leaving [science] graduate school part 2: how do I do it?

Alrighty, so yesterday I started writing a guide for leaving your STEM PhD program by discussing what you should consider when you are deciding whether or not to master out. Today, let’s get into the nitty-gritty: how the fuck do you do this?

  1. Figure out your department’s policies.

    This is a really, really important step, and you may even want to do it even before you make a decision about whether or not to leave if the relative ease or difficulty of getting a master’s for your partial completion of your PhD may factor into your decision.

    The unfortunate thing is that I can’t give you very specific advice on this step. If you’re very lucky, your department has clear, accessible-on-the-internet, written, detailed policies on what a graduate student is entitled to after partial completion of a PhD. Unfortunately, this usually isn’t the case. Your second best bet is finding someone from your program that has already done it. You may not know such a person directly, but ask around.If neither of those options get you anywhere, you now need to think carefully. In an ideal world, you could just go to your advisor or department head, lay out the situation, and they would be upfront with you. But most departments are far from ideal, and it’s quite possible that if you’re leaving, you don’t have a great relationship with your advisor.A particular hazard to worry about is whether your advisor will be on your side in this. Again, in an ideal world that would be the fucking meaning of the word advisor, but this is science, suckers. If your boss hates you and wants you out, showing your hand too early by bringing this up could lead them to rush you out the door even if that isn’t the best thing for you. If your boss doesn’t want you to leave for whatever reason, they could mislead you about how mastering out works. So think about this: does your advisor prioritize about your happiness, like really? Obviously you’ll need at least their grudging support down the line, but if you don’t really trust them, wait to bring them in until you have a bit more of a plan.Other people to consider asking about policy are:

    • other friendly professors– maybe someone you TA’d for or took a class with? or rotated with and left on good terms?
    • administrative personnel without any dogs in the fight– does your department have a magic, super on-the-ball person who helps with thesis-filing paperwork and class-scheduling snafus? If so, they probably know at least who to ask, and they probably both understand enough about departmental politics to know that you need some degree of confidentiality, and not care about that bullshit to get involved
    • director of “graduate student affairs” for your department– if you have one of these, their job, theoretically, is to keep grad students happy-ish and help them navigate tricky situations like this. They’re usually a professor though, so you can’t necessarily count on them not talking to your advisor about it.

    I don’t mean to scare you about the need to keep things quiet. If your advisor or department head finds out before you’d planned, it’s not the end of the world. And if it does happen, don’t act ashamed–you have every right to know your options. The unfortunate truth, though, is that once people know you’re considering leaving, they may treat you differently or think of you differently even if you later decide to stay. And even if that doesn’t happen, it’s STILL best to have as much knowledge as you can before you start getting into the big discussions with authority figures.

    An aside: In my situation, my boss dropped the option of mastering out on me after my performance in lab had slipped due to ALL OF THE THINGS, and she portrayed it as my only option. I almost agreed to it and started signing paperwork before I realized that hey, switching labs is supposed to be possible, why isn’t that being mentioned? Of course, it turned out that mastering out was what I had to do, in the end, but being blindsided meant I wasn’t as well prepared to advocate for myself as I could have been. 

    So anyways, why does policy matter? Because hoops you’ll need to jump through to leave are going to depend on policy, and what those hoops are will largely determine how quickly everything will happen once you start the ball rolling. If your department will basically give anyone a master’s degree once they’ve passed oral/qualifying exams and completed X class requirements and you’ve done all that, you could be out by the end of the term. If there are more classes you need to take, ideally you want to find a way to take them that won’t require you to pay for them out of pocket, which means you either need to get your advisor to agree to let you stay on in their lab until you finish, or you need to start the classes before you tell them your plan. If you haven’t passed quals/orals and you need to for the master’s, you want to schedule those ASAP.

  2. Recruit your allies.

    This is the part where you start telling people you want out. You want to be strategic about surrounding yourself with people who will support you in dealing with the academic and bureaucratic hoops you’ll need to jump through to get out, and who will serve as references when you leave.You also need some fucking moral support, and that needs to come before anything else. For this, I’d strongly recommend starting by getting a therapist/counselor if you don’t already have one, particularly if you are leaving in part because grad school is damaging your mental health. After that comes telling close friends in your program, and maybe a professor if you know of one that you trust as mentors. In my case, I was fortunate enough to have a professor who I’d rotated with serve as a mentor during the entirety of my time in grad school, but even if you don’t have someone in that role already, there may be someone who you’ve worked with in some capacity who likes you enough to help out.

    After you have the moral support down, ideally you want to get your advisor onboard. This is tricky though–as I said before, we’re not all fortunate enough to be able to trust that our PI has our best interests at heart. If you have strong reason to suspect that your advisor will actively hinder your plan, delay telling them as long as possible, and get as many people in your corner as possible first… including some people with power to help you fight back. All schools should have an office for students with disabilities, and they may be able to help you out if you are leaving for health reasons. Many schools also have official entities that exist for the purpose of mediating disputes between students and advisors–if you suspect you may need them, it’s worth making a preliminary meeting before you let the cat out of the bag.

    The more common situation though, I think, is for advisors to be difficult or resistant, but not want to actively hinder/hurt a student who wants to leave. If this is the case for you, try to get the advisor on board as soon as you a) know you want to leave and b) have at least a rough idea of where you want to go from here. Be upfront but not needlessly insulting (“I want to leave with my master’s because I feel it is the best choice for me” not “I hate science and this lab and I’m leaving”), and offer compromises if reasonable. Offer to train your replacement, to stay one or two academic terms to wrap up a piece of a project if they allow you to spend a chunk of your time working on your thesis/taking classes…etc. DON’T agree to anything super open ended (I’ll stay until half-completed-paper-X is published), but if you can make it seem like a good deal for them, why not?

    Either before or after you tell your advisor, start telling other professors who know you in some professional capacity about your plans to leave, and start asking if they’d be willing to serve as references. If they’re very friendly, ask for advice, but take it all with a grain of salt. Professors, particularly older ones who have lived in the ivory tower for a long time, don’t always have the best understanding of the job market. On the other hand, some professors have connections outside of academia that could be very helpful.

  3. Determine your timeline.

    Once you know what you’re going to have to do to leave and have a basic support group in place, you can start planning dates. This may be more or less concrete depending on who you’ve been able to tell at this point and how much you need to accomplish, but you want to know roughly when you expect to be on the job market.

  4. Draft your basic plan.

    This consists of two things: a list of to-dos and deadlines for the academic/bureaucratic things you need to do to leave with a master’s, and a rough idea of what you want to do for a job after this, at least in the short term, and a list of things you need to do to get there.Now, at this point, you probably have the first half of things fairly covered. The job part though… that’s scarier. Again, I can’t answer this question for you, but I can give you some things to think about.

    • Hit up your career services office– This may or may not be helpful, depending on your school, but don’t knock it til you’ve tried it, seriously. It looks good for colleges to have good post-grad employment numbers, so a lot of them invest heavily in career centers. If you have months before you’ll be out on the job market, you should be able to hit up at least one job fair before you graduate, if that’s of interest, see a career counselor, take any relevant career workshops, and so on.
    • Look into resources (at your university or on the internets) for “alternative PhD careers”. Yes, you won’t have your PhD, but a lot of those same options are also open to master’s degree scientists.
    • Science Careers is a pretty useful resource, with everything from job listings to interviews with people in various careers.
    • If you’re a biomedical researcher and want to go into industry, this book Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development may be useful. It’s written by a long-time recruiter for biotech/pharma, and it’s a pretty comprehensive guide to every possible position for a scientist in those industries.

    In general, you need to think about your strengths, and what you like doing. And don’t be afraid to consider less-science-y options if those appeal to you. I know that hurts, but as I mentioned in my last post, the time you’ve put into your PhD so far, and into your science career in general, is a sunk cost. Yes, in terms of making a good income in the short term, you will probably do best if you do things related closely to your degree. But you’re making a huge leap by leaving your graduate program already, why not at least consider all your options?

    You should also think about what skills you have to leverage RIGHT NOW, and consider what that could get you in terms of short-term backup-plan income, if not long-term career options. Have you taught? You can tutor. Willing to keep working in a lab? You can be a lab tech, or maybe a lab manager.

    You don’t need to have a 5-year-plan worked out at this point, just a general direction. The goal is to be able to tell people that you are asking for networking help and references what kinds of opportunities you’re looking for.

  5. Make it official. 

    File the paperwork to change yourself from a PhD to a master’s student. Tell your PI if you haven’t yet. Let the head of your department know. Tell… everyone.Mastering out often comes with a lot of shame, but remember: to most of the world, you won’t be a failed PhD student, you’ll just be a person with an advanced degree. So don’t sell it as a failure, sell it as what it is: a graduation. It isn’t what you wanted or what you planned, and that burns, I know, but don’t close doors on possible opportunities by not using every resource/connection you have.

  6. Get shit done.
    • Job shit
      Once you have some idea what you want to do:

      • Use your career services office again, but this time to get help crafting a resume, looking for jobs/internships, etc.
      • Consider applying for student membership to any relevant professional organizations, and maybe even attend some of their events to network if that’s an option. For instance, the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) are two I joined because of my interest in science writing careers, and the job lists and forums alone were worth the membership fees.
      • Write a kick-ass resume.
      • Scrounge for experience– This is important, and one of the things that I didn’t do very well. There are some opportunities you can only get while you’re still a graduate student. For instance, one thing a lot of science writing jobs, particularly in industry, require is grant writing experience. Usually grad students don’t write grants by themselves, but can you offer to help on one? If you want to do science journalism, volunteering at your school’s public information office to write press releases may be an option.
      • Craft a positive story about your career goals to tell anyone who asks in the coming months. Don’t lie, of course, just focus on the stuff that is relevant.
      • If you are interested in and competitive for careers at big companies, reach out to HR/recruiters there as soon as you have a graduation date and a polished resume.
      • Start looking for and applying for specific opportunities starting 2-3 months out from graduation.
    • Academic shit
      There isn’t a lot to say here. You may have a thesis to write or classes to pass. Do those things, obviously. Also follow through on whatever commitments you made to your advisor regarding wrapping up your projects.A word, though, about theses: everyone who has written one can tell you that it sucks. A lot of PhDs will tell you that a Master’s thesis is nothing, and it is a much smaller task than a PhD thesis to be sure… but it’s still not a cakewalk. Break the job into parts, and assign yourself little bits at a time. Get it over with as soon as possible–ideally you want this off your plate before you’re knee deep in job applications and (hopefully) interviews.
    • Practical shit
      You can still walk at graduation if you want to, but don’t let anyone pressure you into doing that. Yes, you should start trying to reframe getting the master’s as an accomplishment and not just a confirmation of your failure, but a big fucking ceremony to celebrate something you aren’t excited about doesn’t have to be part of that if you don’t want it to.Use the hell out of your university resources while you’ve got them. Go to the gym, take cheap exercise classes, use your health insurance/dental insurance… all the things.

      Invest some time and energy in your outside-of-grad-school-circles social life. This was the number one thing that I did RIGHT in leaving grad school–I had one hell of a social circle to fall back on. I love my grad school friends to death, but there’s no way around the fact that it’s hard to suddenly be on the outside of something most of your friends are part of… even if that something is the hellish grad program that’s making you hate your life. If you don’t have much of a social life outside of grad school, start one, either by making friends locally (meetup.com!) or by spending some time catching up with family or high school/college friends.

      Write your big deadlines and your grad date/last day in the lab date up on a calendar that you see all the time, so you can remind yourself what you’re working towards, and remember the light at the end of the tunnel.

And I think that’s all I’ve got. Feel free to ask questions, but I can only really give you my opinion/talk from my own experience.


  1. First of all, can I just say that your blog is something I identify with so strongly that it hurts sometimes? Thank you for all the amazing, insightful posts on dealing with mental health issues in and out of academia… Now for the tough stuff…

    Do you have any advice or insight on what people whose mental health problems aren’t yet managed effectively should be doing if they decide to leave grad school? One year and two semesters into my PhD (just before I would have to do my appraisal/quals), I opted to take a medical leave because of depression impacting my ability to do any work at all. I’m now 2 semesters into that leave, which the university generally only allows 1 year of. Unfortunately, in the 11 months of taking various drugs, I still haven’t found a management strategy that works for me yet (though I have definitely seen improvement in the past few months, especially in mood if not mental clarity/function), and my psychiatrist has basically told me it’s going to be a long slog yet and referred me to a psychopharmacologist in a special mood disorders counselling and research centre at the hospital.

    Not sure if I want to or am able to petition to have my leave extended, but I definitely wouldn’t want to return to my program before I’m in a good, stable place, if at all. As for mastering out or quitting altogether, I have been weighing my options, but don’t feel like I’m even in any mindset to make a decision. In fact, most of the steps you list above to make a smooth transition from academia to the work world are not things I am even capable of on a good day, let alone figuring out how to put them all on a timeline and stick to it. Until I’m more functional, I am also basically unemployable for a standard job, especially in a scientific field. I can barely get my shit together to do three short admin shifts at my dance studio in the evenings (my most high functioning part of the day, generally) each week to help put a few hundred dollars towards my monthly rent so I’m not completely hemorrhaging my savings account. Needless to say, while you’ve given me a lot to think about, I don’t think I’m even at the point where I can start dealing with most of this. If you have any advice for someone in my situation, I would greatly appreciate it.

    • Oh man, this is a tough situation.

      I think question number one is… do you want to go back and get your PhD? If your depression was well managed, could you be reasonably happy/healthy in grad school? If you think that the grad school aggravated the depression, but wasn’t necessarily a miserable environment in and of itself, then it might be reasonable to give the full PhD a second try. If that was the plan, I’d say you do want to get as healthy as possible before you go back, so request more leave.

      If you want to go back, but only for the purpose of getting a masters, the equation is a bit different. When you are ready to go back would depend on what exactly stands between you and that master’s. If it’s just a class or two, or writing a thesis, you might be able to drag yourself through that at less than 100%, you know?

      As for supporting yourself afterwards, that’s a tough one, and hard to give advice on without knowing more about you. Do you have family or friends to lean on? How much savings do you have? How much money do you need to bring in just to continue to get by while you work on your mental health? If full-time work seems like too much to handle, is there some kind of telecommuting and/or part-time work you could do 15-20 hours a week, and maybe work up from there? My tutoring work for PrepNow comes to mind, but I have no idea if teaching would be doable for you right now or if that’s even up your alley.

      My suggestion would be to first go to your department and talk about your options. Say you aren’t healthy enough to come back yet, and you are trying to determine the best course of action. Ask if they would be willing to grant more leave, and also ask if mastering out is an option and what the requirements for that would be. Just gather all the relevant information on the school end first, no decisions yet.

      Then discuss those options with your doctors/therapist/anyone who is close to you and supporting you through this. Talk through what you want and what the best path forward is. Then come up with a timeline for going forward.

      I hope that was at least a little helpful, but like I said there’s a lot of variables involved here and you have to make your own assessment. For what it’s worth, I am so sorry you’re going through this and I hope things get better soon. If you feel like it, I’d be glad to keep in touch and hear about how things turn out.

      If you want to contact me outside of my comments, kchaisson at gmail.

      • As far as wanting to go back, I’m not sure anymore. My entire grad experience has been fraught with both external (not even school related) and internal issues impacting my mental and physical health and productivity. I feel like I’ve spent nearly two years on what should only have taken me six months. The environment of my department definitely is a relatively healthy and encouraging place to work (as far as science grad school goes), and I spent all of my undergrad working there in some research capacity without issue. Until I get better, I’m not sure if I’ll want to finish the whole PhD. Even if I do, I’m no longer certain that academia is the right career path for me — the culture as a whole is not a mentally healthy place to be (which I see now and did not realize before). As someone who has had multiple bouts of depression over their life, I’m not sure I want to put myself in that situation for the rest of my career, as this is something I’ll probably have to deal with at intervals for the rest of my life (I’ve only recently come to terms with that fact). I’m definitely thinking that government or industry work might be a better choice, and that maybe an MSc would be enough, depending on how much further I have to go to get it. I think if I master out now, I would probably be content to find a real job at least for a while, and if I had the desire to do a PhD in future I would go to Europe where I have some contacts in my field, and just do one of their nice quick 3-year PhDs.

        Luckily I do have a supportive family in the same city who I could move back in with in the worst case scenario. I also have a partner who I could move in with, but being an actor/writer who hasn’t had much luck with employment recently, we’d have money troubles regardless if I weren’t working. My savings were in the low 5 figure range before grad school, but at this point are down to about 1/4 of that (I live in an expensive city and probably wasn’t as careful with money as I should have been).

        As far as employment goes, I have the admin work at my dance studio until the end of March (when it is likely shutting down due to bankruptcy) and then would need to find a job or be going back to school anyway. Tutoring is definitely not something I’d be capable of right now with my current brain function — I tried it when I was slightly better earlier in grad school and was lucky that I had a really smart kid because I totally didn’t remember popgen stuff that I’d learned the year before as well as I should have, but maybe in future it could be considered. Right now I’m pretty capable of doing basic admin or customer service jobs, but early shifts and long hours wouldn’t work. I was thinking about freelancing as a virtual admin assistant, as there is apparently a dearth of reliable ones in my city right now according to friends who use that sort of service in their businesses. The hours would then be flexible and would rarely even involve leaving my apartment.

        I think you’re right as far as figuring out options and gathering information goes. Unfortunately my psychiatrist (whom I adore and trust and respect) is going on mat leave in January, so I only have 1-2 more appointments with her before she transfers me to someone else in her office (either a prescription filler if I’m stable, or another psychiatrist). Luckily I have a great grad program administrator and my PI is really wonderful, understanding, supportive and has dealt with severe mental health issues in family members before, so I can definitely figure the academic side of things out with them. My labmates are also really supportive (and a bunch have dealt with mental health issues before) and still involving me in social activities with the lab, so I can pick their brains for post-ac/non-ac job ideas, etc. The only remaining problem is not knowing even in my own brain what I want right now, but I guess it’s not the end of the world to work some crappy jobs for a bit while I figure things out.

        Thanks so much for your reply — it was definitely helpful in getting me thinking about things (hence my late reply!) even if it hasn’t resolved all my questions (that will definitely take longer). I think I’ve pretty much decided to petition for more leave if it is possible, unless the psychopharmacologists find a magic bullet in the next few months.

  2. Thanks so much for your series on dropping out of a PhD program! It’s been very helpful.

    I’m in the process of leaving my program in a STEM field. I think it’s the best decision I can make right now, but I feel like such a total failure that it’s difficult for me to actually get stuff done.

    I’d like to leave the doctoral program with a master’s. In order to do so, I have to transfer to another college within my university system. This transfer involves getting two letters of recommendation: one from my advisor (ugh!) and another from another PI.

    My advisor HATES writing letters of recommendation. (He also loathes me, so I’m not inclined to see him or ask for anything, unless there’s absolutely no way around it.) I’m going to have to write the letter for him, but I have no idea what to say. As far as I can tell, an honest letter from him would say something like:

    “During the three years she wasted in the doctoral program, Barbara has managed to pass her comps but somehow can’t manage to pull together a thesis proposal, an elementary task that even the thickest grad student can handle with ease. Furthermore, she has managed to accomplish less than nothing in my lab; her data acquisition was so bad that it had to be re-done by two other grad students, which doubled the expense and time my underfunded project was supposed to take.

    Despite her manifest lack of skill in anything more complex than peristalsis, she should get the MS. (Ostensibly, she has mathematical and programming skills, but, if they exist, they’ve been useful for nothing but wasting time in long, pointless discussions that distract everyone else from actually getting work done.) If you grant her the degree, I never have to see her again, and we can part on what we’ll both pretend are amicable terms.”

    I know there must be better things to say than that, even if I have to use some creative phrasing. But I have no idea how to approach this. Which only makes me feel like an even bigger loser.

    I’d be very grateful for any suggestions you could give me.

    • Wow your advisor sounds like such an asshole. I’m so sorry.

      First off, you are not a loser. You can’t make it into grad school and through three years including comps without having considerable skill. I know you feel like a failure right now and it is hard to see those things, but you have to keep trying. As you get distance from this, it will get easier, I promise.

      As for the recommendation letter, I would probably take the approach of writing about what your talents ARE and why they induced your PI to want you in the lab in the first place, and then explain that the in the end your strengths were not a good fit for the project. End on something like “X is a strong student who was unfortunately a poor fit for my laboratory, but I believe strongly she can shine in another context. On the basis of her coursework and performance on comprehensive exams, I recommend that she be given the opportunity to earn her master’s degree.”

      Remember, your PI doing this for you gets him what he wants (from what you have told me, anyhow)–you gone. He is probably willing to sign a fairly positive letter so long as it does not include outright lies about your abilities or negative comments about him/his lab.

      Again, I’m sorry you are dealing with such a shitty situation. Best of luck!

  3. Thanks so much for giving me some perspective on my situation! It took a little time for your reply to really sink in, but I think I now have a better idea of how my advisor’s recommendation is going to go. Your suggestions for the closing lines were particularly helpful.

    And, yeah, my advisor is an asshole. A MAJOR asshole. No–a FOUR-STAR GENERAL asshole. But I’m getting away from his poop, which is what’s important right now.

  4. Hello,
    I’d just like to say thank you for writing this blog about leaving the PhD. It’s funny, I’m a completely different breed here when it comes to leaving. My lab is decrepit and my supervisor is science for the sake of science, while I am scope and engineering and delivery. We have a good relationship, but this degree isn’t for me. I have used my degree to it’s maximum potential. Gained all the experience I can here and would simple be spending the next 2-3 years doing more of the same shit. It’s funny, my main stress comes from the breaking the news to my labgroup and supervisor. I am a valuable asset to them. Given the fact that we don’t have post-docs, I have essentially become one. I don’t want to leave them cos they’re all great guys, but I need to think about my career and turn my books from red to black.

    Thanks for the advice on HOW to quit the PhD. Every google search I’ve had has found hundreds of pages on why to quit and when to quit, but it’s nice to see someone break down the steps of doing so. I’ve got two months left here and it’s going to be a massive slog, but I just need to bite my lip and get the ball rolling.

    Thank you,

  5. Pingback: Telling my adviser I’m leaving the PhD | Hussy Saucebox

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