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I am considering quitting my PhD in computer science, because after doing a software engineering internship I realized I enjoy that kind of work much more.

My advisor has been very kind to me, on both a professional and a personal level, and if I quit it might make her look bad. She is an assistant professor and I was her first student. I do not want people to think she was the one who made me quit.

Are people going to wonder if she was the reason I quit?

How much of an effect would this have on her career?

  • 17
    I have seen many people quit their PhDs. Not once have I thought that it has anything to do with their advisor. – Sverre Dec 3 '15 at 10:41
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    How much of an effect would this have on her career? — This is really not your problem. – JeffE Dec 3 '15 at 10:52
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    Yes, it WILL make her feed bad. It will also demotivate her to invest serious efforts in her future students, because she will implicitly expect any of them to unexpectedly say bye-bye. You will not ruin her career and you will not ruin her research group, but you will certainly create an extra headache. And I believe you are not a 5-years-old boy/girl to exit a team just because you liked something else. – phys_chem_prof Dec 3 '15 at 12:34
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    This really depends on the country. In mine, making a PhD student quit would be considered a success: less scholarships paid!, thinks the manager; one more slot available for my dearest disciple!, thinks the competing professor; one less possible competitor for post-doc positions!, they sing together. – Nemo Dec 3 '15 at 13:06
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    @sgroves It's a concern because decent people consider the effects of their actions on others. – David Richerby Dec 4 '15 at 21:21
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You are a nice guy, but let me tell you this: no matter if it makes your advisor look bad, if you really like the job in the company and believe it's the best thing for you, then you should quit your PhD and take the job. Doing your PhD just because of your advisor will not do any good to either you or your advisor.

Because pursuing a PhD requires a lot of determination. No matter how your advisor is kind to you, making your advisor look good will not be enough as a sole motivation for your PhD. If you don't quit now, you will quit later and it may cause more damage to your advisor.

For a complete stranger like me, if a guy quits his PhD after 1st or 2nd year, there are many reasons beside a bad advisor: maybe the guy himself finds PhD too difficult, or he changes his mind etc and etc. But if someone quits his PhD after 5th or 6th year, I would think there must be something wrong with the supervision.

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    Basically good advice, but I disagree with the last sentence. There's simply no way to know why someone quit the PhD unless they tell you. You shouldn't assume. And even if the student places the blame on the advisor -- well, there are two sides to that story. – David Ketcheson Dec 3 '15 at 8:53
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    @DavidKetcheson I agree with you. But I was saying as a complete stranger, knowing nothing about the situation. That's my first guess. – qsp Dec 3 '15 at 9:00
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    @DavidK: it's basically (another instance of) statistical discrimination or trying to extrapolate from a population to an individual, repugnant as it may be, like how policyholders who have an auto accident will see their premiums rise (because the insurer fears you to be a bad driver and even when it is not your fault, the lingering doubt and, well, statistics kick in) and how the successes of the winningest athletes are popularly ascribed at least in part to actual skill, even after accounting for regression to the mean. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it, but that seems to stop no one else. – Vandermonde Dec 3 '15 at 20:23
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    @Cristina Both academia and industry are coming to disagree with you. Unconscious bias is a rallying term. And of course there's Hofstadter's treatise on biased language. I much prefer academia.SE not to be a historical laggard on this issue. – user18072 Dec 8 '15 at 16:49
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    @djechlin We'll have to agree to disagree on this one :-) I am a woman, in traditionally male-dominated computer science, and even I am getting fed up with and feeling patronised by the ubiquitous "he/she". It just adds noise without any signal, in my opinion, but your mileage may vary, of course. Thank you for linking research to support your views, though! – user12932 Dec 9 '15 at 9:33
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If I quit my PhD, would it make my advisor look bad?

Absolutely not -- at least, not in the eyes of anyone who wasn't born yesterday. Most of us realize that PhD students are autonomous creatures with their own lives, hopes, dreams and ambitions. Although certainly there are scenarios in which a bad advisor is the cause or catalyst for a graduate student's decision to quit their PhD, only a fool would jump to the completely unsubstantiated conclusion that this was the case here.

With that said, it is certainly true that if you finish your PhD, it would make your advisor look good.

And with that said, a PhD is such a huge undertaking that I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks anyone should ever do a PhD to please someone else. You shouldn't do a PhD to make your mother happy; you shouldn't do a PhD to make your girlfriend or boyfriend happy; and by the same token, you shouldn't do a PhD to make your advisor happy. If she was kind to you, go and buy her a present, or write her a poem, or dedicate your first software product at the engineering firm to her. But I strongly advise you to stick with your PhD if, and only if, this is truly what you, and only you, want to do for yourself.

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    I strongly disagree with your first paragraph. "Look bad" goes beyond just people's opinions; I know researchers whose grant was not renewed because, despite their proposal and publication record being very good, their were deemed to not have finished enough graduate students. – Martin Argerami Dec 4 '15 at 5:46
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    @MartinArgerami you are free to disagree with what I wrote of course, but I think your interpretation of "look bad" differs from the standard meaning of this phrase in English. Personally I consider "will it make her look bad?" and "will it hurt her career?" as two separate questions, and I was referring to the "look bad" aspect. In that context I fully stand behind my first paragraph. As for "hurt her career" I leave that to others to discuss; your comment does seem to have something to say on that topic, but for semantic clarity I would prefer keeping that separate from the "look bad" issue. – Dan Romik Dec 4 '15 at 6:59
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    @MartinA - "Not finishing enough graduate students" is an aggregate problem. This question is about a single student. Some level of attrition is inevitable and should be expected. This becomes a serious issue only when people are leaving in droves beyond the normal rate. – J.R. Dec 4 '15 at 20:41
  • +1 for "If she was kind to you, go and buy her a present, or write her a poem, or dedicate your first software product at the engineering firm to her." – Azrael Dec 6 '15 at 13:31
37

I read your original post; allow me to respond to that first. In my opinion, based on the information you provide, you may want to examine your Ph.D. situation ignoring the internship for the moment. Do you enjoy what you're doing? Do you like working with your adviser? Is it a good learning experience? Do you value the prospect of holding a Ph.D.?

If the answer is Yes, I would caution you against jumping to conclusions based on an internship. Internships are good fun, in fact they are meant to be since the goal is for you to fall in love with the company as much as they are the other way (if not more). A Ph.D. is a bet on the long run (as is a college degree) and there are sacrifices involved.

If the answer is No, you have a tough decision to make and I can't really tell you what you should do, but in general it wouldn't seem wise to stick to something you dislike or not enjoy.

In general I would disregard what "people have been saying." You have not experienced the kind of jobs that you can access only with a Ph.D. Some of them are insanely fun. This is your decision, not theirs.

As for your adviser, yes your decision may hurt her career if she is an assistant professor on a tenure clock, and/or depending on many other factors. I doubt anyone would see this as a failure on her part, however.

All the best.

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    Downvoted: a. 90% of the answer addresses a different question than the one that was asked. b. the part that actually addresses the question is based on the false premise that OP has some kind of moral obligation to help the advisor's career, and that failing to do so is "hurting" the advisor. (See my comment in response to Corvus's answer for why this premise is wrong.) – Dan Romik Dec 3 '15 at 9:04
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    Upvoted: "If the answer is Yes, I would caution you against jumping to conclusions based on an internship. Internships are good fun, in fact they are meant to be since the goal is for you to fall in love with the company as much as they are the other way (if not more)." – GreenAsJade Dec 3 '15 at 11:29
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    @DanRomik I removed the sentence because I understand where you're coming from. But I disagree with your explanation: The OP does have a degree of moral obligation toward the adviser and vice versa, because their mutual adviser-advisee relationship is already ongoing. What would you say if the adviser were the one asking "I thought I liked this student but there's a new student much smarter and I only have funding for one person; if I dump him, will it hurt his career?" That is not to say that this obligation is absolute and should trump the OP's best interests. – profmartinez Dec 3 '15 at 12:43
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    Ok, thanks. Un-downvoted. I still disagree about the moral obligation - the advisor-adviser relationship is not symmetric, so if it was the advisor who wanted to bail out my answer would be different. Another small point is that I doubt that such a kind advisor (or any other reasonable advisor) would want their student to stay in a PhD just for the advisor's sake when the student prefers doing something else. – Dan Romik Dec 3 '15 at 17:29
  • Correction: Of course I meant to write "advisor-advisee relationship", not "advisor-adviser". – Dan Romik Dec 6 '15 at 8:34
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I feel that most of the other answers do not adequately address the question, as most of them focus on the question of what you should do, rather than the effect on your advisor.

If your advisor already had a track record of graduating students with good theses, then you dropping out would have no effect on her reputation. Since you are her first student, however, you dropping out will give her a dropout rate of 100%. Everybody knows that sometimes things just don't work out with a student, but it's a bad omen to lose one's first student, and it puts your professor in a much more vulnerable position with respect to the next students she hopes to graduate.

This will likely be compounded by the fact that your professor is a woman, and likely to be judged more harshly than male colleagues, due to the implicit sexism still rampant in the field.

Moreover, in some fields and departments, graduating a student is a hard requirement for tenure. If you are not just her first student but her only student, leaving may make it very difficult for her to obtain tenure.

That said, if you need to quit, you need to quit. But it will have an impact on your advisor because she is so early in her career.

  • You're quite right about not adequately addressing the question, at least as far as my answer is concerned. Seems the OP needs to summon up his courage and discuss this with the professor in question. – BobRodes Dec 7 '15 at 18:42
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Without knowing more about your situation, it is hard to estimate the magnitude the effect on your advisor's reputation. Under normal circumstances, however, this effect would be minimal. Everyone understands that students may choose not to complete a PhD for any number of reasons.

But what I can tell you is that (1) you have zero obligation to continue for the sake of your advisor, (2) you need to do what is right for you and (3) any harm to her career from you quitting will be vastly smaller than the harm to you and your career, where ever that may lie, from continuing if a pursuing PhD is not in your best interest.

Addendum: Based on information provided in a comment below, apparently the OP is the advisor's first student. This might be a bit different, perhaps, especially if the department has expectations that an advisor graduate students before tenure and there are not others in the queue. Hopefully this is not the case. It seems perhaps reasonable to expect an advisor to be able to recruit students before tenure, but it is in no one's best interest to demand that he or she graduate students before tenure. Still, I've seen that expected on rare occasion. Other examples of "not normal" circumstances would be cases in which an advisor already had a worrisome track record of driving students out of the lab or out of the program. In this case, it might be more reasonable for people to be concerned, particularly if supported by other sources of evidence that the advisor was failing to do right by his or her students.

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    I disagree that "Under normal circumstances, this harm would be minimal;" if the OP is the adviser's first student, for example, it may not be "minimal." If the OP is a senior student about to produce results, it may not be "minimal." I think those situations are pretty normal. I similarly disagree with the "vastly" comment. The OP simply doesn't provide any useful info to make such an assessment. – profmartinez Dec 3 '15 at 6:29
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    any harm to her career from you quitting will be vastly smaller: I am really irritated by the entire premise that the OP's quitting can "harm" another person's career. You and @Prof Martinez are conflating "harm" and "lack of benefit". For example, if the OP chooses to stay in the PhD instead of traveling to Turkey to help Syrian refugees, would (s)he be causing "harm" to the Syrian refugees? No, of course not - because no one thinks OP has an obligation to help any refugees. The premise that OP has an obligation to help the advisor's career or make her look good is equally flawed. – Dan Romik Dec 3 '15 at 8:54
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    @DanRomik I think that the OP has zero obligation to the advisor. I tried to make this quite clear in my answer, and up-voted your answer for the same reason. But the OP asks for the effect on the advisor's career. That effect could be negative (though I believe it ought not be) and we would be deceiving ourselves to pretend otherwise. I have to answer what I believe to be the truth, not what I wish were the truth. – Corvus Dec 3 '15 at 9:09
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    @DanRomik the Syrian refugees case would be a good analogy if the question were "If I decide not to pursue a PhD with advisor X, will I make her look bad?" The answer to that question: of course not. But leaving mid-PhD is different because, sadly, in my experience people do sometimes discuss completion ratios "Only two of his five PhD students managed to finish" when discussing promotion issues. By adding to the denominator but not the numerator, one does decrease that ratio by starting and not finishing. Still, I'm happy to rephrase to try to address your objection. – Corvus Dec 3 '15 at 9:59
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    Though I agree that a student should not feel morally obligated to stay in a Ph.D. program just to make the adviser look good, I disagree with the Syrian refugee analogy. The adviser has presumably invested some time and effort in helping the student; Syrian refugees have not. – Andreas Blass Dec 3 '15 at 12:33
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If one student aborts a Ph.D. on a mentor, or even a few over the course of a career, that's par for the course.

If this sort of thing KEEPS HAPPENING to a mentor, it should raise some red flags for that person's colleagues and any committees involved with placing grad students in labs.

5

My mother quit her PhD program back in the 50's, because she wanted to have children and didn't feel that she could put the time into both. This was a disappointment to a number of people, because, in those less enlightened days, they wanted to make her an example of the ability of women to get a doctorate. She decided that the issue of women's equality wasn't as important to her as starting her family. My father said it was her decision and he would support her either way. A number of years later, she became an English professor anyway, spent 40 years at it, and raised seven children along the way.

To quote the old saw: be who you are, because those who matter don't mind and those who mind don't matter. The trick is finding out who you are.

One more thing. If this lady is good at what she does, you can't do anything to hurt her career. If she isn't, nothing that you can do will make her career. So, your decision isn't particularly important to her career one way or the other.

EDIT: Looking at other answers and reading comments, it's clear that there are considerations that I didn't think of. I guess in the end, we can all spend a great deal of time working out the effect that this will have on your professor, but the only person who really can tell you is the professor herself. You need to "fess up" and tell her you're thinking about quitting and why. Maybe she doesn't share your concerns, maybe she has concerns none of us have thought of. Maybe you can work something out that will benefit both of you. But you never will really know until you face her and tell her what's on your mind.

By the way, I have 30 years experience in the IT field. PhD's in computer science generally make better money than software engineers, and often find interesting work. If, for example, you want to write software programs to calibrate scientific equipment, that PhD will help. If you want to design websites or databases for health care companies, it probably won't.

  • I think this answer overlooks some aspects of having a student (e.g. compare your answer to @jakebeal's) – mmh Dec 6 '15 at 13:01
  • You're absolutely right, and those things ought to be taken into consideration. – BobRodes Dec 7 '15 at 18:39
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Ask yourself this: If people knew you stayed on as a Ph.D. candidate because somehow you got to worry more about how this would reflect on your advisor, this in itself would reflect very poorly on him; and perhaps on you as well. So... don't let the how-it-would-reflect-on-him concern worry you.

H-O-W-E-V-E-R! There is the "Neighbor's grass is always greener" effect. It may be the case that leaving your Ph.D. track has detriments you might not be taking into account, and on the other hand, maybe you're stuck in your Ph.D. work and, arranged differently, it might be more interesting and rewarding. I'm not saying that's necessarily the case but sometime it is. Also, some people switch to working on the rest of their Ph.D.s part-time. Again, that doesn't work well for everyone, I'm just saying you need to carefully weigh your options etc. etc.

1

The only real effect your dropping your PhD program will have on your advisor, is that it might leave her short on her "stuff profs need to do in their jobs" list. i.e. most universities have a teaching requirement, a research requirement, and a service requirement. She's now lost an advisee, so she's a bit "thin" on her service requirement, and may have to scramble a bit to pick something else up to fulfil that. Other than that, though...no, it will not harm her career.

protected by ff524 Dec 3 '15 at 16:14

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