I am applying this winter for graduate school and I will finish undergrad this winter as well. Would it be unethical to take a full-time position with the intention to quit soon until I know whether I got accepted for graduate school or not?

I am considering this because if I didn't get accepted, I wouldn't have a gap until I start working, and the company would be a good brand which would certainly not harm my PhD application (but this shouldn't be a discussion on what prepares me good for graduate school). My plan is going back to industry after a PhD, so considering my reputation in the field or possible research jobs lateron in the same company, how could I reason my leave for getting a PhD? Or would you better decline the offer and wait for the admissions result?

  • 5
    So long as you are upfront with your employer about your plans, I see no problem. You should keep in mind that your future boss is probably not stupid: if you don't tell them your plans, and you leave your job for your studies, they'll know that you likely applied around the same time that you accepted an offer with them. Needless to say, if you are not forthright, you probably won't be able to work for them in the future. – Mad Jack Aug 18 '14 at 16:27
  • 19
    Since this is less about academia than relations with a non-academic employer, you may get better answers (e.g. from people who have experience in industry) on Workplace.SE – Nate Eldredge Aug 18 '14 at 16:51
  • 3
    Moreover, given that there are pretty significant cultural differences on such questions, you should mention your location, and maybe your industry. – Nate Eldredge Aug 18 '14 at 17:08
  • 1
    Ethics are your own. Personally: 8 months is long enough to change your mind, and an application isn't a done deal anyway. – OJFord Aug 18 '14 at 23:45
  • 1
    @MadJack: be as upfront about your plans as your employer is about their (unmentioned) plans. When you are hired you don't know how long the job will last. Certainly the assumption is that it's long-term, but I've known companies that hired someone for what amounted to a three month gig without mentioning it to the person being hired. When applying for a job you put your best foot forward, tell them how you can help their business, and keep your yap shut about things which are not certain. It sounds like this Ph.D. program is in the "maybe" stages, and thus it shouldn't be mentioned. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Aug 19 '14 at 20:26

It wouldn't be unethical for your boss to fire you 8 months after you take the job, if he wanted to. Labor is an exchange you and your employer enter into voluntarily. So, you shouldn't feel bad quitting after 8 months if you want to. It's not an ethical problem at all. It is more plausible to think there might be a personal problem if this is a small industry that you would plan to re-enter after finishing the degree. Don't tell your boss up front that you might quit in 8 months, that isn't any of his business. If you do accept an offer to do a phd somewhere, then you should tell him promptly, just as a matter of courtesy. This is to allow the company adequate time to find a replacement.

  • 17
    "It wouldn't be unethical for your boss to fire you 8 months after you take the job, if he wanted to": Careful here! In many places it would be not just unethical but also illegal to fire people without a very good reason. – Jukka Suomela Aug 18 '14 at 16:42
  • 4
    Labour laws in central europe agree that it isn't ethical. Take that as you will. (and, if the first link I found googling is any indicator, most of the rest of the world agrees: hrdailyadvisor.blr.com/2013/04/07/…) – xLeitix Aug 18 '14 at 16:55
  • 11
    @shane "if he wanted to". What!? In most countries you have labour laws protecting you, and in any other situation it would still be unethical unless there was a genuinely good reason. Although you could quit the job without any legal repercussions, it doesn't make it ethical if you signed a permanent contract without telling your employer that you would only stay for a short time. – Moriarty Aug 18 '14 at 17:34
  • 9
    This is getting besides the point. I just find it highly disturbing that the first sentence of your answer advocates practices that are illegal in many places. Whether it is "only" illegal or also unethical is besides the point. Please add a note that your answer is US-specific, or please at least add a remark that what you claim to be ethical might still be illegal. – Jukka Suomela Aug 18 '14 at 18:33
  • 11
    The reason why it's illegal to fire someone at will in most countries is because it's considered unethical in those countries. The law is, after all, largely the codified version of the ethical and social contracts existing in a community. – Sverre Aug 18 '14 at 19:21

As a counterpoint to Shane's answer, I would say it strongly depends on what you agree on (explicitly or implicitly) with the company.

  • If they are actively aware that you are looking into getting accepted for a PhD position (that is, you told them so), and they are ok with it, it is clearly fine.
  • If they are not aware of it, I would say it largely depends on which job you are supposed to be doing. If it is one where the company is investing a lot of money into training you (e.g., a management trainee program, or they are ramping you up to work on their terribly complex main product), quitting after 8 months is of course still legal, but you should not be surprised if this company is not keen on working with you ever again.
  • If they specifically tell you that they are expecting you to stay for the long haul and you lie to them (or, only very slightly better, don't tell them otherwise), the ethical question is pretty much undisputable in my book. Mind, you are still legally safe to quit, but I would argue it is definitely not ethical to do so.
  • 8
    This is very poor advice. I'm assuming OP is contemplating working the US or for a US company, i.e. that he or she is going to take an at-will employment job. All that telling the employer about his or her plans for further study does is open up the possibility for the employer to discriminate against him or her. It would be akin to thinking every woman who was thinking about getting pregnant should have to announce that fact to her potential employer to let them know she might not be there in 8 months. It's simply none of the employer's business. – shane Aug 18 '14 at 17:11
  • +1 too. Although @shane comment about pregnancy is correct, this case is not exactly the same. And abandoning jobs every time something better comes up, may sometimes backfire. – Alexandros Aug 18 '14 at 17:32
  • 2
    @shane Most countries that have a social welfare system also require that employers grant maternity leave to their employees, so that the employee can return to the job after a couple of months. It's a basic right that's built into most contracts - therefore a very different thing. – Moriarty Aug 18 '14 at 17:39
  • 6
    +1 for "If it is one where the company is investing a lot of money into training you". As an counter-example, if you're talking about a job at a fast-food outlet, staying 8 months might well mean that you're staying longer than the average, so your employer won't be too unhappy. – mhwombat Aug 18 '14 at 17:54
  • 3
    I don't think that you owe anything to the company beyond what is explicitly stated in the contract, even if they have invested a lot of resources in training you. Partly this is a red herring--jobs with long periods of training or where an employer invests a lot of capital in an employee are going to come with contracts that specify an explicit term the employee has to commit to. That isn't the case here. Still, even it if were. If you don't promise to stay for a certain period, you aren't obligated to do so. If that costs the company money, they should have hired better lawyers. – shane Aug 18 '14 at 18:25

You could also try to find out if it's possible to do a PhD while working at the said company. This can be a much better option than going to a graduate school. Getting a proper salary while gaining work experience while completing a degree, it's pretty nice. The one downside is that you'll be probably doing a lot more than just the very specific stuff related to your degree. Well, it's not necessarily a bad thing..

  • 1
    Good idea, +1. Be advised, however, that doing a Ph.D. in parallel to a day job is extremely hard. – Stephan Kolassa Aug 19 '14 at 13:28


You do work, you get paid. You owe your company what it says you owe in your contract. I very much assure you that your employer won't worry about going beyond their contractual obligations.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.