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I’m quitting my PhD. The decision has been made. The reasons boil down to diminished interest in the research subject and disappointment with the university’s managerial practices (nothing is done on time or well). A while ago I informed my supervisor about these concerns and gave him the heads up that I may be leaving after a period of self reflection. He found my concerns justified and made reasonable adjustments, what was within his power, but it finally rained down on me that no matter what I won’t pull forward the PhD.

We have an amiable professional relation and I’m sure he may be interested in knowing what went wrong and when. I also want to diminish the blow as I suspect he had put lots of hope on my research, not to mention that I was his first PhD student and my departure will be a hindrance to his tenure. He also has a bit of an ego which I'd rather keep appeased (This is in Europe, in one of the countries with more hierarchy-based academic systems.)

In hindsight, what concrete information would an experienced academician expect to get from a PhD who is leaving?

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    Expect? Nothing! Perhaps you mean "want"? – JeffE Jul 4 at 18:34
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    FWIW "nothing is done on time or well" describes nearly every org out there, be it private, public, or non-profit. Expecting everything to be done on time and well is a recipe to have a stressful work life. Consider toning down your expectations a bit, reflecting on them somewhat, and then taking a cold hard look at whether the research really bores you. If the primary reason you're leaving is poor management practices, and you don't force yourself to get over it, you'll be in for a hell of a disappointment at your first job outside of academia and a grueling career. – Denis de Bernardy Jul 5 at 5:34
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    constructive criticism for how he could better prepare the next guy for expectations? – rogerdpack Jul 5 at 16:55
  • You may also want to consider if there's any useful work in progress you would be willing to hand off to your advisor for use by other students in the future. – Michael Mior Jul 6 at 19:52
  • I can't say for sure, but I'm getting a weird vibe from your question. I have a feeling there's something - or maybe a lot - that you're not telling us. It's like you sent your spokesman to write this question. Whatever you do, don't leave your advisor with the sense that you're supposedly sharing with him, but not really sharing with him. I might be wrong about this of course, it's just a vibe. – einpoklum Jul 6 at 20:51
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In general, I feel the two items you list already (over-)fulfill what justification you strictly speaking owe an advisor on your way out. You lost interest in your research subject, and you are disappointed with the university's managerial practices. I am not sure there is all that much more to say with regards to the first item, and it's not particularly actionable for the advisor anyway.

For the second item, I am sure he would appreciate some concrete examples of situations that you feel where inadequately handled. At the very least, this gives him ammunition for future discussions around improving managerial processes ("we already lost je_b because of situations X, Y, and Z" is a much easier to make argument towards change than an abstract "we need to improve some stuff").

The only areas where I would tread lightly is problems where he is himself the culprit, or could have reasonably made a difference but didn't. Personally, I would use the common advice from Workplace.SE here on exit interviews - don't use them as a chance to blow off some steam. The chance that you will enact positive change is low, but the probability that you burn some bridges is very high.

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This is culturally dependent, of course, but almost all of what you say about him is positive. Therefore it might be a good idea to share it. If at some future time you decide to return to academia, perhaps in a different field or university, it would be useful to have left all bridges standing, with good feelings all around. If he is sorry to see you go and wishes you the best in all things, you have set a foundation for your future. You may need it or not.

But, depending on country and field, he may not expect anything. In that case, a positive statement, especially if written, can be especially helpful to your future.

It is also possible that if he agrees with you on the impediments in place by the university itself, that he may have, in your statement, some ammunition to try to change them.


Had your experience with the advisor been mostly negative, on the other hand, I'd recommend you say nothing. It is a bad idea to leave enemies behind you. Some other folks here leave because of advisor conflicts and even malfeasance. Sometimes silence is the better policy than honesty.

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The fact that you're leaving the Ph.D. program altogether is different from switching Ph.D. advisors (or changing universities). I switched Ph.D. advisors and it caused some hard feelings, but I didn't have the concerns you evince (which is commendable). I informed my advisor that I was unable to get sufficient traction in the research topic he proposed and left it at that. He was struggling to get traction in his own research, so I don't think any further feedback would have been helpful.

After a career in academic and corporate research that is approaching 40 years, let me offer my perspective. The academic world is brutal, and I suspect it is about to undergo a serious contraction. Academicians for the most part don't really know very much, and most of them couldn't survive outside the academic environment. Getting out now is better for your future than getting out later, so you've made a smart move. Capture whatever you can from the experience, some of which is useful, and try to preserve some of the attitude that attracted you to academic research to real world problems - they actually offer more opportunities for meaningful work, and ultimately they're more interesting.

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