I want to quit my PhD but I am faced with an ethical dilemma.
November 14, 2014 7:34 AM   Subscribe

I have just started the second year of my PhD in History (fully funded), and I want to quit because I don't enjoy it and it is making me miserable. However, my supervisor feels I am responsible for finishing the project, or at the very least I should stay for another year and publish two more articles. I don't think I have any legal obligations to stay / generate any more output, but do I have a moral obligation?

The reason I feel it might be 'unethical' to just quit is because I have been paid for an entire year, and since (for various reasons) no one can take over the project from me, all the work I have done is essentially of no use to anyone - I have only published one article, and while I have done a lot of work, most of it has been reading, note taking, research, and formulating research questions and methodologies.

I have in fact tried to quit before, in June, but my supervisor (and family) convinced me to stay. However, if I had just stuck to my guns and quit then, someone else would still have been able to take over from me, which is now no longer possible (long story to do with me switching funding institutions). So now my supervisor is annoyed with me for deciding to quit now, when it essentially means the project will never get finished. This is why he wants me to at least write a few more articles. However, I feel like I just don't have it in me anymore. I never really wanted to do the PhD in the first place, but I started (and stayed) mostly to please other people (my parents especially). And now it has just got to the point where I feel like it's really eating up my energy and affecting me in a very detrimental way. Academia is definitely not for me either, I have never felt this out of place in my life. I have been feeling very low recently, like many days I wake up and feel like I just cannot face the day, I have no energy, etc., and to be honest I just want the whole experience to be over with as soon as possible.

I do feel like my supervisor is trying to keep me on for as long as possible for his own (professional) self-interest. I told him several times I'm unhappy and not enjoying the PhD and he just refuses to believe me. On the other hand, there is the fact that I have been paid for an entire year. I just find the whole situation incredibly hard to read and I'm finding it very hard to know what the right thing to do is, without letting myself be guilt tripped or manipulated into things I don't want to do.

Finally, if I do quit, I need to hand in a letter of resignation which needs to be signed by my supervisor. Does he have any right to just refuse to sign if he doesn't want me to leave before a certain point?
posted by Vulpix91 to Education (37 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You have been paid for work you have been doing - it's not like you're just taking money and doing nothing.

I see nothing unethical about leaving. You have this internet stranger's permission to quit without guilt.

I am not in academia and don't know about the supervisor signature.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 7:39 AM on November 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

I can't speak to your final question, but the ethics seem to be pretty clear to me. You've been paid for a specific time period to do work. Your choices are: stay for that time period and do the work, or quit and return the money you have been paid for the time remaining, prorated.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:41 AM on November 14, 2014 [14 favorites]

It would help to know if this is in the US or somewhere else. As far as funding for humanities PhDs in the US, this sounds like a non-standard situation, as we generally get paid for teaching as TAs and not for producing research. Could you either elucidate the situation (re: funding) or the country you are working in?
posted by mrfuga0 at 7:43 AM on November 14, 2014

Hey, you gave it a good shot, sometimes it doesn't work out. Your supervisor is a jerk for twisting your arm and guilting you into staying.

So you quit and turn in your letter of regsignation. And if he doesn't sign it? What then? Just leave. What can they do? I'm pretty sure they're not going to call security and force you to remain there against your will.

Husbunny left TWO PhD programs. Neither one wanted to see him go, but he went anyway. Guess what? It hasn't hurt him in the least.

I'm assuming that you've been paid as you go, and they're the ones who directed your study. You tried to quit before, and they insisted you stay then. Unless you're prepared to stay until they confer the degree on you, there's never going to be a better time to quit. Two more articles? Sounds bogus to me.

Write a very simple letter:

I am resigning my position here at Institution as of Date. Thank you for the opportunity.


Then go out, get a job and enjoy your life.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:44 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

The reason I feel it might be 'unethical' to just quit is because I have been paid for an entire year

Could you clarify this arrangement? Have you been paid as a fellowship advance through the spring term, for example? Or do you mean you were paid for the past year?
posted by Think_Long at 7:45 AM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Grad school is not, and should not be, slavery. You are free to go as you wish.

That said, there are sometimes catches, like you may need to return money if you were paid in a lump sum, and in rare cases there might be an issue with your tuition for your first year being paid for. The best way to deal with this is to talk to someone unobjective, such as your student ombudsperson who should be able to smooth your transition out of school. Note that that person will still be an employee of your university, and may try to convince you to switch mentors or something, but they will help you get your paperwork in order, and get you out ethically.
posted by fermezporte at 7:46 AM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, yeah.. my answer was predicated on the notion that you were paid in advance. If not, yeah, just quit, with reasonable notice given.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:46 AM on November 14, 2014

I'm not clear on all the details from your description, but it sounds like you have been paid through December 31? If so, I think you are obligated to work until December 31, and then it would be fine to quit. You do not owe your supervisor (or a funding agency) additional work beyond that, but I do think you are obligated to complete whatever work you are being paid to do. Just because it was paid upfront instead of monthly or weekly (as many fellowships are) doesn't mean you weren't being paid for a specific time period.

If possible, I would talk to your supervisor about using the remaining time you have been paid for to get the project in good enough shape for someone else to take over. This would mean spending your time getting your notes and other materials in a state where someone else could make some use of them, even if it takes some time to get them up to speed. I would frame it as: "Look, I cannot stay on indefinitely and I am ultimately going to be leaving. But, since I have been paid through December 31, I would like to use this time to organize all of the materials for my research project so that another student can take over at some point after I leave."
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:47 AM on November 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Man, life is too short. Figure out a compromise with the financial arrangement and get the hell out of there. Go find what makes you happy.
posted by Specklet at 7:47 AM on November 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

The money situation may be a bit more complicated than it seems at first. I agree with fffm that if you've been paid in a lump for the entire year (common for certain fellowships) you should owe back whatever's left if you're not working it. Additionally, however, if you're in the US, your funding source probably also paid your tuition at the start of term. That's as much if not more than the stipend, and often universities won't refund the tuition to the funding source (after a certain point in the term, or sometimes at all). I could see your supervisor being annoyed at the timing in that case, especially if you mean you were paid for the academic year and not the calendar year.
posted by dorque at 7:49 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your advisor has more duty of care to you than you have to him. Yes, it's a huge drag that you are leaving work undone, and I understand that he will be inconvenienced and disappointed. However, if the work is genuinely pushing you into depression, you need to quit. And if you aren't planning on a career that requires this PhD, then every year you spend on it is a year of lost professional and financial opportunities for you - you need to get started doing whatever it is that you're going to do in your future. Your advisor is probably not thinking about what you are giving up to do another year of work that will not benefit you, but it's not ethical - IYAM - for an established scholar to ask someone to put in a year of basically career-useless work just to forward the scholar's project. It's not as though you are independently wealthy and are going to be some kind of gentleman-amateur in the field while living in your country house in the 19th century.
posted by Frowner at 7:50 AM on November 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Grad students are, by definition, cheap, exploited labor. Pay back a pro-rated portion of the money you were given and quit, guilt-free.
posted by ewiar at 7:51 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi, just to give some clarification: I meant that I have been paid for the past year, I haven't been paid in advance, it's just a monthly stipend.

Also, I'm in Belgium, if that makes any difference.

Thanks for all the replies so far!
posted by Vulpix91 at 7:53 AM on November 14, 2014

Finish the year, and quit. Refuse to re-up.
posted by starbreaker at 7:59 AM on November 14, 2014

Then quit, guilt-free today. Your monthly stipends are payments for work performed; not an option on the next year of your life.
posted by ewiar at 8:00 AM on November 14, 2014 [30 favorites]

In light of your update, I would feel no ethical qualms about quitting as soon as you can.

I would consider whether staying and completing an article would be in my own professional self-interest (if, for example, you planned to pursue a career as a researcher outside of academia). But that may be less relevant in the history field, and it has to be a practical decision you make for yourself, not out of a sense of moral obligation to what ewiar rightly characterized as an exploitative system.
posted by AndrewInDC at 8:03 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would stay for the funding year, personally. Academia is certainly not slavery, but leaving one's advisor without an assistant is not exactly fair, since he can't get someone else until the next funding year. I also would not want to jeopardize the reference.

However, you are absolutely entitled to boundaries and help on transitioning out of academia. I would suggest setting a meeting with him to discuss the hardline fact that you are departing on X date. Bring an agenda outlining a plan for completion to where it can be passed on to the next person, and what you personally need for building the next steps of your career -- for example, you need to set aside Tuesday mornings for applications, you need to attend this conference, etc.
posted by susanvance at 8:04 AM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

You should talk to people in Belgium. I was going to chime in but I don't know beans about employment law and fellowship norms in Belgium, and I expect that most of the people who've already answered also know little or nothing about how these operate in Belgium.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:04 AM on November 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

Given the update, I think you are in the clear to quit. If it's possible for you to stay an extra month or so and get your notes/files/materials in an organized state so someone can take over, I think that's ideal (and will burn less bridges), but I don't think it's 100% required. One thing to think about is that if you do leave everyone in the lurch, you will never be able to use your advisor for a reference in the future. Certainly it's not worth staying years on end to avoid this outcome, but if there is a way to stay for one or two months to train someone else on the project, that might be worth it to you (and, might actually help you feel good that the time you've spent on this research was not wasted). But, I don't think it is ethically required.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:06 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

The OP is not asking about legal obligations, but ethical ones, which IMO obtain everywhere the same. So given OP's clarification on money, I can see no ethical obligation to stay another day.
posted by LonnieK at 8:08 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just for an anecdote: I myself dropped out of my Ph.D. program for the same reasons. That was more than 15 years ago, and the career change I made as a result of that was the most important positive decision I made in my professional life. In my case I didn't have an advisor trying to string me along, but after leaving I did come to a hindsight realization that he had very strong self interests that trumped any altruism towards me. Your best advocate in this is you.

Possibly the worst possible thing to do in a college education is to pursue a Ph.D. you don't want.

As for the timing of your departure, I'd say the sooner the better. The only question is whether your "unethical" departure (I put it in quotes because I do not agree) will burn bridges that will hurt you later. That is, are you potentially going to be working with these people in the future? If that's the case, then make every possible attempt at leaving amicably, including staying on a tad longer. But if you know you need to leave the program, leave the program.
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:11 AM on November 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Legal, probably no problem but check with your particular institution and funding agency (it would be no problem in 99.99% of cases in the US). Ethical, I also think is fine. This is one part of the nature of academia; people drop out every day for every reason and from your description I think the quality of your work would end up being poorer than zero progress in the next few months.

The aspect of the dilemma that you don't mention that I think you are under-considering is the professional aspect. Is this a program where you can get a master's just by sticking it out for another few months? Would your future plans be improved by getting a letter of recommendation from your advisor or anyone else at your university? I have known people who burned all their bridges in the process of dropping out, and I've known people who didn't enjoy academia but whose professors were happy to recommend them to jobs that were a better fit. Give some thought as to what you can do with what you have that will get you out and in good stead for the future. This may involve working hard on your research for two more months and squeaking out a rough draft, helping the PI recruit new students for next year, organizing your papers to make it easy for the prof to pick up and write a paper, or quitting immediately but being open, willing to collaborate, and available for questions in the future. This may not be possible if your health is suffering, but give it some thought.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:34 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

People quit PhD programs all the time.

All. The. Time.

It doesn't really matter what your reasons are, and it sucks for your supervisor no matter what, because he's made representations to his funding agency (US experience speaking) and now those promised deliverables will not be ready on time. Or he's counting on those papers for his promotion, or whatever. So this:

I do feel like my supervisor is trying to keep me on for as long as possible for his own (professional) self-interest.

is very, very probably true, and really understandable. That's how the system works. But this:

I told him several times I'm unhappy and not enjoying the PhD and he just refuses to believe me.

This is inexcusable. I recommend ripping off this band aid. Quit at a decent point (Christmas break, new year, end of the quarter or semester - whatever) with as much grace as possible, but don't try to sugar coat this. You're done, they need to figure out what they will do about their deliverables, you should try to make it as easy as possible for someone else to pick up the pieces (leave notes, reference lists, whatever the norms are in your area), but it's not your responsibility beyond that point.
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:34 AM on November 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Really? Your supervisor wants you to devote 1+ year of your life at something you have least interest? Why? So that he can look good?
Write that resignation letter, take a deep breath afterwards, go for a run and chalk it down in your experience diary. Do not repeat.
posted by jellyjam at 9:09 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

You said that had you resigned in June, someone else could have replaced you but now your role cannot be replaced until the project is completed. This does sound a bit like you are leaving the project in a lurch. Is it an EU funded project that require changes to be made in triplicate? You really should speak to someone qualified at your own university or someone familiar with the terms and conditions of the funding being used to pay your monthly stipend and gain some clarity on the professional impact on both the university department and the supervisor if the project is left incomplete due to bureaucratic hurdles.

Also, are you an international student or local citizen? Rules may differ.

/I have held a director level admin position in a US grad school and been paid as a researcher at an EU uni so have faint idea that OP's situation may not be as simple as it sounds.
posted by infini at 9:24 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

You are paid monthly? Then stay until the end of the month and go. There's no use in carrying on, as you have REPEATEDLY wanted out, not just once on a whim. The quality of your work, and the articles - if you do them - will be compromised as you'll be doing them unenthused.

Whatever age (X) you are, you are only that age once. Leave and try something else, rather than spend the rest of your life thinking "I wish I had tried something else when I was X". Good luck!
posted by Wordshore at 9:31 AM on November 14, 2014


posted by IAmBroom at 9:33 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

People quit lots of things all. the. time.

It's understandable that your supervisor wants you to stick around, because they've invested some time and energy into you, and they don't want to do the bothersome task of finding someone else or of going without your assistance or (heaven forbid!) having to return some money back to the granting institution.

But listen, far too many of us get stuck in this guilt trip of "oh I can't possibly leave because everything would fall apart without me and then I would feel bad." The truth is that most of us are just not that important.

I like to use the "hit by a bus" analogy; if you were hit by a bus, tomorrow, would the history department crumble into pieces? Would they start chucking dissertations out the window and burning books? No, of course not; life usually goes on just fine without us. This can be a bit depressing, but also it can be a bit liberating. You get to choose to stay or to walk away.

To riff on infini's comment, above, where infini said, This does sound a bit like you are leaving the project in a lurch, I say: this is bullshit, and you should recognize it as the kind of bullshit that supervisors and institutions use to keep the individual tied to a process or a project which is against the individual's best interest.

It's not like your presence is critical to curing Ebola. You're not holding the keys to nuclear launch codes. You're not the sole go-between who can solve the Middle East crisis. The worst that can happen is that a few history papers won't get published, and some funding dollars will have to go back to the general institutional pot. Balance that against what will happen to you, personally, if you stay in this job. Let's read your own words:

I have never felt this out of place in my life. I have been feeling very low recently, like many days I wake up and feel like I just cannot face the day, I have no energy, etc., and to be honest I just want the whole experience to be over with as soon as possible.

The cost to you is way too high to stay, and the cost to the institution is negligible if you leave. Morality and ethics demand that you leave. You don't even need to wait out the month; you can leave today.

A better life awaits you, one in which you are a happy, well-adjusted, tax-paying, productive, contributing member of society (and you'll be blessed with a bit of hard-earned wisdom that will hopefully let you counsel others who might find themselves in a similar situation).

Or I guess you could stay and be miserable, but at least your supervisor will get to publish another history paper.

Your choice.
posted by math at 9:37 AM on November 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Your supervisor is laying on the guilt trip. Don't listen. I suspect that your school has a graduate advising office, or similar resource, that you could go to and discuss with them the logistics of leaving the school. You seem to have questions like, "what are my obligations, according to the contract I signed with the department" and "are there rules surrounding tuition paid on my behalf, and any repayment conditions if I leave during vs after the semester/year?" and "what are best-practices for wrapping up unfinished research to make it intelligible for the next student who works with this professor?" and "what are the administrative steps I need to take to make my resignation official and what should my timeline be for accomplishing that?"

The professor has a vested interest in getting articles published, and little interest in what's best for you. The school office is (at least nominally) geared toward helping/advising students, and the person you're talking with won't care at all about whatever the research topic is. They're the equivalent of the HR office, but for students. Or you can call the HR office about your position as graduate researcher and see if they refer you to a different office.
posted by aimedwander at 9:55 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's your life and you have to make decisions based on what works for you.
Academia didn't work for me. I went to school just to please my parents and I wasted years of my life and money on something that gave me nothing at the end (it was undergrad).
I wish I had listened to myself and quit when I started to feel bad. I was so depressed.

You owe it to yourself to make yourself happy. You have to live with your decisions. Not your supervisor or parents.

Good luck!
posted by shesbenevolent at 10:10 AM on November 14, 2014

Response by poster: What will happen if I quit is that the project I am working on will not get completed (basically the funding is in my name specifically, so if I quit, the money just goes back to the funding institution) - unless of course my supervisor applies for, and obtains, funding for the same project again next year.

To be honest though, I don't think it is worth it for me to continue. The research will suffer because I'm not motivated, and I don't even want to imagine what kind of a nervous wreck I would be by the end of it.

Thanks for the replies everyone, you have made a lot of things much more clear for me. I realise I need to leave sooner rather than later. I am seeing my supervisor again next week, so I will tell him that.
posted by Vulpix91 at 11:59 AM on November 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree with all the above - you have no obligations, feel free to quit whenever.

I just want to put in a little bit here about depression. This is a high stakes decision, and it can be a bad idea to make high stakes decisions when you're depressed. I realize that you believe it's the PhD and your supervisors (appalling) guilt-tripping that's causing your depression and that you'll feel a lot better once you're out.

You may be entirely correct!

However, you might want to consider meeting with a therapist for a few times, and hash this decision and your life circumstances out, just to make sure that you're going into this big life change as mindfully as possible.

(MeMail me if you'd like the name of a Belgian therapist I think highly of who practices Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).
posted by jasper411 at 12:04 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's what I would do if I were in your position and wanted to completely absolve my conscience of any feelings of guilt:

Meet with your supervisor and tell him, "I wanted to let you know that I will be leaving the program [at the end of December]. Between now and then, I will do whatever I can to enable the project to move forward with someone else. How do you think we should go about doing that?"

Adjust the timeline in that script according to how much longer you can take.

Honestly, though, I don't think there's any reason why you can't leave the program whenever you like. I think the fact that you tried to leave in June (when there was some hope of someone else taking over the project) and he stopped you puts a good chunk of the blame on his shoulders.
posted by Betelgeuse at 12:28 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not in the same situation but can relate. 18 months ago I tried to set up a business. I put a lot of my heart into it.. though yeah could probably have done more. I got fantastic business support from a local service and brilliant man at no cost to me.. but worth a hell of a lot of doe.

In one way my business is something that could also 'hurt' me a bit.. and I'm sparing the details, but a cause I care for, very much. When business advisor found this out he said to me if he were me he'd seriously think about walking. He was thinking about ME. My wellbeing. I knew how much he'd invested in me, time and profession wise. He'd believed in me and gone above and beyond the call. I'm never going to forget him and love him in some kind of a way. He never once guilted me, imprinted his own agenda on me etc. He was on my side. Maybe people like that are just really fucking rare. I suspect they are. If they're nowhere to be seen you have to be that person for yourself. It is just not ok for people to live vicariously through someone else... common doesn't make something ok. Fuck it. You know what you need. It's ok to know what you need. Infact it's a good thing. In the grand and non personal schema.. sometimes people do something and it doesn't work out for them. So they go and do something else. Good luck to you in finding what your thing is.
posted by tanktop at 12:32 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Fuck that. You have no moral obligation to stay. You have been paid for the work you did, not the work you were going to do.

Your supervisor is looking out for himself, just like he was when he convinced you to stay in June. If he wants this project funded, let him apply for funding.

And you're really unmotivated now, so if you stay your work will be subpar and you won't be doing them much good, anyway.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:13 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I quit my Ed.D. by just not signing up for the next semester and sending my advisor an email.
posted by tamitang at 7:38 PM on November 14, 2014

sighs. I think parents are just about the most horrible and egoic people around. :) In all seriousness though- It's amazing to me how when people become parents they often subconsciously start treating their child as a possession of theirs to do with as they please and some of this attitude is carried on well into the child reaching adulthood. Most parents don't even realize this is what they're doing.

From what you've written I do not see you have any moral obligation. In fact, the way it seems everyone around you feels so comfortable trying to make you do things you don't want to do, I'd say you need to stop worrying and wondering about whether you're making ethical choices or not, because it seems to me that others know you are like this and use it to their advantage in order to get you to second guess yourself. Your trying to be ethical is actually a disguised way of trying to be a certain way for OTHER people. It reminds me of how many girls are taught to be "nice" and "ladylike" by not defend themselves when they are disrespected by men because this serves men's egos to keep women this way. If they're not pushovers then they are not "nice". Well these folks seem to all be trying a similar thing with you and getting what they want by telling you to be "ethical." 'You don't want to be unethical do you? Then do what I want you to do!' Pfft.

Not that I'm against morality. But true morality is not something that needs to be analyzed or picked apart. It comes from the heart and soul. I don't see any morality issue here though others may be trying to convince you of one.
posted by rancher at 8:19 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

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