Unfortunately, there are circumstances when not everything goes right in a student's PhD career, or there can be personal circumstances that require doctoral candidates to withdraw from a PhD program before they have completed the requirements.

However, what is not clear to me is how to handle this situation from the advisor's perspective. What should an advisor do to:

  • Help the candidate, should she wish to apply elsewhere?
  • Discuss the situation with the group, to maintain morale?
  • Handle the "transition" process (during which the student is still officially on the payroll)?

4 Answers 4


Without additional details, it will be impossible to provide very detailed answers so from a general point, each case has its own solutions. The first question I would ask is, what is my part in this and how can I best help out (best may be = nothing). In general I would try to help out as much as I can unless the problem lies in the realm of a conflict or personal problems. Then there is not much you can do except suggest professional help. If the candidate is a good student then I would certainly support with any letter of recommendation I could. Since you mention morale issues in the group, it suggests some form of non-trivial problem. In some cases too much help makes people fall into a false sense of security so to be shaken can be useful as long as the reasons are very clear.

So without trying to read too much into what is between the lines, I think the degree of help depends on to what extent help can or should be given (seen from an objective point).

Probably not the most satisfactory answer but being responsible for the research education at my dept., I have seen how difficult these matters can be. In our case, I would also be a resource to help out, if nothing else just to discuss the matter. (This does not mean I run a research group completely without problems myself!)


It depends on the circumstances, but I certainly help the student if I'm able. We had one student who wanted to transfer to a Ph.D. program closer to home, and another who wanted to take a crack at programs better than ours. I was happy to support them both, including writing rec letters. I put a third student in touch with some people who worked at a software company.

Some students blow us off, in which case general well wishes and respectful silence seem to be what is called for.

A Ph.D. is 5+ years of backbreaking work, during which you make poverty-level wages, with uncertain job prospects at the other end. I can hardly blame a student for leaving, if his/her heart is not in it.


Handle the "transition" process (during which the student is still officially on the payroll)?

Support would be great.

On the other hand: If you are talking about a PhD student who was employed at an institute, then maybe the advisor should think what he/she has made wrong concerning advising. From my point of view, a retrospective would be worth for both - student and advisor. For instance, can you remember the first time when an expectation and an actual state of the student's work was rather different. Talked the advisor with the student regarding publications and interesting conferences? Which intervals were scheduled for meetings? Did their meetings worked out? If not, why not? (agenda, interruptions during the meeting). Which method was used by the student to assess his/her progress? Were these "story points" observed a little bit by the advisor?

Discuss the situation with the group, to maintain morale?

Yes, but firstly the advisor needs to know the actual reason concerning the end of the student's work. Talking in front of a group about a reason which was not the actual reason could be not the best when having persons in the group who are friends of the student who ends his study and work.

Help the candidate, should she wish to apply elsewhere?

If she has achieved a certain level within her scientific field, why not?

  • I'm not talking about cases where the PhD advising relationship has fallen apart. I'm talking about situations like visa problems, family emergencies, failing required coursework, and other non-research issues.
    – aeismail
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 6:09
  • @aeismail the situations you mention could easily fall under the category of private information that you should not be sharing with the group. At the very least you should give the student the chance to explain to group members (if they choose to). If not, you have to leave it at "personal decision" and not go any further.
    – Suresh
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 17:27

From my experience, most advisors seem to simply shake hands and part ways; I've seen a number of students leave, and in no case did the advisor do anything for the student. I view this as appropriate. Consider a work relationship, where an employee decides to leave because they (got married/got sick/won the lottery/will likely be fired for poor performance/dislike their job/dislike their boss/etc.). It's almost unheard of for the employer to assist the quitting employee to find new employment. (Note I'm not talking about firing someone, where local laws may require some sort of employment help.)

It's a similar situation here. You have a student who decides to leave for whatever reason. At that point, your work relationship is simply terminated. You can continue to interact as professionals, but you are under no obligation to assist in future endeavors.

That being said, I don't think any grad student would turn you down if you offer to help. It would definitely be a nice professional gesture. Just realize that you are under no obligation to offer such help.

  • 18
    Hmmm. I really have to disagree. When I agree to be a student's advisor, I'm making a commitment to their professional development, even if they decide to leave. I've helped my students find other advisors, and I've written recommendation letters for my students to join other PhD programs, because I believed that was part of my job. My first PhD advisor did the same for me when I changed PhD programs.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 21:14
  • @JeffE Couldn't agree with you more!
    – blackace
    Commented Apr 6, 2013 at 6:43
  • 1
    If you treat students and colleagues instrumentally, and if you have no compunction exploiting the time and energy of others for professional gain, then of course, you must never offer to assist students who are no longer working on your projects or to whom you have assigned low academic-value work to benefit you but not them. Terminate the relationship and find a replacement.
    – Anon
    Commented Apr 6, 2013 at 19:43
  • @Jeff - Interesting, I didn't expect this to be so controversial. I guess all I can say is that many of the professors I know don't share your view. I know mine didn't :)
    – eykanal
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 1:38
  • 4
    Your analogy with other workplaces is false in one aspect: in academia, if you don't write your student a letter of recommendation, their career is probably done. If the student's work has been acceptable and you believe they have the potential to succeed elsewhere, I believe you have an obligation, both to your student and to your discipline, to write the letter. Other forms of assistance (calling contacts, etc) are good if you have the time, but I would think of writing a letter as an absolute requirement. Commented May 23, 2013 at 21:19

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .