If you are or have ever been a graduate student, at some point you have likely asked yourself the following question: “Do I really want to be in graduate school, or would I be better off pursuing a career that doesn’t require this degree?”
I personally struggled with this question throughout my time as a grad student. I’d find the question bubbling up inside me every time I stayed late to finish experiments, when I couldn’t get consistent results, and as I plowed through seemingly endless literature.
If you are a grad student and you have made the decision to leave your program, take the following steps to ensure that the decision is a good one and that the transition is as graceful and painless as possible.
Step 1: Acknowledge That Your Decision to Leave Is A-OK and Get Support
Emotions can play a heavy role in the decision to leave graduate school, but you are not alone! Grad school is one of the toughest endeavors a scientist can take on. Think of how many smart people you know – do all of them have a PhD? Of course not! You can still be a scientist (and a good one, at that!) even if you don’t get a terminal degree.
Before telling your advisor you want out, though, discuss your decision with as many people as you are comfortable with. The reasons are several fold: not only will you get support from those who care about you, but you also may find alternative solutions or opportunities you may not have been aware of.
Step 2: Get as Many Outsider’s Perspectives as You Can
Reach out to family, friends, career counselors, counseling center therapists and, in some cases, even your grad student peers. These are people who want you to succeed regardless of your scientific rigor or degree aspirations. When considering my exit, I spoke frankly with my family, friends, and counselors about the possibility of leaving. They gave me great advice and ideas for exiting gracefully, including ideas for having difficult conversations and navigating the job market.
Tread lightly when you speak to program administrators, your committee, or your advisor about leaving grad school. While they can provide further support or even solutions to grad school woes, they may also unintentionally sway your decision. Gradually let your advisor/committee know that grad school isn’t right for you through several conversations. This is the best way to broach the subject and avoid abrupt surprises.
As I was making my decision, I initiated many conversations regarding concerns about publishing and advancing beyond the PhD. Yet, I always kept these discussions primarily professional in nature. I spoke with my advisor about what I needed to be successful in the lab and what resources I was lacking. When I ended up taking a job and leaving the lab, it wasn’t a huge surprise.
Step 3: Keep as Many Doors Open as You Can Throughout the Process!
This is, perhaps, the most important step. If you change your mind or work out a solution to stay, you need to be professional with colleagues. Furthermore, they will likely influence your ability to find work beyond leaving (see below).
The Nitty Gritty: Graduate School Exit Logistics
There are a plethora of logistical considerations when leaving grad school, or any other job for that matter. While it might seem enticing to quit immediately, you must consider factors such as your financial situation, health insurance, and future work.
You might have an emergency fund available and don’t need to immediately get a job after leaving grad school. But if you are in debt or sustaining yourself on a stipend or loans, try to find employment before leaving! Ideally, this means finding your dream job straight out of grad school. However, that is unlikely—even for the luckiest of us. If you don’t find something in your ideal field of work, consider other options. Even if it means finding temporary work at a daycare, in retail, or __________ (insert your favorite fast food joint). You can always keep in the loop by reading relevant literature and networking, but you can’t easily undo going into debt!
Another benefit of seeking full-time employment prior to exiting is that you can obtain health insurance. Even if you are healthy, an emergency or sudden diagnosis could leave you reeling with big bills. Keep health insurance in mind as you transition out of grad school. Some plans allow you to take COBRA—your student health office may have more information.
Finally, take some time to evaluate how your career trajectory has changed since deciding to leave. Consider making a concrete plan for professional development and reaching new career goals. If you have found work in your desired post-grad school field, congratulations! How will you advance in that field? If you take a temporary job, how will you take steps to get into the career you want to be in? This is often very challenging but will influence your odds of success upon leaving grad school. (Don’t forget about career counselors! At some institutions, career services and advising is available to alumni for several months beyond graduation.)
Follow up After Making the Break
Remember that bolded sentence earlier in this post? I’ll repeat it here: Keep as many doors open as you can throughout the process! Guess what? That’s still true after you leave!
As painful or awkward as it might be, you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you keep in contact with your former committee and colleagues. You never know when you might want to get a reference letter, use your old grad school network to find employment later on, or ask for science advice. Just because you’re ‘out of school’ doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay in touch.
I try to include a short word of thanks for teaching me a technique or skill that I currently use. Never underestimate the power of thanking someone for what you learned from them, even if the experience was challenging!
Navigating the waters of leaving graduate school is never easy. However, the above tips can get you started on the right track when you’re in the process.
What advice do you have for those deciding to leave graduate school? What advice would you like to hear about in Part III?
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