How do I quit my Ph.D. program?
March 20, 2007 10:12 AM   Subscribe

How do I quit my Ph.D. program?

The level of my work has completely collapsed this semester, as has (correlation? causation? who knows!) my ability to get anything done. The program has never been a good fit for my interests, and in the course of my general crack-up I've also managed to alienate my only departmental advocated. Whee.

Complicating matters is the fact that I'm as certain as ever that the academy is right for me -- I've just screwed up so badly right now that I'm stumped as to how I should move forward. I do expect to begin seeing a head doctor shortly. Emails to
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
How about a leave of absence to sort things out, get any needed treatment, re-group? Just a thought.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:16 AM on March 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

I strongly second Claudia's suggestion. It's the easiest way to go. Also, if you take a leave, you leave the door open for a return. If you simply quit altogether, you make it very difficult to return to that program or any other for that matter. Give yourself some time to answer the questions you're struggling with above.
posted by theantikitty at 10:26 AM on March 20, 2007

This kind of melt-down is not uncommon in PhD programs. I'd second ClaudiaCenter to seek a temporary withdrawal. This doesn't burn bridges and you can re-enter in due course with minimal paperwork. Most universities have good support via counselling centres and so forth. You most certainly will not be the first PhD student to have gone that route.

The program may not be a good fit for your interests but I would suggest not making that evaluation while you are in distress. See about taking a withdrawl-with-permission, decompress, then see how you feel about the situation.

Some people I know have actually done very productive work as soon as they withdrew, once the pressure was off, but I wouldn't count on that!
posted by Rumple at 10:30 AM on March 20, 2007

Take a break. At a UK institution an interruption would be pretty easy to arrange, not sure how this will vary where you are but worth looking in to. A break will let you get your head together, work out whether the PhD is salvageable or not while not being under the pressure to move it forward. You won't lose anything, you'll still be in a position of having to keep yourself outside the PhD programme but you'll have something to go back to if that's what you figure out is the best thing to do.
posted by biffa at 10:38 AM on March 20, 2007

1. Find a job.
2. Tell your advisor you're burned out.
3. Open the door and walk through it.
posted by KRS at 10:41 AM on March 20, 2007

Take a leave of absence. I have no personal experience with this, but I've heard that once you drop out of a PhD program it's very hard to get into any other one; you're thought of as a quitter who may end up being a waste of precious funds. If you know even in your depressive haze that academia is where you need to be, definitely don't burn these bridges.
posted by crinklebat at 10:42 AM on March 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Who is in charge of the graduate program? Schedule an appointment and explain your situation; they'll tell you how to arrange a leave of absence. If the fit is as bad as you say, they may also suggest how you could go about transferring to another program once you're ready.

LOAs are usually a simple arrangement if you can show cause, so I wouldn't anticipate any great angst there.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:42 AM on March 20, 2007

To take your question literally, rather than address your current emotional state, as others are doing -- i.e., "how do I quit my PhD program": when I did so in 1999, I did it with a two-word e-mail to the graduate chair; that set the process in motion on the administrative side.
posted by mcwetboy at 10:42 AM on March 20, 2007

The first thing yo ned to find out is how long the dept. or school will allow you to be "idle" or not completing the PhD and/or thesis. out the PhD! Grad schools vary in this
posted by Postroad at 10:55 AM on March 20, 2007

At the end of my 2nd semester in a big prestigious science PhD program (in the US), I pretty much knew it wasn't for me. I didn't really break down, but I did freak out a bit to friends and family. I arranged a meeting with my "school advisor" - who might have actually been in an advisory role for all the grad students - I can't remember. (Not the prof I was supposed to be working with.) Anyway, I explained that I was having serious reservations about my chances for success in the program, and about whether it was a good fit for me, and I thought a leave of absence would be the best thing to do. She agreed that would be fine, and I finished the semester (weakly) and started a 1 year leave. At the time I was 95% sure I would never be back, but I had calmed down enough after my initial freak-out to want to avoid burning any bridges.

I got a temp job, and then for the next year I was able to use university resources to research alternate graduate school options at a leisurely pace. I found some alternatives that sounded like much better programs for me (in several very different fields), and I was back in grad school elsewhere within 18 months of my freakout - and very, very happy.
posted by chr1sb0y at 11:02 AM on March 20, 2007

Oh yeah - i just remembered that before I want to my department about this, I had a session with a counselor or therapist at the school health center, so I could feel confident that I wasn't being a big baby, or having a nervous breakdown. I had hoped they could reassure me that I really shouldn't be in that particular science field, but they were pretty useless as far as that goes - big surprise. But the process of going through that session helped me to feel confident that at the very least, a leave was needed for me to sort stuff out.
posted by chr1sb0y at 11:08 AM on March 20, 2007

The level of my work has completely collapsed this semester, as has (correlation? causation? who knows!) my ability to get anything done.

I'll address this part. I'm in my 4th year of a Ph.D. program, and went through something similar; after I finished classes last year and researched through the summer I stopped. Working. Completely. From August through February, I was idle. Completely. I dicked around all day, everyday. I can't tell you how many times I thought about quitting. About two weeks ago, my advisor put things in perspective about doing my exams (oral exams, qualifying exams, they have different names at various places) on time... and I've been working nonstop ever since. Aside from the fact that I'm miserable from having no time for anything non-academic in the last two weeks and with major deadlines coming up, I'm the happiest I've ever been, academically. By forcing myself to engage with the material in my field, I actually feel enthralled in what I'm doing.

Maybe you're just burnt out; we all go through this. Maybe not. But don't burn bridges yet. Get back your one advocate. Apologize and get them back on your side, get advice from that person, and then force yourself to start working again. You need self control for this. Be a self-taskmaster. And if you decide that there's somewhere else where you'd rather be--not some nebulous "other university" but somewhere that you can identify by name and for definite reasons, you can apply for there. Sometimes a department is just a bad fit, but making yourself engaged is the first step in seeing if you're just psyching yourself out into thinking the one you're at is indeed such a bad fit.
posted by The Michael The at 11:13 AM on March 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Does your university have an Ombud's Office? Those offices are specifically set up to offer someone to talk to confidentially and offer advice on how (or whether) to quit or take a leave of absence. This will avoid you having to talk to your advisor or department chair and be labeled as less than committed (and therefore less deserving of funding and support) before you make up your mind.
posted by twoporedomain at 11:17 AM on March 20, 2007

I take it that you are still at the coursework stage--if you writing your dissertation it would be so much easier to take a few months off.

First of all, don't think that your situation is all that unusual. Your professors have seen plenty of other students have a breakdown, most of whom have eventually come back and completed the program. So let the graduate advisor (or someone) know about your "crack up" and that you are seeking help. As word gets out that you have a problem and are not just a fuck up, there will be a lot of good will for you. I won't tell you to get help because you are already doing that.

Good luck.
posted by LarryC at 11:18 AM on March 20, 2007

Just email the departmental secretary, "I am withdrawing from this program." This is good especially if you hate your advisor and don't want to discuss it with him/her. Trust me, it's very very easy. And fun.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:31 AM on March 20, 2007

I will nth the suggestion that a leave-of-absence (rather than outright quitting) will be the most useful option for you at this point. However, you MUST absolutely find out what the procedures are at your university. This will undoubtedly be documented somewhere, because universities love rules and regulations. Read the documentation carefully. Find out what you need, what forms must be filled out, and what your timeline is. And good luck!
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:34 AM on March 20, 2007

I left a PhD program about 10 years ago.

They made me sign 1 form, and they gave my funding to someone "further down" the chain.

I never heard from them again.

However, a word of warning.

My intent was to change departments after that first year. I had a terribly hard choice between Economics and Political Science. I chose Economics, and then almost immediately regretted it.

I had a sit-down with the department heads of both departments, explained my situation, and was assured it would be taken care of. Their advice was to finish the first year in Econ, as to not be viewed as a "dropout", then change to Poly Sci. I was assured by the Poly Sci department head I would be easily admitted to the program.

And I was.

However, the Graduate School of the University would not grant me full funding as I had received in Economics. They said I "had my chance" (the provost's words) and they would not grant me funding again. Despite my pleadings and assurances and even testimony by the department head that I had followed their instructions, the Graduate School would not budge an inch. They went so far as to directly contradict the department heads and say that I should have just dropped out instead of "wasting their money".

As this was a prestigious private school, and I being of very modest upbringing, there was simply no way for me or my family to afford the program.

So, I went to work. And here I am today.

My only goal for 3/4 of my college career and all of my brief graduate career was to be a professor. I, like you, know in my heart of hearts the academy is where I belong. I have never been more comfortable than I was in academia.

The funny thing is, I've been moderately successful in my line of work, and right now, I would have to take about a $40,000 pay cut, or more, to take my dream job of being a professor.

And I would take that pay cut TOMORROW given the chance.

I will say if I fault anything it is the fact that my university seemed to have no support for me during this period. It was all self-directed, and it was me trying to find and discuss with the appropriate people. If I had an advocate or ombudsman, perhaps I would have known to consult more closely with the Graduate School beforehand, instead of just assuming that the Department Heads knew everything and had all the power.
posted by Ynoxas at 11:36 AM on March 20, 2007

That's a horrible story, Ynoxas, and makes me remember why I hated grad school so much. That's quite typical of the way grad students get treated.

To the poster: I experienced a very similar "collapse," I went to a therapist, he listened to my plaint and said "Tell me, do you really want to do the dissertation?" and I had an epiphany and realized I didn't. The Academy is great, in theory, and if I could be part of it without the hell of dissertation-writing and scrabbling for jobs in an ever-shrinking market and grading tests and fulfilling administrative bullshit, I'd do it in a second. But I can't, and I decided to cut my losses; I've never regretted it for a minute. Take a leave of absence by all means, but make sure the PhD is really what you want before you proceed.
posted by languagehat at 11:50 AM on March 20, 2007

I'll echo what most people have said here: You aren't the first person to have this sort of collapse, and you won't be the last. The best thing you can do is to talk to someone about it, as soon as possible.

Talk to your chair about taking a much needed break, and ask them what they've done for other students in similar situations. I know people from my program who have taken a few semesters off, and I know people (like me) who have gotten help transferring to other schools. (Is this a possibility that appeals to you? You said your department is a 'bad fit', and that can totally destroy your ability to work and finish...)

Start seeing a therapist or someone you can talk to. If you can, talk to someone off campus -- the counseling services on my campus at least are overly concerned with student retention, which (at least partially) destroys the ability to have frank conversations about the future. (Boy do I know how grad student insurance can be limiting, but I'd definitely check on that.)
posted by lastyearsfad at 12:19 PM on March 20, 2007

Talk to your advisor or any faculty you feel comfortable confiding in - if you even have the smallest yearning of finishing the degree you've got to clue people in. My fiance was struggling for quite some time with his PhD and he never spoke to his advisor about it - he ended up taking an official leave of absence last year but he didn't even tell her because he was just convinced that she wasn't going to help him at all (he knows her better but I still think she would have done something to help. Ahem). Anyway, I guess my point is that my fiance did not involve anyone in the program about it except admins. He has no plans to go back, though.

It was a HUGE relief when he did fill out the LOA form, though, for both of us. The program was just eating him inside and affecting everything.

Definitely talk to your advisor and find out from the administrative side what forms you need to fill out and when they're due.
posted by sutel at 12:22 PM on March 20, 2007

I agree with what others said already: you are probably burnt out, it is very common among graduate students, you may recover sooner than you think. Yes, make sure a PhD is what you want but also please remember (and this is my own experience) graduate school work is very different from the work you will do in the field afterwards. I too hated grad school, I got burnt out and basically fooled around for a year, but got back into it, finished and now I love working in the field. For me the problem was the overspecialization, the lack of independence, the high-school approach to graduate work, in general the lack of a feeling of being part of academia. If that is what is bothering you too, then I'd say take some time off but stick around. Maybe even look at different schools in your field as it could be that your present program does not cover you. If on the other hand you feel the choice of field or the future occupation are not attractive enough then probably give it up now before you have spent too many years in it.
posted by carmina at 12:25 PM on March 20, 2007

KRS has it. Find your next move first.
posted by salvia at 12:46 PM on March 20, 2007

1. Make sure you talk with someone associated with the university's counseling service. They may be able to help mediate between you and the administration.

2. Take a "leave of absence" (or whatever your school calls it) rather than simply quitting. A leave of absence will allow you to return, often (but not always) with funding intact. Quitting means that to return, you would likely have to reapply. At my school you don't have to give any reason at all for a leave of absence, but in case you do, the counseling center (see above) can help.

3. Before you file that leave of absence form, however, go and talk with your adviser, your director of graduate studies, or the department chair. Tell them the truth -- you are burning out, you are worried that it isn't a good fit, and that you are considering taking a leave of absence. They might be useless and rude and awful, but surprisingly often someone will be really great, and find extra funding, reschedule exams, intercede with an unpleasant professor, or otherwise make your life much less miserable. Basically, if they aren't aware of the situation, there is nothing they can do. Don't assume that they know how unhappy you are, or that they agree with your self-assessment of your performance. Graduate students all seem to have "impostor syndrome" and have trouble assessing their situation accurately. Your department may not actually see you as the fuckup you are seeing yourself as, and they might be quite surprised at how you feel.

4. Part of the reason to leave on good terms is that you will likely need at least one letter, perhaps two or three, from professors in this department if you then apply to another department during your leave of absence. Consider who would be your reference(s), and how to approach them about it.

5. Lastly, how close are you to being ABD? Science programs are different, but in many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, one becomes almost entirely autonomous after reaching ABD status (usually after passing qualifying exams of one type or another, but things vary a lot from place to place and field to field). Once you are ABD, it is all about you and your research. Before then, it is about classes, exams, complicated relationships with different professors, etc. In many fields, once you are ABD, you can leave the campus and go live anywhere (or at least anywhere that has whatever it is you need to be able to finish your research and writing.) In other words, if all you have to do to become ABD is sit one more exam, or take one more class, you would probably be best served by figuring out a way to make that happen, and then get out of town. If you apply into a new department, you will be starting over almost from scratch, with probably at least a year of classes and then your exams, which will probably be an equally unpleasant process as what you are now facing. What you are dealing with is an almost inescapable part of the process, rather than something unique to you and your department.
posted by Forktine at 1:50 PM on March 20, 2007

I am in the process of quitting right now (after nearly 4 years!) - I'll have a few weeks suspension as a cooling-off period and then withdraw altogether.

I kept clinging on through two years of hating it and hardly getting anything done. Fortunately it's not in my nature to regret things but I have to recommend that you don't draw out the agony as long as I did. Decide on a reasonable time frame in which you'll either sort out the problems or quit.

One if the disadvantages of being bright enough to do a PhD is that you may be able to come up with an endless list of reasons why you're not able to be productive and possible solutions. This is fine for a few months, but at some point you have to say that enough is enough.

One more thing I want to say: being unproductive for a long time may well be making you feel like you deserve your horrible life. This is a crock of shit, you deserve to be happy just the same as anyone else.
posted by teleskiving at 4:34 PM on March 20, 2007

You used the word "quit", which suggests to me you've had enough and just want it to end. It's easy to quit - just walk away. Stop doing it. Life's to short to beat yourself up following a path that's making you miserable. Just stop.

There's no shame in it. Academic culture might instill a sense of failure in those who quit, but the rest of the world is bigger than that. Go do something you enjoy, instead.
posted by normy at 6:38 PM on March 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

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