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I've previously asked a question on this forum about leaving grad school and moving to a new field. I'm a chemistry PhD student in my (now) second year. I've decided to leave my PhD program because my heart is not in my work, nor am I very passionate about my field (word to the wise - don't go to graduate school because you don't know what else to do). The toll of grad school has resulted in some serious damage to my mental health to the tune of depression and anxiety.

I don't have a fantastic relationship with my advisor, but it's not terrible either. There's a significant language and cultural barrier that creates a sort of disconnect between us. As far as I know, my advisor does not know that I plan on leaving, although if my lack of motivation and focus hasn't tipped him off that there's something wrong, I don't know what will. The emotional and physical toll of lying and not telling my advisor the truth is becoming debilitating. I can't focus on work, I spend most of my time feeling hopeless and scheming on how to get away as quickly as possible and I suffer from constant headaches. I never was so apathetic until about 3 months into grad school.

My main concern is that I still have two classes I need to complete in the upcoming Fall semester in order to leave with my terminal master's degree, and I'm worried that if I tell my professor now he will become extremely angry, cut my funding (even thought I'll be teaching in the fall) and make me leave the lab. I do not want to leave without having something to show for my work here. However, I think I would feel better if I just told him now and put myself out of my misery. That way he would understand where I'm coming from and why I'm acting in this way. He's paying me for the summer and the guilt I have for wanting to leave is getting out of hand.

I'm also in sort of an awkward situation where the project I'm assisting in will eventually be mine when my co-worker graduates in May and there would not be another student to take over when I leave as well. I feel like I'm just leaving my advisor out to dry.

So my primary question is, when is the best time to tell an advisor about leaving? As soon as possible? Or continue to let it sit until the fall semester starts? Is there even a "good" time to do this?

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    I haven't been in a situation like this, but I would wager as soon as possible so that the advisor can plan contingencies. No point in a "Surprise, 2 weeks notice!" thing where you basically admit to having strung him along. – Compass Jul 1 '15 at 17:57
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    Based on your description, I think waiting until near the very end of the fall term would be best. Telling your advisor now may lead to you being kicked out of the group, and you may not be able to complete your master's degree requirements. Similar advice goes for folks in faculty jobs: you don't ever tell someone in your department that you are going somewhere else until you have something else officially lined up. For you, you are "lining up" your degree. Hang in there. – Mad Jack Jul 1 '15 at 18:19
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    Tell him today. In person. – JeffE Jul 2 '15 at 13:10
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    I think your advisor would appreciate you letting him know your plans as soon as possible. – ScienceGuy59 Jul 2 '15 at 16:45
  • In these sorts of situations, follow the golden rule (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule) and behave the way in which you would want the other party to behave if your roles were reversed. Also, unless you have strong evidence to the contrary, expect your supervisor to react appropriately to your request. I have been in the supervisors position myself, and the only time I have been disappointed was when the students were not straightforward with me. BTW I suspect if you were punished, there would be an appeals procedure - not in the supervisors best interest to treat you unfairly! – Dikran Marsupial Jul 16 '15 at 18:36
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It seems to me that @Mad Jack's comment, though perhaps practical, is unethical. Funding in a PhD program is conditional on one's intention to complete the program. If you accept funding under the expectation that you will take a certain long term action, then if you clearly realize that you no longer have the intention to complete that action then you are behaving deceptively, hence unethically, by hiding that information. In an academic job by contrast, you sign a yearly contract. Unless/until you have tenure, you could be dismissed at the end of any academic year. Even when you have tenure you are rarely receiving university resources which would be wasted if you did not have a multi-year commitment, and if you do find yourself in a position of receiving those resources with the intention of leaving, then you are behaving unethically.

(Example: most universities which offer sabbaticals view them as investments for the future of the faculty member's academic career and their career at that university. Many universities have a policy that one has to return to "active duty" for at least one year after a sabbatical. Violating this policy would be unethical in a similar way, although it is also more explicitly against the rules. A yet closer unethical faculty behavior would be to receive a multi-year grant to do X, to realize after the first year that you have no intention of continuing to do research on anything at all related to X but continuing to take salary from the grant in subsequent years.)

Moreover the suggested unethical behavior is in response to hypothetical undesirable behavior by someone else. The OP does not know that behaving unethically is necessary in order to receive the outcome which is in her personal best interest. In fact she does not definitely know that she wants to leave the program: rather, she has some good reasons to leave (lack of interest and enthusiasm for a future academic career) and other good reasons to stay for a while (a desire to get a degree). The right thing to do is to talk to her advisor, be candid about her doubts, and get on a track that would allow her to gracefully complete a master's degree if she so chooses.

Someone who cuts your funding for expressing doubts about the future is not behaving ethically. In all programs that I'm familiar with, funding is guaranteed conditional on satisfactory progress, and having a frank conversation does not make satisfactory progress unsatisfactory. If the OP's advisor behaves so badly as to cut her funding following that conversation, then the OP can seek recourse from the director of graduate studies or the department head and has an excellent case. The fact that she's scheduled to teach in the fall strengthens the case: if the funding is cut and she leaves because of it, who teaches the class?

The fact that not informing the advisor is setting him up for a crisis later on is also a significant consideration. To accept mentorship and funding from someone while planning all the while to leave them in the lurch later is quite indefensible. I'm not surprised that the OP is having feelings of guilt about it. As she is learning, we know deep down at a visceral level when we are doing something that we think is wrong. Doing the right thing has intrinsic rewards -- call it karma or neuropsychology, it's true nevertheless. I think she will sleep far better at night knowing that she did the right thing and suffered financial hardship for no fault of her own than if she did what she knew was wrong for purely selfish reasons. I know I would.

Finally, having a master's degree from a program and advisor who will only say negative things about you when asked is far from ideal. Being able to play well with others is valued even more in "the real world" than in academia, so burning bridges in this way is not a smart move.

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The best time to tell your advisor is when you are comfortable, and when you have an exit plan that works for you.

There's no ethical conundrum involved with waiting until it's convenient for you. PhD programs have attrition rates approaching 50% on average, and any advisor or graduate director who has been doing this for a length of time knows that some students are going to leave. They prepare for these contingencies.

However, first I think you need to assess how likely it is your advisor will react the way you predict. I told my advisor in graduate school that I was quitting and although he was disappointed, he didn't threaten to cut my funding before I found something. (I changed my mind and stayed.) I recently told my postdoctoral advisor I was leaving academia for a job in the private sector, and although I thought she'd be upset, she was very supportive and happy for me. Are you sure that your advisor will threaten to cut your funding? Is there a chance that he'll be supportive of your decision to leave and will help you finish the terminal master's? Only you know your advisor, so only you can decide.

If you think he would, then you have to decide whether your mental health and your professional goals would be better served by telling your advisor now/soon, or by waiting until closer to the end of the semester. I understand your feelings of guilt and stress about not liking academia and wanting to leave, and feeling like you are living a lie. But the truth is people leave jobs and careers all the time. They job search while they are working in a specific job; they tell their employers they have a dentist appointment when really it's an interview; they stay employed when they really want to go to graduate school in 6 months because they want to eat food and live inside. People want to act like academia and PhD programs are different, but at their core, they're not - you're leaving a job/career. Wanting to leave does not mean that you need to sacrifice eating and sleeping inside for the sake of your advisor.

So if you think he'll cut you off, then wait until towards the end of the semester. Give him about a month's notice, maybe a little more, so you can finish up handing off projects. If you get so bogged down you simply can't wait anymore, then tell him earlier.

You have guilt about wanting to leave because that's normal, to because there's anything wrong with you. Everyone I've talked to who has ever left academia (including myself) has felt some amount of guilt about it. The reasons are too complex to get into here, but if you do an Internet search about it you'll find lots of stories from former academics who feel super guilty about leaving. It eventually goes away. In fact, reading about other people's experiences may help it go away. Your advisor will eventually take on another student to finish that project. They may get a couple undergrads to help in the mean time. There may be a student from another department that switches over. They may drop it for a couple months. PIs adjust. He'll be fine. More importantly, you don't want to soak in misery for years on end because you want to help him finish.

  • Most of this advice is good, but a few comments: (i) cutting someone's funding because they verbally express a desire to leave is extreme, borderline sociopathic behavior. In a well run academic department or university it should not be permitted. If the OP has any real expectation that this might happen she should approach it as a systemic problem: e.g. an ombudsperson can go the department chair saying "A student in the program is considering leaving with a master's degree but is concerned about punitive retribution for saying so. Please tell us how s/he can safely proceed." – Pete L. Clark Jul 16 '15 at 18:57
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    People want to act like academia and PhD programs are different, but at their core, they're not - you're leaving a job/career. Wanting to leave does not mean that you need to sacrifice eating and sleeping inside for the sake of your advisor. — Bingo. (+1, by the way.) – Mad Jack Jul 16 '15 at 21:58
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    Pete, you're right in that the frequency of a behavior doesn't make it ethical. I still contend that there's nothing unethical about leaving an advisor to figure out how to finish their own projects, just like there's nothing unethical about leaving a job before they've been able to replace you. Just because it makes life a little more difficult for them doesn't mean it's wrong. – roseofjuly Jul 16 '15 at 23:31
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    I tend to agree with Mad Jack and roseofjuly. In a perfect world devoid of complexity we all have perfect moral compasses, and when we decide we are going to look for new work we tell our coworkers and employers as soon as we start that process. I'm not going to take food out of my mouth or my families mouth to live by that ideal, and as such ascribe to the saying: "never leave a job until you have something else lined up." Working in a lab is a job. – bfoste01 Jul 17 '15 at 10:24
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    The OP will be teaching in the fall, taking classes and presumably doing research. He will absolutely be doing what the funding is being given for. – roseofjuly Jul 20 '15 at 17:00
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RE the funding issue:

(I'm presuming by "support" you mean paid lab work)

In regards to feeling bad about the funding. This is something that drives me a bit crazy about academia. In my lab I'm paid 19K for 9 months of work to work on all of my advisor's projects first. That's fine. But can we all be honest about the system and just be real about what PIs get out of having RAs work on their projects? Cheap and highly qualified labor to move the grant along. In the event where the student wants to go into academia we can argue about the merits of all the experience this low-paying work adds to the CV in terms of conferences and paper submissions; but in the end we are cheap labor.

I've also seen other labs where the PI financially supports a student in the student's own research. In quite a few instances the PI has not been that involved in the student's project(s) outside of the financial support, but attaches his/her name to everything the student does. This arrangement seems common if the primary data is the PI's, or if as part of of PI's support the student collects new data. However, I've also seen the students in this kind of arrangement use publicly available data for projects. This is all fine too. In many ways this is similar to working at a high-level in R&D in industry. Your name might go on a patent, but the company owns all intellectual rights. In the case of academia, where publications are everything, the PI benefits from this arrangement greatly.

If your situation is similar to one of the previous two examples then you don't owe it to anyone to tell them before you've got your Master's and a job offer in hand. The PI will still benefit from your work. Would they benefit more knowing a student was committed to project over the course of the next several years? Sure, but the PI still makes out pretty good. Now, you say you've been pretty bummed by your situation too. If you are being paid and just at home watching Netflix all day then that's a big problem.

Now in a third situation the advisor is paying you to work on what you want to pursue, totally orthogonal to their projects, and giving you full credit of everything (i.e., not attaching their name to everything you do as a point of lab policy). If this is the case then yes... let your advisor know now and let him/her do something different with his/her funding.

I do believe your hunch is correct: Leave without a terminal Master's and you've wasted 2-3 years of your life for nothing. You've added no income potential to your future without that degree on your resume, and (depending on your field) if you're going into industry you'll likely find that selling 2-3 years of work in an academic lab is a bit more difficult than you think, so best to get yourself in the best position possible for your next phase.

  • You don't seem to address the part about being a funded graduate student where they study: i.e., take courses, learn from faculty, and are guided to do their own work. This is something that an unfunded student would pay about $30K a year for. So saying that being a graduate student is just like a worker is disingenuous in that regard. Also, the question is not whether the OP should leave right away. If the OP has severe health problems then extricating herself from the situation giving a week or two of notice sounds very reasonable. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 15:51
  • The question is rather whether the OP should continue accepting funding and instruction for another six months that has been given to her under the expectation that she will perform certain actions which she no longer intends to perform. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 15:54
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    I should also disclose though that I come from a part of academia where they idea that my graduate students could do my work for me is so perfectly backwards that it is a thing of wonderment. If there are really areas of academia in which PhD students are lab workers first and students second, then I don't have any experience there, and I have a strong suspicion that I would not be able to stick around as that kind of student for nearly long enough to earn a master's degree. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 15:57
  • Even if we want to play the game of factoring in tuition as part of pay, graduate students are still under paid. Also, so what if you learn from your advisor? Great. You can learn from a boss in industry too, and gain alot of skills you didn't have prior to the job. It doesn't entitle you to more than two weeks notice. – bfoste01 Jul 17 '15 at 15:58
  • Fair Pete! Thanks for giving more of your context. I'm in the social sciences. In my department we work for our advisors in their labs to move their grants. "Support" simply means you have an RAship to work on their stuff. If it works out well you might be able to carve out your own piece. That's my context. – bfoste01 Jul 17 '15 at 15:59

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