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Should I Stay or Should I Go? Part II: How to Gracefully Exit a Graduate School Program

Image of an airport terminal sign signalling the way to departure gates to represent advice on how to quit graduate school

If you’re wondering if you should quit graduate school and are looking for some advice, you’ve come to the right place. Following on from Part I of our “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” series, which focused on how to evaluate whether staying in graduate school is a good idea for you, Part II discusses the logistical aspects of exiting a graduate program if you’ve decided to leave.

Have You Considered Leaving Grad School? You’re Not Alone

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 really 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.

In retrospect, I had a killer case of imposter syndrome. This, combined with a new marriage, rising uncertainty about maintaining work–life balance, and mounting pressure to publish, resulted in my decision to take a Master’s degree as a fifth-year PhD candidate.

But fear not, dear reader! Many people find themselves partway through graduate school when they decide they want to take their career in a different direction. Immediately after leaving grad school, I took a biotech job in industry and am now happier than ever!

If you’re a grad student and you’ve made the decision to quit graduate school, 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 Quit Graduate School Is A-OK and Get Support

Emotions can play a huge role in the decision to quit graduate school, but know that 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 they all have PhDs? 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. There are several reasons for this: not only will you get support from those who care about you, but you also might find alternative solutions or opportunities you may not have been aware of.

Step 2: Get as Many Outsiders’ Perspectives as You Can

Reach out to family, friends, careers 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, but I always kept these discussions primarily professional in nature.

I spoke with my advisor about what I needed to do 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 graduate school (see below).

You’ll also probably want to start networking; these contacts could prove invaluable once you’ve left your program.

Step 4: The Nitty Gritty – Graduate School Exit Logistics

There are a plethora of logistical considerations when you quit graduate school, or any other job for that matter. While it might seem enticing to leave immediately, you must consider factors such as your financial situation, health insurance, and future work prospects.

You might have an emergency fund available and won’t need to immediately get a job after leaving grad school. But if you’re 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 that means finding temporary work at a daycare, in retail, or at __________ (insert your favorite fast food joint).

You can always keep in the loop after you quit graduate school by reading relevant literature and networking, but you can’t easily undo going into debt!

In the USA, another benefit of seeking full-time employment before 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.

If you’re in the States, 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’ve 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 on leaving grad school.

(Don’t forget about careers counselors! At some institutions, careers services and advising is available to alumni for several months beyond graduation.)

Step 5: Follow Up After You’ve Quit Graduate School

Remember Step 3? 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’ve quit graduate school, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay in touch.

Whenever I contact an old supervisor or mentor, 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 but the tips above can get you started on the right track when you’re in the process.

What top tips and advice do you have for those deciding to quit graduate school? Let us know in the comments.

Useful Resources

Leaving Academia Blogspot

The Professor Is In

Originally published March 20, 2017. Reviewed and updated July 2021.

1 Comment

  1. mwcPhD on September 6, 2019 at 4:02 pm

    Love what you shared. I think there is too much advice that blindly (and perhaps unintentionally) leads graduate students towards over-saturated markets and impending mental health issues.

    The only advice that I would add is to consider finding a career/life coach. Many grad students are good about meeting the expectations of others but not good about setting up a life for themselves that they can appreciate (me included!). Find someone who can truly care about the direction that you want to go in without any benefit to themselves (you pay them to listen/provide feedback… they don’t benefit from you doing anything specific with you life – unlike you major professor). Take time to practically consider your options. Then move.

    Dropping out of grad school or leaving academia isn’t the end of your life. It’s just a experiment that has come to an end. Learn, adapt, move on – there is no other way.



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