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.