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BACKGROUND

I am an engineering graduate student at a good American university, funded as a Research Assistant (RA). The lab and professor rely heavily on my day-to-day work.

My PhD research is going nowhere and I am far less interested in obtaining a PhD compared to one year ago. Most importantly, my wife wants me to leave and pursue an engineering job with a salary. I have a colleague/friend who has a position lined up for me provided I begin to work ASAP. Ultimately, this would mean quitting my funded research position mid summer (and mid-semester) with little notice. Because of this, I am not expecting a "letter of recommendation" from my advisor/boss/professor, however I don't want to be blacklisted either.

QUESTIONS

How significant of an offense would it be to quit a graduate-level Research Assistantship in the middle of a semester? Would it even be legal to do this at an American university? What would be the consequences for simply turning in my resignation and leaving the program (again, in the middle of the semester with very little notice)?

Opinions from professors, PhD drop-outs, or people familiar with these situations would be great!

  • 19
    You may be responsible for returning/repaying part of or all of the money you've made since the start of the RA contract (as in, since the beginning of the most recent one you signed). Is there a reason you don't want to discuss this with your adviser? Odds are, if you present your case respectfully and let them know that your interests in the Ph.D. have waned, and after careful thought with your loved ones you've decided you'd like to leave the program, they'll be receptive to your message. They're human, after all, and they know that Ph.D.s are not everyone's idea of a fun time :) – tonysdg May 9 '16 at 3:07
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    tonysdg, I have never seen a contract written this way and do no see in the USA that it would hold up in court! – NDEthos May 9 '16 at 5:47
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    @tonysdg I would be astonished if that were the case. It would be very difficult to see such repayment as anything but punitive, and punitive contracts rarely stand up in court. – sapi May 9 '16 at 12:04
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    @sapi They may not be able to make you repay your salary, but they could certainly ask you to repay some of your tuition costs. – Morgan Rodgers May 9 '16 at 15:29
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    I contacted a reference supplied by a candidate once and was told "This guy would rather quit a job than [perform an assigned and customary duty]." Needless to say, the application was circular filed. That particular interpretation does not apply to your situation, but you should make sure you know how your bosses feel about this choice before listing them as references in the future... – dmckee May 9 '16 at 15:45
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This will likely vary greatly from one department to another. It will also depend upon your relationship with your advisor, departmental needs, etc. As @tonysdg noted in the comments, it would be a good idea to talk to your advisor about this. Some departments are understanding of these situations.

In my (geography) department, a few years ago we had a student quit his masters degree and his teaching assistantship because he was a single dad and out of money. He dreaded going to his supervisor (who was not his academic advisor) to tell him this. But it ended up being no big deal. Everyone understood, and to my knowledge there were no harsh feelings in the department toward him. Other grad students and professors covered a few classes for him through the rest of the semester, and the department was able to fund a new student the next semester.

Like I said, these things are situational, so your conversation may be different. But I included this answer as a tangible example that it is possible to leave in the middle of the semester without causing bedlam. Also, there may be strict rules against leaving in the middle of the semester, but sometimes these rules can be bent under the right circumstances. Even if you find a rule against what you're thinking about doing, I would still talk to your advisor.

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    I think this is right. They may be sympathetic to your circumstances. Then again, they might not be, but if you don't talk to them there is no chance of leaving on good terms, and if you talk to them there is a chance. – user24098 May 9 '16 at 5:57
  • In the event that this doesn't come off well, I still think you can leave without serious consequences, as @AnonymousPhysicist states. But better to try this discussion first. – user24098 May 9 '16 at 6:23
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    And the sooner you talk, the better. It gives them more chances to find a replacement. – Davidmh May 9 '16 at 8:27
  • @Davidmh Also, at a certain point it's more valuable for the research group to have someone who is really invested in the work and wants to be there.. even if the current person is doing a good job and others are reliant on her/him. – haff May 9 '16 at 8:43
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If you are leaving academia permanently, I see few consequences. You should give standard two weeks notice to avoid harming your reputation outside academia. You should also check your contract (if any) and institutional policies.

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I would suggest you have a serious talk with your wife, for starters. No matter how empathic your profs and others may want to be, they will certainly be annoyed at having to scramble to fill the gap your 'no notice' departure will create. You will be a central topic over coffee and drinks by those affected. You have not even established a reputation in your field; this no-notice leavetaking will not be a favourable launch for you.

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