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I am a second year fully-funded PhD student in a stem field at a large American public university. In my department, most students spend the first two years (and sometimes three years) only doing coursework and working on the qualifying exams. This is unusual in other programs, but here it is normal. Consequently, I do not have a research advisor and have done no research since I came here. Since I've passed my qualifying exams, I am now at the point where I am expected to find an advisor.

Here's the problem... I never liked research as an undergraduate. I absolutely hated it, and I even had multiple "prestigious" experiences at different institutions with different research mentors and groups. The only common denominator is me and I don't think I can blame my former research mentors for why I was miserable. I applied to PhD programs after my undergraduate career because it was suggested to me and I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I was also advised to apply to PhD programs and leave with a master's degree if I decided I don't like it (since masters programs are unfunded).

I want to leave with a master's degree and move on with my life. I don't know how to explain this to my department. I fear they will try and force me to leave without a master's degree even though I have met the requirements. I also fear how they will react in general... I'd rather not burn bridges or experience intense pressure to stay. I have never heard of someone quitting after passing the qualifying exams, so I imagine the department will find this to be very bizarre.

Any suggestions on how to navigate this situation are appreciated.

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    Why do you think they won’t grant the masters degree? If you want to leave does it matter that much anyway? – Jon Custer Jan 20 at 20:12
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    "because it was suggested to me and I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life." I'm sorry you got terrible advice. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 20 at 20:24
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I want to leave with a master's degree and move on with my life. I don't know how to explain this to my department.

Directly, as though the department chair were an actual reasonable human being and not a soul-sucking tentacled horror from the nether dimensions.

I fear they will try and force me to leave without a master's degree even though I have met the requirements.

I would suggest starting by finding out the mechanics of getting the master's degree. Perhaps if you do nothing, the degree will magically appear in your academic record, but more likely there is some paperwork that you have to fill out. Find out what that paperwork is. Fill it out. Collect the necessary signatures, and submit the completed paperwork to the relevant campus office.

You don't have to tell them why you want the master's degree. In my experience, it's quite common for PhD students to pick up a master's degree along the way to their PhD, either as a backup if the PhD falls through, or as a boost on their resume when they look for summer internships / employment. Once the master's degree paperwork is done, inform the department that you will not be returning next term. Finish your classes, look for jobs, and move on.

But at a more fundamental level, you really don't have to defend your decision to leave. You did not promise to complete the degree program. You did not sign a contract. You are not an indentured servant. You do not "owe" the department. Your departure will do the department no permanent damage. Yes, a few people may be disappointed by your departure, but they'll get over it.

I have never heard of someone quitting after passing the qualifying exams

For what it's worth, I left my first PhD program with a master's degree after passing my qualifying exams. (Admittedly the circumstances were different — I left to join a different PhD program — but I was far from the only person in that department to leave after passing quals.)

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  • Passing the quals her usually involve getting a lot of extra help from profs. I just feel bad that one of my professors helped me so much to pass that exam and don't want him to feel like I intentionally wasted his time. (I was naive and thought that passing the exam would make me want to stay and it actually had the opposite effect.) – Mastersdegreestation Jan 20 at 20:44
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    But you didn't waste their time! One of our jobs as professors is to help students pass quals. You've asked your profs to do nothing more than their jobs. – JeffE Jan 20 at 20:53
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    Or, to quibble slightly with @JeffE's portrayal of our jobs as profs: it's to help grad students learn_basic,important_things (and, incidentally, thereby, pass qualifying exams). – paul garrett Jan 20 at 21:09
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Since you have funding, find a job first, then leave.

It is not rare for PhD students to leave with a master's degree. Most departments will not be surprised. They may prefer you complete your PhD, but there is no reason for them to make a big deal about it. Since you are not doing research, they may be pleased to take your funding and use it to recruit a student who will do research.

If you want, you may be able to get your master's degree first, and then announce your departure. If they ask why, say it is so you have the option of gaining teaching experience at a community college.

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  • Unfortunately, I don't feel like I can obtain the master's before announcing my departure. To get it, I have to fill out the candidacy form which involves listing who my research advisor and committee is. It feels wrong to lead on an advisor and then be like "uh no thanks". But I am going to talk to the coordinator and see if I maybe we can explain it to a faculty member and have them sign it, with the understanding I am leaving and don't expect to research with them. – Mastersdegreestation Jan 20 at 20:21
  • That is an odd situation. You really should have been required to identify an advisor earlier. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 20 at 20:23

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