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I have a feeling this question has been posted before, but I wanted to ask as my situation is slightly different. I've recently decided to leave my PhD program in the social sciences in order to look for work. I've basically come to the conclusion after completing 3 full years, courses, and fieldwork that I don't want to be an academic but would rather put my skills to use with NGOs, non-profits, or the public sector. In many ways, the last hurdle of the PhD (i.e. writing the dissertation) seemed more like a barrier to what I wanted to do, rather than something that would bring me closer to it. I left because I wanted to go in a new direction, not because I wasn't sure that I was capable of finishing.

Anyways, my main concern right now is how to present this discrepancy on my resume. As I've been a TA and doing research projects since getting my MA, I've decided to list my years as a TA, and the rest under the position of "Researcher." I figure that the situation is a little too complex to really explain in a resume or cover letter, and that most employers will be able to read between the lines that I was probably in a PhD program. I've basically been marketing myself on my resumes/cover letters as a "researcher" with lots of research projects under my belt, without specifically stating under the "education" section that I have a partially finished PhD. My motivation behind the "researcher" title is that during my graduate studies I designed, proposed and carried out individual research on a number of projects.

I guess I should qualify this by mentioning that my PhD studies were in the social sciences, and there seems to be a bit more leeway in terms of describing what we do. All of my dissertation research was funded by a fellowship, and all of my various other research projects (where I wasn't principal investigator) were the result of competitions funded by grants. I have always designed my own research projects, which is why I didn't think it was a bad idea to go with "researcher", and my references could verify that.

It looks like this title would be a little confusing given the circumstances, so I think I'm going to use "Graduate Student Researcher", "PhD Researcher" or something similar in the future. I guess this seems like it gives a more accurate representation of what kinds of things I was doing. I figure that the 4 years of MA/PhD work on research projects gives me (and any other former graduate student) skills that are valid to most employers. I just want to be able to address this discrepancy honestly and enthusiastically in an interview, rather than clumsily addressing it in a cover letter/resume. What do you guys think? Is this the right strategy to take?

  • So, you left or not? Is it officially over (administration wise)? What is "a partially finished PhD"? Are you planning to go back? If not, it is not "a partially finished PhD" but an unfinished PHD. And what exactly do you mean by research projects? During your PHD, you were funded by external research projects (EU or NSF funds) or you only mean internal tasks you have performed during your PHD? Have you got any publications to show for those projects? – Alexandros Oct 20 '14 at 5:54
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    Since this is about seeking non-academic jobs, you may get better answers over at Workplace.SE. – Nate Eldredge Oct 20 '14 at 6:05
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    Doing original research and writing a dissertation about it isn't "the last hurdle" of doing a PhD: it's the whole point. – David Richerby Oct 20 '14 at 13:19
  • I object that I just spent 20 min writing an answer then this got wrongly closed-as-duplicate by ff524. There's a world of a difference to quitting after 18 months vs 4 years, which is suspiciously ABD territory. Anyway I had to post this answer over at: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/16552/… – smci Oct 21 '14 at 3:50
  • @smci For what it's worth, I marked as duplicate per request of the OP. That is, the user who asked this question raised a flag saying that it is already answered by the linked question (which they didn't see when asking it in the first place). – ff524 Oct 21 '14 at 4:27
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I think it is a really bad idea to list your time as a grad student as "Researcher".

As a general rule, it's usually considered unwise to make up stuff on a resume, and this includes job titles. I think the only title that really fits your status is "PhD Student" or "PhD Candidate" (or, if you want to focus on the job, "Teaching Assistant" or "Graduate Research Assistant" or the like - whatever was on your pay stub).

The title of "Researcher" would normally be attached to a full-time (non-student!) staff position, generally someone who works on a research project led by a faculty member. Although the duties may be somewhat similar, the hiring process and level of responsibility could be rather different, so it is really a misrepresentation for you to claim this title.

Suppose a prospective employer calls your university, checking references, and asks "Was Unsure a Researcher at your institution during the following dates?" The university is going to answer "No, he/she was a grad student" (or even worse, maybe just "No"). Then the employer tosses your application in the trash because your resume is inaccurate (or as they might say, "falsified"). And if they don't check and you get the job anyway, but they find out later, they could easily consider your application was fraudulent - that gets you fired for sure, and is possibly career ending.

If you think employers are going to figure out anyway that you were in a PhD program, why not just go ahead and put "PhD Candidate" on the resume?

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    I fully agree with this answer. However, I should mention that in Europe (at least in Germany) PhD students often seem to carry the official job title "Researcher" or "PhD Researcher". If "Researcher" was Unsure's official job title (which I assume it was not), it would of course be ok to list it as such in the CV. – xLeitix Oct 20 '14 at 8:03
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    I also agree with this answer and also have to add as @xLeitix that here in Finland PhD candidates are not students, but staff. That said, when someone says "I'm a researcher" I would immediately assume that they have been hired to do research, and not as part of a (postgraduate) degree program. – Miguel Oct 20 '14 at 9:26
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    In Germany, I'd expect to see "Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter" (research assistant) on the CV. Just "PhD candidate" will make it sound like the applicant was a full time student and not employed by the university. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Oct 20 '14 at 10:17
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    @Sumyrda: I agree, and I'd like to add that while "research assistant" is the usual translation, the literal meaning of the German term is more along the lines of "scientific employee" or "research employee". – O. R. Mapper Oct 20 '14 at 11:51
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    @O.R.Mapper: The official DFG title for such position (to be used in DFG-sponsored projects) is "Doctoral Researcher". This title shall underline the fact that (in Germany) PhD candidates are not considered to be students, but scientific staff. – Daniel Oct 20 '14 at 11:52
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If I understand your question correctly, you've decided to look for a position where a PhD is not a requirement. In that case, there really is no reason to try to hide or "spin" the fact that you were a PhD student. The world is full of people who left a PhD program for one reason or another. The fact that you were in a PhD programme, even if you decided not to complete it, will probably be a "plus" on your resume, or at least not a negative.

I suggest you briefly explain your situation in a cover letter/email. Rather than focussing on why you left the PhD, phrase it in terms of what you decided to do instead. For example, "I've decided to leave my PhD because I want to put my skills to use as soon as possible with NGOs, non-profits, or the public sector".

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  • I've heard people saying it's actually a negative (since you didn't finish what you started), so I'm not so sure it's correct to say it's not a negative. – user541686 Aug 13 '15 at 7:20
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    @Mehrdad Dropping out towards the end of PhD because it is hard and the student does not expect to succeed is one thing. Dropping out because of a positive wish to do something different, articulated in a cover letter, is a different matter. – Patricia Shanahan Feb 18 '16 at 20:05