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After long thought, I have decided to quit my master's program. I fully understand the shame and failure that this is.

What is the professional way to leave, I do not wish to waste anyone's time but I feel just ducking out with an email would look bad. Should I simply arrange a meeting with my thesis advisor and let them know then, and should I indicate my desire to quit within the email I send?

I know whatever happens, I will be viewed as a failure by them and will never get a reference from them.

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  • Could you please explain your advisor's role? Are they simply supervising your dissertation? Or do they have a more involved role?
    – user2768
    Oct 1, 2018 at 13:56
  • They are my thesis advisor and who I do most of my work with
    – user97794
    Oct 1, 2018 at 13:57

3 Answers 3

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First, there shouldn't be any shame involved. For some reason you have learned that what you are now doing isn't right for you. That is perfectly natural, even if you are struggling at the moment. But before you decide finally, make sure it is the right decision.

As to how to do it, a face to face meeting is the best way. But before you have the meeting, think about what your future plans are so that you can talk about them as well as about quitting. If you think you may want to return later, you can work that in. The academic life isn't for everyone, and it may be a good thing if that is the case for you and you learn it now.

Your advisor may even have options available that you haven't thought of, but face to face is best. If you want to give him/her a heads-up on your intentions, send an email asking for a meeting to discuss your future.


You don't say why you are considering quitting, and you need not. However, there are at least three common reasons. First, is just external pressures that need to be dealt with. Second is burn-out that is pretty common also, and can lead to health issues. That can be overcome in some cases with help.

But the third reason is one to consider. There is a condition called Imposter Syndrome that affects many students at a certain point. It is the deep feeling that you don't belong because you "aren't good enough." That is often a bit related to burn-out but it is also pretty often completely unjustified. One of the reasons for speaking to your advisor in person is that he/she might just reassure you that you are, in fact, good enough. I suggest that you investigate Imposter Syndrome online as a start if you think this resonates.

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  • The reasons are a bit of 2 and 3, I have read about imposter syndrome and while I do have low confidence about my life, I do realize that the syndrome does apply if I look at things objectively. However, I also do have the self-awareness to know I am not exceptional and that some of my feelings of inferiority are legitimate and not just that syndrome.
    – user97794
    Oct 1, 2018 at 14:42
  • @ArmadilloDisco, in fact, hard work is worth a lot more than "exceptional." It will carry you farther.
    – Buffy
    Oct 1, 2018 at 16:30
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Quitting is neither shameful nor a failure. On the contrary, it is respectable and a success. You've established that continuing is not appropriate and you've taken action to find an appropriate direction.

What is the professional way to leave

The university should define a withdrawal procedure which you must follow. In addition, you may contact your thesis advisor. It is acceptable to merely send them an email, but you might want to arrange a meeting (which is what I'd recommend). Whether you indicate your intent to quit in an email beforehand depends what you want. If your decision is absolutely final, then the email could make it clear to your advisor that you are quitting, rather than merely contemplating quitting. This is a useful distinction, because your advisor may try to help you make a decision if they think a final decision hasn't been reached.

I will be viewed as a failure by them and will never get a reference from them.

A good supervisor would never take such a view nor would they refuse to provide a reference. (They might -- if they believe it is in your best interests -- discuss the possibility of staying.)

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Something similar happened to me about 30 years ago in the UK. I would suggest setting up a face-to-face meeting with your supervisor. When I did this, email wasn't much of a thing: I think I just caught her in the corridor and asked something like "Can we meet to discuss my research project?".

I graduated with a good BSc. in Microcomputer and Electronic Engineering and went on to become a Research Student1 at the same institution working towards an MSc. and then a PhD. The work started well – interesting, challenging-but-achievable – but after a while it was becoming clear that the work was heading in a direction that I was not as interested in, nor as capable at. After about a year – after a certain amount of anguish – I realised that things were unlikely to work out – at least in their current form – and plucked up the courage to confront my supervisor.

Yes, I must have had some feelings of shame and failure, but I had also convinced myself that it was in neither of our interests (me or the department) to continue for another two or three years not really making progress and with little or nothing to show at the end of it.

Obviously there was some disappointment on my supervisor's part that I felt unable to continue (both for me, and for the department), but there was never any animosity. Like me, I think she was glad that I brought it up sooner rather than later (didn't waste as much of her or the department's time, potentially allowed the funding behind my work to be used for someone else).

And far from "never get[ting] a reference from them" we discussed what I was interested in, and I was offered (and took) the chance to become a Research Assistant2 on a new three-year project (later extended to four years) that was due to start shortly. The only "concession" they asked was that I "went through the motions" of submitting for an MSc. (knowing I wouldn't get one) as this helped the "box ticking"...


1 In the UK at the time you were first a normal (undergraduate) student studying for a first degree (BA/BSc). Then some would become a Research Student (usually funded) with the primary purpose to get either a Masters (MA/MSc) and/or a doctorate (PhD).

2 A Research Assistant positions was effectively an employee of the university, working on a specific research project. The primary goal was doing the research (which often tended to be more about the application of ideas), but opportunities for higher degrees were still present.

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