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I'm working as a software developer right now and am applying for PhD programmes in robotics and environmental conservation. I've put in my notice at work recently and should finish working there mid-February, about a month after the PhD application deadlines. I am quitting for a number of reasons, one of them including wanting to focus on learning how can I help the environment with my tech skills. One of the ways I can is to do research in a relevant field - hence the PhD.

I was wondering if I should mention my quitting in my PhD application. On one hand it demonstrates dedication to my interests. On the other hand, leaving your job without anything else lined up is an... unorthodox move in the professional world and I can see how it could be taken as a sign of volatility. What does stackexchange think?

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From the admissions perspective, it shows dedication but also chutzpah in a bad way.

Many competitive programs have an admissions rate between 5-20%. Even if you are a strong candidate, it is not guaranteed that you will get in anywhere this year. This is why you have to apply to multiple programs as well as have a backup plan if you don't get in anywhere. Staying in a job (you might hate) would be such a backup plan and would show that you are someone who has Plan Bs.

If I read your application, I would have a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that you are rather sure of yourself and/or desperate and/or headstrong. None of these are good qualities for doctoral programs.

There's also a slight feeling of being extorted - as in, if you don't admit me, I'm screwed. But that's not our problem, you put yourself in that situation, yet it still leaves an unsettling feeling.

Neither of these are enough to tank your application but it could sway someone on the cusp of denial/admission towards denial.

tl;dr: A much stronger application would be one that says, "if I am admitted, I plan on quitting my industry job in May and spending the summer ahead of matriculation preparing for graduate studies by doing xyz."

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  • Thanks for sharing your perspective! The problem with my job was that it wasn't getting me where I wanted to get, so I wouldn't think of it as my plan B, unless other options were explored. I did not quit expecting I'd get into a PhD program instead - quitting and applying for PhDs occupy two independent shelves in my mind but I can see how that would be difficult to convey in a personal statement. – SaladButt Dec 17 '16 at 16:20
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    I wouldn't mention that you already quit, but some version of "I plan on spending my summer preparing for graduate studies" without perjuring yourself would fly much better. – RoboKaren Dec 17 '16 at 16:26
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    "I would have a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that you are a rather sure of yourself and/or desperate and/or headstrong. None of these are good qualities for doctoral programs." How is being sure of yourself a bad quality? – user41631 Dec 17 '16 at 21:49
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    Confidence is good. Arrogance is bad. Fine line between the two. – RoboKaren Dec 17 '16 at 22:45
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    @SaladButt tldr you're being evaluated on "will you finish?" as much as anything else. – user18072 Dec 17 '16 at 23:59
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I wouldn't mention quitting your job, because there's no need to do so. Instead focus on the extra things you're doing to prepare yourself without mentioning your current work.

I did something very similar when I applied for PhD programs in economics. I took two years off after undergrad before starting my PhD, and while I did work, one of the main things I did was read seminal literature in my field - Adam Smith, Keynes, etc. I talked about this in my application, and knowing my department as I do now, I'm entirely certain this played a large role in getting me in.

This is especially true if you've done your homework on what things the department you're applying to is likely to care about. In my case economic history was a very important field for them, so it mattered.

So, don't mention quitting your job but do mention extra things you're doing, even if it's as simple as reading. I actually wouldn't say something like "if admitted I intend to..." as @RoboKaren suggested; doing this extra stuff because you're passionate about it and not because you know for certain you'll need it for school carries extra weight. "If admitted I plan to read the Wealth of Nations!" is very different from "While working in industry after undergrad I spent my free time reading the Wealth of Nations."

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I look at graduate applications each year, though not in your field. I think that the right approach is in how you frame the statement. If you say that you've quit your job so you can start learning about the field, it does sound amateurish and hokey. However, if you frame this as a commitment to a new path in your life, it can come across very differently. You might say that recently you have decided to leave your job ("quit" is not necessary) to devote yourself full-time to deepening your knowledge base in your chosen field and applying for graduate programs, to maximize your success in that area. How you phrase this is up to you, but the important thing is for it to come across as a positive move of re-orientation and commitment, rather than "I just quit my job, and hope that grad school is the answer." Good luck!

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It is completely unnecessary and superfluous to mention this. Anyone who applies to grad school as a returning student after working for some time has to navigate these waters. Graduate program administrators will admit you or not, based on their assessment of your ability to succeed in their program, and if they admit you, they will notify you if you have any deficiencies that you must make up before starting. And they will assume that you will give careful thought to when and how you handle your transition from the working world to the academic.

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