in progress, especially if it was a small research lab and you made up some significant percentage of trained man-hours. There is an investment in students which I explain to them that you can't just bail, you have to give notice.

If you intend to leave, at least get the project in a state where it can be handed off to someone. Ideally, you would train that someone as well.....

If your project is self contained/text-based, then it's a different story.
posted by lalochezia at 8:12 AM on May 5, 2012

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