I am a Bioinformatics PhD student at a US university. I left the university (stopped enrolling after informing my advisor) in Aug 2014 since I was not making much headway with my research for a long time, and felt that I needed to see the "outside world" for a bit. So I took up a temporary position at another local university to do some other research. My advisor at that point though was wanting me to complete my degree and asked that I continue my PhD research while being away. I agreed to it out of fear that he may not allow me to leave otherwise.

However in the last 1yr my research progress has not been much. I recently got called to the head of the department's office where I was informed that I had been put on "notice" for this bad performance (he did not use the word "probation"). He also said that I risk being kicked out of the program.

I have been called again to meet the department head and my advisor to figure out what to do next. Judging by the tone of the last meeting though, I expect that some pretty harsh punitive steps are in the offing.

I am not that motivated to complete my PhD. I have passed my PhD proposal and have done some work after that and I think what I have could possibly lead to a PhD, but would still need quite a bit of work. I am OK with discontinuing my PhD rather than face the humiliation of being kicked out.

I was wanting to know what actions (removal from PhD, academic probation or anything else) could come my way and how I could handle it. Who could I approach for help/support at the university or outside? I feel that I am being treated way too harshly, and should be at least allowed a dignified way out of the program (voluntarily dropping out).

On a related note, is it even possible to put a student on notice when they are not at the university?

Addendum 1: I just want to add that I have been in the PhD program for 7 years now (including the gap year), and have completed all the requirements as required by the department except PhD Dissertation Defense. My PhD proposal was cleared way back in in 2012. So I think I was expected to have defended the thesis in 2013 or 2014 at the most.

Addendum 2: While as of today I am not that motivated to finish, but I would like to leave the door open on my PhD if possible. Ideally, I would like to revisit this issue in another year and take a call on it (whether to resume or quit).

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    Are you funded by this PHD? If yes, they have every right to remove you, since you are not doing the work you are paid to do. Also, if you do not want to finish your PhD, how does it matter if you leave on your own or they "remove" you? Why don't you tell them "I want to leave now, thanks for everything". But it seems you want to stay enrolled while you pursue other endeavors and that is not an option on many programs. – Alexandros Jul 29 '15 at 8:56
  • I was funded by a project that my advisor had when I was at the university, but not since. I am concerned that if I were to be expelled, it might show up on my transcripts or that my prospective employers could hold that against me (when running background verification). Leaving the program voluntarily does not seem so bad compared to that. I am concerned that if I tell them that I want to leave they might take some serious action, like perhaps expelling me. The rules are very fuzzy when it comes to such things, and there is just too much power in the hands of the advisor and the department. – JZee Jul 29 '15 at 9:38
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    They are going to expel you, if you give up from the program? I have never heard such a thing. Why would they do that? It is much more paperwork to prove why you should be expelled, than you voluntarily dropping out. – Alexandros Jul 29 '15 at 9:47
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    They can't expel someone that drops out, anymore than you can fire someone that quits. Make sure you file the paperwork correctly and in time. – Chan-Ho Suh Jul 29 '15 at 11:21
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    he may not allow me to leave otherwise — "Allow"? You were worried that your advisor would kidnap you or something? Just walk away. – JeffE Jul 29 '15 at 17:28

I don't understand the problem: if you don't want to finish, just quit immediately. Then they can't "expel" you. Why delay, anyway, if you really don't want to complete the degree anyway? And what kind of reactions from faculty do you expect if you're not doing the work, and give other visible evidence that you don't want to and don't intend to complete the program? It's one thing to not want to complete, but hard to understand why you'd hang around if that's the case. As it is, you've had plenty of time to resign/quit, so why haven't you? There's no obstacle in your path here, unless you really want to remain in this "limbo" longer, for some reason.

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    Ah, ok, that's not completely unreasonable. However, I'd think you'd need to be very pro-active in communicating all these things to your advisor, co-advisor, dept head, etc. If, perhaps, you've not made your intentions clear, then it is understandable that they'd reach their own conclusions. It is also understandable that an advisor might not want to play a waiting game, so... then what? – paul garrett Jul 29 '15 at 12:36
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    @JZee You really do not want to quit, you do not want to be removed, you do not want to dedicate yourself full time. Usually, the world cannot wait for us while we make up our mind. – Alexandros Jul 29 '15 at 13:39
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    At some point you have to fish or cut bait - do you want to finish or not? Most universities have a time limit (documented somewhere) for students who are no longer enrolled to finish up their dissertation. The department has started the process to terminate based on the fact that you haven't finished yet remain un-enrolled. How long do you expect them to wait? – Jon Custer Jul 29 '15 at 14:42
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    @JZee why do you think your advisor is going to act against you? For all you know, the meeting is to discuss and clarify your options. Big people are not necessarily scary ogres. – Davidmh Jul 29 '15 at 15:39
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    @JZee I think this IS your warning. You said they have not taken any action yet; this is them telling you, you either should cut your losses or else focus on your work. – Morgan Rodgers Jul 29 '15 at 17:20

Of course, if you have not dropped out of the program then they can put you on notice or kick you out. You should just tell them how you feel, that you are no longer interested in the program and that you would like to drop out; they should not have a problem with that, though they may not be happy.

It sounds like you agreed to keep working towards your PhD, when you had no intention of doing so. Have you let them know that you want out of the program? It is hard to say they are treating you too harshly, they may just be trying to motivate you to work on your PhD research, thinking that that is your goal (and that you have a set amount of time to complete the degree), and they have not yet taken any action against you.

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  • I am concerned at the way the whole meeting with the department head went. He was very hostile and aggressive and pinned the whole blame on me for things not going well. It seemed like they had already made a plan, and that this meeting was just to give me an advance notice of things to come so that I could start making other plans. I have a co-advisor also but she is a junior prof and generally on my side, but she is very very afraid to say anything openly since my advisor is a senior professor and has been at the university for over 10 years. So I am pretty much left to my own devices. – JZee Jul 29 '15 at 9:49
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    Just keep in mind, their goal is to give PhDs to strong potential researchers. It makes them look good. Every year someone who will not finish is enrolled in the program, that is essentially wasting the department's resources. Sounds like you should talk to your co-advisor for advice, and maybe they'll be able to tell you what is happening behind the scenes. But you really need to weigh your two options: double down and finish asap, or leave on your own terms. – Morgan Rodgers Jul 29 '15 at 13:40

I'm reading conflicting information between your original question and comments that you've made.

In your question, you state that you'd rather quit than be expelled and that you're "not motivated" to finish. However, in comments you mention that you wouldn't mind another year on leave and then decide whether to go back.

Maybe that's what you should tell him. Be aware though, that your department chair and advisor are probably thinking that you're going to be 2 years out of date on current research in your area of interest, a significant chunk of your brain is now filled with your current research, and it's going to take even more time for you to switch gears and get truly productive when you come back. Will there be funding for your project in another year? Has your advisor been "holding" funding for your? These are all questions that you should think about.

Can you leverage your existing research to help make progress? Is there an opportunity for collaboration between the two groups to make your leave worthwhile to the department?

Even if all that is no, if you think there is any possibility that you'll return, you should be keeping your proposal up-to-date with information from the latest research, and start filling out a detailed plan on how you would finish your dissertation in the least amount of time.

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