Have a terminal M.S. after four years in a PhD program. Now what?
January 31, 2018 7:17 AM   Subscribe

I have been in a PhD program for four years. Last week I was removed from it. I'd been struggling with mental health issues that affected my success in the program, my first PI dropped me last year, and (with department encouragement) my second PI just dropped me. I've taken my terminal master's for lack of other options. How do I put this on a resume? What do I do?

The ironic thing is that I got a new diagnosis that took me off a medication that was actively working against my mental health. I'm on a different one and the world is bright and new, and I'm more productive than I've ever been.* But it was too late for my last PI--and frankly, when they consulted with the department head, the head was more than happy to convince them I was a hopeless case. They've been dealing with my unreliability for nearly my whole tenure, don't see a future in me making them look good, and they're done. On hearing the news my psychiatrist apologized for not catching this a few months earlier when it would've made a difference.

There's no finishing a PhD without a PI, and two PIs dropping me plus my non-existent publishing record and shit grades have left me persona non grata to other labs. So here I am, four years later, with a terminal master's. I have no idea what to do with this.

A few thoughts:
  • The master's is in an impressive-sounding hard science and from an Ivy League school. It's an M.S. I have programming experience. But still . . . it's terminal and there's a four-year period on my resume to prove it.
  • My understanding is a terminal master's de facto disqualifies you from most PhD programs. You're damaged goods. They don't want the investment. So finishing is not an option.
  • Which is (mostly) OK with me, because frankly, I'm done with my field. Even if I could keep doing the research that interests me, a M.S. doesn't get you anywhere (excess PhDs means they're taking the jobs that used to go to employees with a Master's.
  • In my ideal world, I take the fancy school on the diploma and spin my programming skills into a political data science job somewhere else. That's what I wanted to do with that PhD anyway. But, it's not a master's. It's a terminal master's.
  • My grad school grades are shit.
I would really appreciate any advice on what I can do next and the practicalities of presenting this on a resume and to employers. Will my program tell everyone I flunked? Do I just write the finish date, without mentioning I started it four years ago? Were you in this position, how did you move forward, and were you able to find success in another field?


*Perhaps the best indication of my improvement is that (1) I'm coping by doing things rather than staring at the ceiling and eating everything I can fit into my mouth, (2) I feel like I am still a worthwhile human being, and (3) I'm not suicidal. I can't overemphasize how abnormal this reaction is in the face of failure.
posted by socks_for_all to Work & Money (47 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I should emphasize that it's my department that sees me as worthless towards their prestige. My PI just doesn't want to invest the resources in me any more and seemed decidedly sad about the whole thing. I don't think they knew how negative my department was towards me. But they also weren't inclined to believe me over the department, given my fuckup with them involved things like disappearing for a month+. And yes--prior to them I did take a summer off for mental health. I am trying to not think about how different my life would be if I'd gotten a proper diagnosis sooner.
posted by socks_for_all at 7:23 AM on January 31, 2018


My understanding is a terminal master's de facto disqualifies you from most PhD programs. You're damaged goods. They don't want the investment. So finishing is not an option.

I would say that this isn't the case, especially if you want to move into a different field. If your letters of rec are good, and you know your stuff, then it won't hurt you. "Fit" matters a lot. But then, you say, "My grad school grades are shit.". This will be a problem for another PhD program.

You have programming skills? Data science background? Nobody outside of the academy knows the difference between a terminal masters and a masters. Apply to software jobs all over, you'll get one.
posted by dis_integration at 7:24 AM on January 31, 2018 [23 favorites]


You are catastrophizing, big time! I know multiple people with terminal masters who are doing interesting work (in their field, even). People outside of academia know that academia doesn't make sense for everyone... that's part of the reason they're not in academia, you know?

Get out there. Apply for some jobs that sound interesting. Go to meetups - alt-academic or post-academic or data science or whatever sounds interesting - and meet some people with similar backgrounds.

Also, you're in therapy, right?

Also also, on preview, who the fuck cares about what your department thinks about you? You are done with those people. It's good that your PI is relatively positive towards you, that means they can maybe give you a recommendation that helps give some context to your experience in the program.
posted by mskyle at 7:24 AM on January 31, 2018 [18 favorites]


I am so sorry you're going through this, but happy that you've found a regimen that works. Lots of people have nebulous periods on their resume. Four years to finish a master's is no big deal.
posted by 8603 at 7:30 AM on January 31, 2018


But, it's not a master's. It's a terminal master's.

This is not a distinction that most people in industry even know about, much less care about.

Also, remember that you still get to list all the tasks you performed for your PIs on your resume even though your PIs dumped you.

Your story is you have 4 years paid experience doing X and Y in a lab setting, you graduated with your master's in Z, and you're looking for work in industry A or B. Given sufficiently in-demand values of X, Y, and Z, that's a pretty appealing story.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:34 AM on January 31, 2018 [59 favorites]


In my ideal world, I take the fancy school on the diploma and spin my programming skills into a political data science job somewhere else. That's what I wanted to do with that PhD anyway. But, it's not a master's. It's a terminal master's.

This is an eminently reasonable goal (even if not political data science specifically than data science in general is a slam dunk). People in academia tend to get a very blindered, academia-focused view of the world, so as someone from industry let me set the record straight: 45% of hiring managers outside of academia will have no idea that a terminal masters is a thing at all different from a regular masters, and another 45% won’t give a shit. Any stigma that’s attached to it is entirely within academia.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:39 AM on January 31, 2018 [19 favorites]


FWIW, I have a PhD in life science and wish I didn't! It disqualifies me from a lot of industry jobs while people with Masters are much more appealing. My experience with both academic and industry positions is that Master's degreed employees are heavily sought after, even in something like life science, which is generally on a PhD track or bust as far as grad school goes. Lots of people Master out of PhDs so don't feel any shame about that! I'm in the process of getting certification in data analytics in order to improve my skill set and get away from PhD level jobs, which are super rare and not all that high paying in the grand scheme of things.
posted by waving at 7:42 AM on January 31, 2018 [7 favorites]


The software and data sciences industry is full of people who washed out of PhD programs. I'm one; 3.5 years at the MIT Media Lab with only a Master's to show for it. It's not hurt me at all, if anything it's a strength.

The magic words are "I realized a PhD and academic career wasn't for me". This makes you more valuable to folks who are getting actual work done. Embellish with words about how you are eager to make an impact on the real world, to do work that's applied to actual politics and not just buried in journals. Spin this so you have the benefit of your very impressive education + you are now excited to apply that knowledge to the real world problems.

You do need to re-invent yourself a bit. Highlight your successes in grad school. Did you do any big hands-on applied projects that you're proud of? Polish that up and make sure there's a good web page, demo, or paper about it. If you have programming + statistics skills good enough to do real data science you are a very hot commodity right now.
posted by Nelson at 7:43 AM on January 31, 2018 [39 favorites]


This isn't an answer, but it may make you feel better: the most successful person I know, who makes a lot of money at a job she loves, left grad school in a similar situation as you.
posted by roger ackroyd at 7:50 AM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


On your resume, under education, you write "MSc. [Biochemistry or Whatever] Ivy University, 2018" Underneath write something like "emphasis on data science" or whatever. Lots of people decide that PhDs are not for them and leave. There is no stigma.

There is probably some stigma to being forced out, but you don't tell potential employers you were forced out. Just say you decided it was not for you. I'm reminded of a conversation on TV: A: "I broke up with her." B: I thought she dumped you. A: Well, she said we shouldn't see each other anymore, and I decided if we weren't going to see each other, we should break up.

Also, I think a terminal masters is the thing you don't have. My Phd program, which did not have a "come in and get a masters" program but did have "you can have a masters along the way to your PhD, or you can have a masters and leave if you think the Phd isn't for you" option specifically listed itself as "No terminal masters." I think a terminal masters is a masters where that was the goal/destination/terminus.

Ok, I've googled on this and it looks like "terminal masters" is used in lots of different senses (wikipedia seems to list both our uses), so not only is nobody going to know what this, but there *is no* agreed upon "what that is".
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:51 AM on January 31, 2018 [3 favorites]


Pro tip: your resume should just say "M.S. in data science" not "Terminal Masters because I got kicked out of my PhD program". It's really hard to squash the instinct to be apologetic about your history, but please, squash!! and squash some more!

Similarly, your cover letter should talk about your active choice to pursue political data science which really interests you much more than pursuing the pure academic ideal. I am not a professor and even though at the time it felt like a choice that was made for me (i.e. people telling me I'm not good enough) what I took away from that was the realization that it was honestly not a good fit. One major reason I didn't look like a great prospect as a professor was that I hate doing a lot of things that professors do. Once I made the choice (and/or was railroaded into a backup plan) to look into industry, I realized how much easier and more genuine these cover letters and job applications were to write than all the academic work I'd been doing (not just academic job apps but also journal submissions, dissertation chapters, etc). So in all the thinking you're doing (and it sounds like excellent thoughtful time so congrats on that!!) think about ways in which you like the direction you're facing, regardless how how many different ways you turned to get there, and how frustrating it was.
posted by aimedwander at 7:52 AM on January 31, 2018 [7 favorites]


The group has it right: assuming you're done with the academy, your resume should only list M.S., [department, school], 2018. People take a variable amount of time to get a M.S. in line with a PhD, and no one will much care.

If you aren't sure if you're really and truly done with the academy, know that one of my grad school cohortmates was in a similar situation (left a PhD program with a MS), did a PhD, and is now tenure-track faculty. Hired straight out of grad school.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:58 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


I did this, after six years. In my case, I actively decided it wasn't for me, sought other opportunities, and ended up getting a job and dropping out. You can spin it that way to potential employers, even if the reality's a bit grittier.

Do you have anything on your resume for this period of time that might help you cover the gap? I had a part-time gig at a small consulting company that I list, so I can pitch it like "doing consulting work in [x] field in addition to pursuing an M.A." I'm not sure this helps, but I feel better about it.

Also, I've found people who've interviewed me very sympathetic to "I decided I wanted to build things in industry rather than pursue the academic route." In fact, I've at least once been offered a gig by someone who took a similar route and had some respect for making the choice (I didn't take it, for unrelated reasons).

This definitely feels overwhelming in this moment, but five years out, I can assure you it gets better!
posted by Alterscape at 7:59 AM on January 31, 2018 [4 favorites]


"But, it's not a master's. It's a terminal master's."

This is just simply not true... meaningless in fact. Your diploma and transcript will show a master's. There is no such thing as "terminal master's" in terms of what degree you received; only in the minds/policies of your PhD program
posted by secretseasons at 8:00 AM on January 31, 2018 [25 favorites]


Check out versatile PhD (vphd) which is definitely for people with (and without) terminal masters. It doesn't sound like you want to get your PhD in this field but if you do, you can do it! Since you don't there are a lot of options. Don't call it a terminal masters to anyone, tell people confidently you got your masters at #Ivy and it firmed up your interest in doing XXX in a more "applied" way. (Grad school is where my spouse discovered that she wanted to do the thing not research about the thing- applied work)
posted by stewiethegreat at 8:04 AM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


Oh god, nobody gives a shit whether your masters is a terminal masters or not. If they even realize that's a distinction, they will have no idea why you left your PhD program with a masters. Tons of people voluntarily leave PhD programs because they realize it's not the right path for them. You're going to be fine. You need some time away from the academia mindfuck, because it's been messing up your self-esteem and sense of perspective. But seriously: you're smart and you have solid programming skills, and you are going to be fine.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:09 AM on January 31, 2018 [14 favorites]


A terminal master's is a master's in a program that ends with the master's. You just have a master's. And no one can tell the difference anyway, especially outside of academia.
posted by praemunire at 8:30 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


As somebody with a terminal masters, this comes across as offensive and silly. I have had no problems getting jobs with my measly terminal masters. I work at a company that is consistently rated one of the best places to work in the country. The people I went to school with took anywhere from one to six years to get their degrees due to working while studying, so four years is really not an issue.

I agree with others that you need to let go of this narrative and just list on your resume that you have a masters degree that you studied for over the course of four years while also working. Employers will not be turned off by that. If anything it shows just how hard working you are.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:31 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


There's real work for people at all levels (BS, MS, Ph.D.) in technical consulting for government scientific agencies. It's where I went I decided academia was not for me. And yes, no one will care why you got out in that situation--just that you can apply your skills to a slightly different challenge. Memail if you want more info, or set up an informational interview, or such.
posted by stevis23 at 8:35 AM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


The only thing most companies care about is what you can do and how you can solve their problems, not what kind of degree you have. Emphasize your practical skills and projects wherever you can, leave your GPA off the resume, and you'll be just fine in the job market, especially if you know how to code.

If you want to get out ahead of any issues and have an idea of what types of jobs you might like to look into, check out a few job descriptions online and see if there are any knowledge gaps you can work on filling (know Java but not Python? start learning Python, etc.) or skills you didn't think to add to your resume that might be worth it to add on there. Develop a skills-oriented resume, and honestly, most HR people won't even look at your educational background outside of "ooh, that sounds hard and/or impressive".

So glad you're feeling better! Good luck!
posted by helloimjennsco at 8:35 AM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


I've never actually heard the term terminal masters, but I guess that's what I have. I was in the same boat, and found out that employers were super impressed by my MSc. and though my cv lists all the jobs I had over 4 years in grad school, nobody has ever asked. If asked why I left, I usually say I decided it wasn't for me.

One thing I did was a career workshop. I found out a lot about myself, and I got a really great job fairly quickly. Data science is a pretty neat field, and it seems like everyone wants someone with a masters, not phd.

Good luck, and memail me if you want more personalized advise.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 8:40 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


Chiming in to weigh in on the side of "honestly, outside academia it is vanishingly rare to find anyone who cares about the difference between a master's and a terminal master's." It's also not terribly likely that people are going to care that your master's took four years. People do school part-time, or take a year off to work to afford tuition, or change projects, or refine their life goals a bit and realize they don't need a PhD for the work they actually want to do, and it's not the huge deal to most of the outside world that it seems when you're in the research lab trying to grind through it.

I can't speak to other PhD programs but the rest of the world is open to you. Put your master's and the end date on your resume, discuss the four-year time period only if it comes up in an interview but do so knowing it's unlikely to be a big deal, and move on into whatever comes next. I hope it's something great. Good luck!
posted by Stacey at 9:22 AM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


If you want to go work in tech all that matters is you can do the job. Nobody cares at all about degrees. Well, some companies do, but they're the minority. But to get those tech jobs you'll have to really nail the interviews, and having a decent portfolio of work (github projects, etc) helps get you in the door.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:42 AM on January 31, 2018


The other commenters have answered your questions well, but I just wanted to chime in with some emotional support. I know a few people in this situation, in various academic fields, and they've all been quite successful with terminal Master's degrees. No one they've worked with has questioned it. I was there when one of them went through what you're going through now, and it felt like the end of the world at the time, but I promise that it will get better, and after a few years in your new career, not only will you not worry about not having a Ph.D., but you might actually be thankful you didn't waste even more time.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:46 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


Another +1 for "people outside academia don't know or care what a terminal masters is." You have a masters degree. Put that on your resume the same way I put my professional MA on my resume. You have an MS. That's it. No one is going to be doing date math to figure out how long it took you and then research how long it should have taken you.

If you're leaving academia you have absolutely nothing to worry about. The only people who would care (or even know about the subject) are people evaluating you for a PhD program.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:48 AM on January 31, 2018


from another phd dropout (who didn't even have a masters to show for it after three years), welcome to the club!

i dropped out ten years ago and i list my years in grad school under education (with no indication of degree awarded) and my teaching under experience on my resume. i've since gone on to work in higher ed business offices and IT. my teaching background is seen as an asset and i often spin it as such.
posted by noloveforned at 9:48 AM on January 31, 2018




I didn't go to grad school, and didn't know what a terminal Masters is (from the title, I thought you had terminal Multiple Sclerosis!). To everyone outside academia, it's a Masters. Only people who went to grad school might be skeptical of a 4-year Masters degree, but until reading this thread, it's a calculation I'd never expect.

You have a Master's Degree. That's all you need to tell people. It's not a shit thing that someone gave you because you didn't make the grade; it's an accomplished thing that you finished after 4 years of hard work, both at school and in your personal challenges.

If you start talking about your degree like it's the booby prize, people will pick up on it. But they're not going to know unless you're getting a job that's in or peripheral to academia. What you'll see on the outside is that the vast majority of people don't particularly give a fig for the petty bullshit prestige race that goes on in universities, because everyone has the petty bullshit prestige race in their business/industry/office to worry about.

Get treated (for your mental health, not for multiple sclerosis) and go look for a job doing programming. You have a lot of skills at your level (PhD or MS) which are welcome in loads of fields, not just your own. Follow opportunities, not dreams.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:58 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


Yet another person in the same boat chiming in to say that you're in a much better position than you think (I, too, had never even heard of this definition of "terminal masters" until this question, but apparently that's what I have). I hung on for 7 years in my PhD program before making the difficult decision to leave with a fabulous masters parting prize, and to be honest I was embarrassed to put that masters on my resume because of that "7 years" part. It really doesn't seem to have mattered to anybody but me, though! Like Nelson and others have suggested, I too have found the words "I realized that I wanted to work more directly with [so-and-so]" or "I realized I wanted to make a direct impact" to be pretty magical. Many people understand that a life of academia isn't for everyone, but that many of us need to learn that the hard way.

FWIW, I've ended back in grad school again in a related field (I even got scholarship offers from three schools), so I can vouch for the fact that a masters like yours doesn't necessarily hamper your ability to return to grad school again in the future if you so desire. As everyone else says, emphasize the positive, focus on what you learned both in the program and from being in the program, and try to reframe things in your own mind - one of my favorite quotes may be relevant here: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
posted by DingoMutt at 10:04 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


No one outside of academe cares about "terminal Masters" versus Masters degree.
posted by bessiemae at 10:28 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


My terminal masters was over 25 years ago, in a field that is not related to my current profession, and I just put it on my resume as a Master's Degree in Subject X. No one really cares. Even when I got into my MLIS about 8 years after that, they didn't care anything about how my previous degree had completed, even though I'm sure they knew that was a Ph.D. granting program since it was in the same university. Basically if it comes up at all I tell people I have 2 masters degrees, both in subjects not related to my current field. (FYI, I bailed out of the first one as a combination of mental health stuff going on at the time and just being in the wrong damn program.)
posted by matildaben at 10:33 AM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


At least 50% of my starting Ph.D. cohort left with terminal master's degrees (computer science, prestigious school). I see their Facebook and LinkedIn updates all the time, and they're doing great.

In my ideal world, I take the fancy school on the diploma and spin my programming skills into a political data science job somewhere else.

Your ideal world is attainable! As others have said, hiring managers don't attach this stigma to a terminal master's. What they see is a master's from a good school in a hot field. Nelson is absolutely right about "I realized a PhD and academic career wasn't for me" being the way to spin this.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:42 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


Ten years from now this is going to be the funny story you tell people about how you wound up doing the thing you're doing. Possibly sooner. Honestly, if you aren't aiming for a job that's exactly what your degree was going to have you doing, people really don't ask as many questions as you'd think. I did just fine with, "I thought I wanted to be an attorney. Going to law school was a really remarkable experience that taught me a lot of things. One of the things it taught me was that a definitely do not want to be a lawyer. So I took some time with that to regroup and redefine what I wanted to do with myself." People really super don't care.

You can code and you went to a big name school. There's no end game here where you wind up living in a cardboard box. Your worst-case scenario isn't poverty, it's like... working for a really boring company in a city that you'd rather not be living in, both of which are fixable when you start looking for the next job.
posted by Sequence at 10:51 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


Yep, no one cares. I honestly wish I had started a PhD program instead of my Masters because my Masters has helped me a ton (in CS) but I paid an arm and a leg for it (switching fields). So! You’re actually quite lucky, if you weren’t paying for your PhD.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2018


Lots of good advice here. For some context, I've done a hiring for a science industry position. Many resumes I looked at took longer than two years to complete their masters. I personally have friends that did it part time over 4 years. Did you work as a research assistant or teaching assistant? That absolutely can go in your employment section.
posted by snowysoul at 12:02 PM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


4 years for a Masters isn't all that odd. I don't think you will need to explain away a thing. You have a masters, it took you four years, sounds good to most employers.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:38 PM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


You're looking at this through an academic lens. Outside of that world, this is not a big deal.

I work at a tech company. We are clamoring to hire data science types. No one here would give one shit about how long you took to get your degree, or whether it was terminal or what. Companies will be THRILLED to have someone who can do that work. Those roles are in incredibly high demand.
posted by spindrifter at 12:55 PM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


I was in your position 4 years ago. I was just devastated. Honestly, it has not mattered one whit. I was hired into my current job from the very second application I put in, the hiring managers all saw my experience as a positive, loved the Masters, I've been steadily promoted since. Seriously, it's all going to be fine. Take a deep breath.
posted by peacheater at 1:03 PM on January 31, 2018 [3 favorites]


I got a memail asking to give more information on why I think that a Master's is preferable to a PhD. I think that while PhDs are hired for higher-level positions--although not always--mid-level positions are much more prevalent and therefor more readily available. I used to work for Pfizer and helped screen candidates for two positions, one being a more senior PhD-level position and the other being a scientist position at BSc or MSc-level. We were not permitted to hire a PhD for the scientist position, no exceptions. You would think a PhD would have an edge by applying for a position requiring only an MSc but the company was not going to make any exceptions. I asked the head of HR why this was and she said that PhDs are often happy to take a job like this but then inevitably want more responsibility, more autonomy, etc.. There were about 100 applicants for the PhD position and maybe 5 for the scientist position! This was the same for another large company I worked for--they just had very little need for PhDs and in fact avoided them because they're viewed as being higher maintenance and needing more autonomy (and money).
When I was in grad school I dreamed of staying in academics--it just didn't work out past doing post-docs. Moving on from post-docs is extremely difficult. I think being in academics one gets tunnel vision on tenure track, but if that doesn't happen it's perfectly OK to do something else!
posted by waving at 1:08 PM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


There were times I regretted my life sciences doctorate. All it did in the beginning, before my current work in biotech regulatory affairs, was make hiring managers think I was overqualified and would get bored with desk jobs. This couldn't be farther from the truth. On preview, exactly what waving said just now. Currently, I have use for my PhD only in that it helps me communicate with scientists (who normally have trouble understanding the requirements of my function with regard to product development) and build respect with senior management.

I know of at least two people in my PhD program who were removed, one after 6 years. Both are very successful in their chosen careers and have terminal masters. They even managed to find jobs in 2009, the peak of the recession.

There's only one thing that may be a sticking point. Every job I applied to relatively soon after grad school wanted at least one reference to be my advisor or a professor from grad school. YMMV.

Once you get your foot in the door with a job in whatever work you want to pursue and build experience, education becomes a background upon which your experience paints a picture of what you bring to the table from an employer's perspective. Follow the excellent scripts provided upthread for why you have a masters and no PhD, and apply for jobs you want. Be well-prepared for your interviews. You will be fine!
posted by Everydayville at 1:16 PM on January 31, 2018


I switched out of a hard science PhD program after three years into a master's program in a completely different non-science field. No one has ever cared that I completed my master's five years after my bachelor's. I talk about my three years of graduate-level research (without a postgraduate degree in that field) if it's relevant, and have never had anyone take it as a mark against me.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:20 PM on January 31, 2018


In the humanities, a terminal degree refers to the highest degree possible in a field. This means that a person with, say, an MFA and another with a Ph.D. would both be considered to have terminal degrees. Perhaps the language is different in the sciences? But to someone in the humanities referring to your degree as terminal would sound really odd.

Because the term terminal seems to have a lot of different meanings, maybe it would be useful to just drop it from the way you are thinking about your situation? Maybe it would be possible to think more along the lines of: "Great! I have my MA now! What do I want to do with it?" Congratulations on your shiny new diploma!
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 2:42 PM on January 31, 2018


Nobody outside of your programme is going to know the difference. Both of my masters took me four years and neither were part of a PhD programme, they were just part time around my main job and maternity leave. If I saw your CV, I’d assume something similar.

Or you could just put your year of graduation. Depends on whether that would leave you with an unexplained CV gap, but if it doesn’t then that’s probably easiest.
posted by tinkletown at 3:29 PM on January 31, 2018


Where I work now is full of people who left PhD programs with masters degrees (as is the previous place, for that matter). At least in the department I went to, the degree was the same whether you had entered specifically to do the masters or were leaving the PhD program.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:56 PM on January 31, 2018


But, it's not a master's. It's a terminal master's.

I guarantee you that the majority of people outside of academia will not even know what the difference is, and of those who do, most will not give one single damn.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:50 PM on January 31, 2018 [3 favorites]


Graduate school is a kind of cult. While you're in, the only thing that matters is the affirmation of your advisor, who will happily ask you to do 10 hours a day of work while paying less than minimum wage and denigrating you at every opportunity. They tell you that there's no life on the outside, that you'll lose all your relationships if you leave, that even thinking about leaving is a loser and a coward. Like anyone leaving a cult, it's tough to realize that people in the outside world are generally good people who will not needlessly insult you, torment you, or force you to do things without paying you.

It's really remarkable how I got shouted at and constantly belittled and emotionally tortured when I was getting paid $18K on a graduate stipend, and then when I dropped out and got a job and was getting paid $100K to do exactly the same work, my colleagues were respectful and listened to my opinions and were supportive of my ideas.

Like any cult, it's very hard to leave. First you have to admit you made a costly mistake. Then you have to realize you'll be rebuilding your relationships and sense of identity from the ground up. But in the real world, people are generally kind and understanding and non-judgmental. You're just so used to being around assholes that you've internalized their black-and-white opinions.

Just make a clean break... you made a mistake, you got out relatively soon... you could have ended up a 50 year old postdoc who has never had a job with benefits or vacation and has no hope of ever retiring.
posted by miyabo at 9:50 PM on January 31, 2018 [7 favorites]


You have been SET FREE from a toxic situation, and they gave you an impressive looking degree on your way out! This is a gift! Literally no one outside of academia cares how you got a degree, or even knows what a terminal master's is!

When I left academia, it was a really hard decision to decide whether or not to defend my dissertation and get the PhD on my way out, because I knew having the PhD would actually make me look like a worse candidate for the jobs I wanted than just having my master's (which I already had). Academia treats the PhD as a bare minimum. To the rest of the world, it serves as a sort of warning sign, honestly, that you end up having to compensate for when applying for jobs (I promise I don't secretly want to be the boss, I'm not going to leave in six months for an academic post that comes through at the last minute, yes I'm really out and done with academic career paths, yes really, please just let it go).

A lot of people who get PhDs and end up leaving academia just have to leave them off their resumes to get hired! You get to be honest: you got a great looking degree and now you're ready to get a cool job, and your mental health is better than it has been in a long time. Let go of the academic miasma you've been breathing in for so long and revel in your success!
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:39 AM on February 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


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