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I am in the 3rd year of a social sciences PhD program and just haven't found it fulfilling. I've tried therapy in the past, meditation, new diets, exercise, even moving to a new place in attempts to plow through the program. Those things improved my mental health somewhat but didn't make me more fulfilled with or interested in my work. Lately I've had my sights set on another career path that requires a professional master's degree, which is composed of coursework and internships. I've done months of research into this new field, talked with people in it and I have a bit of experience in it. I think it is right for me.

I've considered finishing my PhD and going for this new path afterwards, as I've already done a lot of fieldwork abroad (although much of my research remains on hold with the restrictions in place). But I don't see a practical need for the PhD anymore, nor do I have an interest in my topic. Plus my mental health has vastly improved since taking a break from the research and doing other productive things (volunteering, learning a new language, learning some programming skills for my new career path). So, I'm seriously considering leaving my PhD.

My concern now is if i apply for the professional master's program having left my PhD, I don't know how that will look to the admissions committees. I completed a different master's degree in the past and received many accolades over the past years, but I am afraid leaving a PhD will still look bad. Has anyone gone through a similar experience of leaving one graduate degree to go into another (either professional or academic)? How did it go? For those who've been on admissions committees how would you consider someone who left a grad program to pursue another in a totally different field and for very different reasons?

Edit: I should mention my advisor is not happy about my idea. I told them frankly about my proposal over email and they were shocked, and responded with a list of reasons why I should not quit. I will be meeting with them virtually soon and hopefully a face-to-face conversation will help them understand where I'm coming from... but their possible lack of support with my plans going forward is obviously worrying...

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I have sat on admission committees, taught in professional and graduate programs, and written recommendations for undergraduates, masters, and PhD students to go to professional programs. That said, my experience is with programs in a business school. Depending on your program of interest, what I say may not be relevant.

For masters programs in a business school, your profile is not unusual. Lots of MBA and business masters programs see people who finished a PhD and then decided they hated it, sometimes after years and sometimes right away. We also see lots of applicants who are giving up on a PhD to pursue an area they now find more interesting.

In my experience, students who did a PhD or left a PhD program tend to fall into one of two camps: excellent students and so-so to poor students. The best bet to separating these groups is motivation.

The students I typically saw do very well were people whose interests shifted, had clearly worked hard before, and were excited about their new area. The people who did not do well were people who had sort of "failed out" of the PhD, had not made progress toward a PhD for years, or were not succeeding at post-PhD work. Often, these students were not excited about the program they applied to; rather, they applied just because they needed a job and this sounded like the way to get one with the least work.

I think your key is making sure your recommendations convey your enthusiasm for the new program -- and to also express that convincingly in your own letter. It may also help if you can use your academic contacts to chat with professors in that program. Your advisor may be helpful... or may abandon you since you are no longer targeting academia. You are probably the best judge of which of those is most likely.

Finally... congratulations for giving thought to whether the PhD is right and healthy for you. I know plenty of people who just pushed through and then ended up repairing the damage that caused with years of therapy.

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  • Thanks for the thorough answer and advice. I've never had a problem getting good letters of recommendation, but if I leave, I will have to speak frankly with my advisor and others about whether they're willing to give me a good reference that supports my decision to pursue a different path. – swerve Jul 31 '20 at 0:09
  • Good. It might help to first speak with somebody who knows your advisor but is maybe not tenure-track or is focused on teaching. They may have seen a situation like yours play out before and might have useful advice. – kurtosis Jul 31 '20 at 0:14

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