I am going into the fourth year of a PhD program and my research, which is in a STEM field, has clear applications in the tech industry.

I have my Master's degree, but have decided not to finish the PhD.

Is it important to be enrolled while applying for jobs rather than be unemployed? Will the people hiring view me differently?

Note: being enrolled brings some significant demands on my time.

  • 5
    Also: if you've done three years of a PhD in a STEM field, then unless you've been making very unsatisfactory progress you could probably get a "minimalist PhD" in another year or two. In some industry jobs, having a PhD would be worth the extra year or two of trouble (and in some it wouldn't, but if you are trying to keep your options open...) Have you spoken to your advisor about your plans to leave? Jul 12, 2014 at 1:14
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    Every academic has applied for the next job during her current job several times at least, so it doesn't seem implausible that you could do much or all of what you want while you're still gainfully employed. "I have a small stipend which is negligible compared to what I'll probably get with an industry job" Well, I don't know you, but statements like that make me nervous: in case you hadn't noticed, times are tough. I wouldn't advise someone to give up a paycheck in expectation of a future job. But this not an academic issue and I'm no financial expert. Jul 12, 2014 at 4:40
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    As I said, I don't know the answer to your key question (hence comments rather than answers). But I suspect it has got to make you look at least a little more desirable to be employed rather than un-. (I know that's true for academic jobs.) I don't know how much notice you have to give your advisor: maybe you could try to take a "leave of absence" for a couple of months and use that to look for a job? In that case, you're not exploiting your university and you still get to look like a gainfully employed PhD student. (And you have a fall-back if things don't work out like you thought.) Jul 12, 2014 at 4:43
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    Also: is there anyone in your program who wants you to graduate? Maybe you could switch to someone else with a more goal-oriented style. In my part of academia, a key departmental statistic is the completion rate for PhD students, and almost any student who has passed their exams can find someone who wants to get them through. Jul 12, 2014 at 4:49
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    If you are on a leave of absence, then I think that you are still a graduate student, but obviously you should check to see that your university views things the same way. You certainly shouldn't withhold this information from prospective employers: if anyone asks, you should say that you are taking a break to explore nonacademic jobs (i.e., the truth!). I honestly don't know whether you need to list such a status on a resume. That may also depend on how such things are viewed by your university; in any case, it is worth talking to others about. Jul 13, 2014 at 5:12

9 Answers 9


Being unemployed can significantly decrease your likelihood of successfully landing a job. The preceeding link is one of many stories covering that angle. The best graph describing how bad it is comes from this Atlantic article:

unemployment sucks

The upshot of most of these is that employers have a psychological bias towards employed people. Whether this is "fair" or "appropriate" or even "smart" not is really not the question, the finding is pretty difficult to refute: you are far more likely to land a job if you are currently gainfully employed.

To bring this back to your original question, I would strongly recommend you begin your job search before you leave the program.

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    I don't disagree, but I have to wonder about the old correlation versus causation here. To state the obvious, people without a job are likely less employable (on average) than people that currently have a job. It would be interesting to see statistics about people that had voluntarily left their previous position. Jul 18, 2014 at 2:24
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    @DougLipinski - Your statement is based on the assumption that termination was performance-related, rather than large-scale layoffs. With the previous recession almost all job cuts were layoffs, where highly skilled people were just let go. Read the Atlantic article, it's fascinating.
    – eykanal
    Jul 18, 2014 at 12:47
  • Thanks, in the end, I decided to take @PeteLClark's advice (see comment section) of applying for a Leave of Absence. I confirmed with my university's career services office that I can indeed consider myself a current graduate student while on Leave of Absence and thus not face the stigma of being unemployed.
    – Zephyrus
    Jul 23, 2014 at 9:30

Is it important to be enrolled while applying for jobs rather than be unemployed?

I'll answer this question from different point of views: your potential employers and yourself.

From your potential employers’ point of view, it does not matter. What matters is your immediate availability. Most companies prefer their new hires to start to work immediately. Once they make a job offer, they would like to see you in the office like today so that they can start to train you. They don't like to hear excuses like: I have some unfinished project, I am in the middle of writing a paper, I need to go to a conference next month, etc.

So, you need to indicate on somewhere such as your resume, cover letter or during the interview that you'll be immediately available. This will increase your chances to be hired. If you cannot be immediately available for some reason, you need to provide a definite time frame when you'll be able to start.

From your own point of view, you'd better keep enrolled. Job hunting can be a long shot. It can be only a few weeks if you are lucky. It can be a year or even longer if you are not lucky. Waiting for job interview and job offer can drive you crazy. You'll have things to do while you are waiting. You also can change your mind on finishing PhD if you still have some uncertainty about going to industry.

If you are absolutely sure you want to go to industry, then you should take bfoste01's idea, do internship. You can get into industry faster this way.

Good luck on job hunting. Academia will miss you!

  • 5
    And I will add that, even if you find a job offer, in some companies the hiring process is very lengthy: several interviews spanning across two or three months before they make the final decision. And you have to eat in the meantime.
    – Davidmh
    Jul 17, 2014 at 7:03
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    @Davidmh Exactly. They may take two or three months to call you, and then drag the process on for months. Jul 17, 2014 at 13:12
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    First, immediate availability is not always important (some are happy to hire for months in advance). Second, maybe OP can finish PhD position immediately (it was not said); and being a student may be beneficial over being unemployed. Third, I have no idea why do you suggest an internship, if OP's goal is not to test the waters or gain experience, but get job in industry (if he absolutely wants to go to industry, an internship may be the worst option). So: -1 for (IMHO) a bad piece of advice. Jul 17, 2014 at 17:47
  • @PiotrMigdal I did say "This will increase your chances to be hired". I did not say every company wants immediate availability. If the OP did say he is close to finishing PhD, my advice will be to finish it before looking for job. Internship can let OP gain experience which is one of the key factors for the OP to get an industry job. I am not sure why you said it's the worst option. Finally, I am not advising the OP to quit PhD immediately. On the contrary, my main tone is to stay in PhD program. But, he needs to know what to say in his resume and during the job interview.
    – Nobody
    Jul 18, 2014 at 2:25
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    Be careful with internships, a lot of them end up being you working for free with no expectation of a full-time job because free work. Do not take an unpaid internship, and do as much research on GlassDoor and with the current employees/interns as you can.
    – kleineg
    Jul 18, 2014 at 19:05

I would apply for jobs now, while you are enrolled in the PhD program. Talk to your professors and develop a network. Ask for contact information of any of the individuals they know in industry. Send an cover letter with your CV and application, and be sure to mention your research's specific application to the job in the cover letter. Through this, companies sense that you are very meticulous and detail-oriented, and see how your skill in research could carry over to its products.

  • Thanks for advice, that'll be helpful. But my real question is about how being a current graduate student vs. unemployed will affect my applications. Could you elaborate on why you think it's important to be enrolled?
    – Zephyrus
    Jul 13, 2014 at 4:50
  • 1
    @Zephyrus Just my opinion, but applying while enrolled might help show you're not just a slacker who quit their Ph.D. and is now searching for something to do because you got hungry. Caveat: I'm not in HR. Jul 17, 2014 at 13:14

I think Scaahu has given a very nice overview of the situation, but to easy your mind: job search takes time, but you have to eat every day. Thus, no company can expect you to be unemployed to be eligible for hiring.

The only reason I can think of why not having a job would make you more desirable is your full availability; but if you have decided to leave, you can just do it (please, talk with your advisor well in advance, so they are ready, though).

And lastly, if you have a job, you have a leverage point. For a starter, you can ask for a salary that is, at least, as much as you are getting now. Another disadvantage of quitting is that you will have to live on your savings or benefits, and they are limited; thus you will have pressure to accept whatever job you can find in that time. If you keep your present job, you can wait longer until you find something you really want to work with.

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    Great point about leverage. Being unemployed makes you look more desperate and reduces your bargaining power for salary/benefits. Jul 17, 2014 at 12:01
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    Great points, although I can't imagine any employer offering me a salary that's lower than I'm currently making as a grad student. If I can't get a better salary, I'm just going to give up on civilization and live off the land.
    – Zephyrus
    Jul 22, 2014 at 22:44
  • @Zephyrus right, grad students are usually not rich. Think of the rest of the conditions that you have and that may be good to have in the new job: flexible hours, days off...
    – Davidmh
    Jul 23, 2014 at 7:41

@Zephyrus: This answer will be too long to comment. A lot will depend on your history.

Some context for you to make sure I'm not just blowing wind: My fiancés company: Biotech, fast growing, successful rounds of funding have brought a product to market, turned down offers to sell. My fiancé: Decade of experience in STEM industry.

Here's what I've seen matter in all my conversations with he Senior Scientist there, as well as my fiancé:

  • It's about the match of your skills with the needs of the company. I've seen them let 4 people go in the last year who were super competent, but had very specific skill-sets that were no longer needed by the company. If there is a clear match between your skills and the company's needs then +1. However, if you have very specific skills that can be a detriment in your marketability.
  • Advanced degrees aren't always an asset. In startups a really smart person with a B.S. and years of industry experience can become a staff scientist. It's better for the company. Same can be said for and M.S. In fact, most of the senior scientist have advised junior staff who are looking at grad school to just get their M.S. and get back into industry. If you're the highest paid person at a startup you better be value added on all fronts. So, depending on your degree this could all matter.
  • Length of unemployment matters. If you are living in an area where there is a vibrant STE community and you've been unemployed a long time people will wonder. It's always a necessity to make sure people can vouch for you within the community, and this might help. Hopefully you aren't jumping ship from grad school without contacts in industry.
  • If you were competent but not a rock-star, skills that fit, unemployed for a short period, had some people that could vouch for you then they'd contract you for 6 months. Show your worth and you'll get a salaried position and options (but stock options aren't alway what they are cracked up to be). You'd be in a good position to negotiate that offer if you have shown value added. However, point also depends on the phase of the startup. Now that this startup has grown and has a product shipping they contract everyone first. My fiancé came in after series B and had the perfect experience that fit with the job requirements, some heavies that vouched for her, and passed the interview with flying colors. She was contracted shorter than 6 months, and I think offered a full-time position after a month. So, get ready for the potential that you are working a contract, which obviously lacks security.
  • Now if you took the same situation outlined above, were still a student but had demonstrated that you would be a real rockstar with the perfect match of skills to the job then they might make you a better offer to try and lure you out, but the offer would never be as good as what a scientist with proven industry would receive.

This might all be different for a massive industry conglomerate.

I hope that helps.


It probably will depend on where you interview in terms of how your status will be received, and what that would mean for a job offer. My fiancé works in a STEM startup that has been taking off, and I've had the luxury of chatting with many of the senior scientists about hiring whenever they are looking for people (it's a fun work culture where everyone and their SOs go out for drinks after work and chat). Anyways, in two instances a Ph.D. student working at the company on their internship was so talented that they tried to make each a job offer before they left. In one instance the conversation turned to what it would take to get that individual to leave their program and come work. In the other instance, and before the internship started, the University made the student and company sign a legal document that essentially said, "whatever said student works on in the lab during internship period becomes is owned by the University" (this was one of the top 5 schools in the US, you can imagine what one). Therefore, the company backed off because of patents.

In other instances students have applied for open positions at the company and if their resume garnered a look they then got an interview. However, if they weren't rock stars the company was not willing to lure them away from being a grad student by giving them a higher salary. Therefore, there was the perception by the company that they needed someone who could work now, and a student didn't seem to cut it.

Do you have an internship period at all? That's when I plan to explore offers to see what my skills are worth.

  • Thanks, that's helpful. But how would this particular startup have treated the application for an internship from someone with an unemployed status?
    – Zephyrus
    Jul 17, 2014 at 5:45
  • @Zephyrus I think the take away from a lot of these answers (and comments) is: it is better to line up an internship/contracting position/full-time job offer before quitting your PhD program.
    – Mad Jack
    Jul 18, 2014 at 22:31
  • 1
    Yes, or be certain about your network. I'm actually in a similar boat, but very different field. I'm spending this year expanding my network, internship will probably come at the end of next spring, and if all goes well I will be exploring offers after internship. I've grown a bit tired of academia.
    – bfoste01
    Jul 22, 2014 at 17:28

Well, to address the part where you want a comparison on enrolled vs. unemployed. It is always better to not to have to answer the questions about being unemployed. You don't want to look like you were doing nothing for quite some time. Interviewers usually aren't impressed enough by candidates that have a few years that weren't mentioned on the resume anywhere, be prepared to reason that effectively. And you don't know how soon you are going to find a job. If you continue your PhD and look for a job in the meantime, you have an excuse "I got a good job and hence left the PhD", which brings us to yet another point to ponder upon...

Let's say you quit your PhD(which you could actually officially finish in a year or two), apply for some jobs, interview and finally land into one. You work there for some time, but your progress starts plateauing. Now you realize that for a higher position they require a PhD(which you quit, remember?). At that stage, you might wish that you hadn't quit but you did, and now it might be the bane of your professional progress.

Think of these things in the long run... no one knows what the future holds...


Here's what you do. You request a "leave of absence" from the University for personal reasons. That way you can say you're still a student, but not obligated to take classes during that period.

  • Yes, I think this is the best answer. You probably didn't in the long list of comments, but PeteLClark had the same idea. Thanks!
    – Zephyrus
    Jul 23, 2014 at 0:56

I was in a similar situation. In my case, I wanted to have some/full break from academia. My ph.d is almost done, only public defence is pending. I had to decide whether to stay in the academia or move to the industry?

Here is my approach; I personally like building stuff and therefore biased towards the industry. I have enjoyed the time in academia but might not be able to keep myself motivated for long. Thus, I thought, either I move now or otherwise it will be too late. I am already 31 and its now or never kind of situation for me. So, I decided to move out as I found a job. The search still in progress for like 4 months now, had few interviews and perhaps land on a job in a month.

First rule, be honest to your university and supervisor. I informed my supervisor right away that I am looking for opportunities outside the university and will leave as I get one. He was very supportive and also offered to help me in making CV etc. It is quite normal to take this path, academia to industry, for a ph.d student.

You should ask yourself, "Do I like industry?" if Yes then go for it, in a reasonable fashion. Stay at the university, find a job and then move out :)

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