Telling my adviser I’m leaving the PhD

Telling my adviser I’m leaving the PhD

Yesterday, I told my dissertation chair that I was going to leave the program.

I was completely stressed out about having this conversation (which is probably why it took me over two months to work up the courage). My chair is…hard to get a read on. Some people describe him as a teddy bear, albeit one who has an occasionally gruff, wildly intimidating, very British exterior. He’s incredibly well-established and an authoritative voice in the field, and he also wore a Hawaiian shirt to my prelim, which I appreciated.

He was not a person I wanted to disappoint, but I knew it was time to come clean. (And then I still dragged my feet for a few days…)

A Little Dose of Keelium has several posts on leaving graduate school (she’s talking specifically about science PhD programs, but I think it’s more widely relevant). In part two of an excellent pair of posts, she lays out really practical advice for how to actually DO it. She talks about recruiting allies, and goes on to say:

File the paperwork to change yourself from a PhD to a master’s student. Tell your PI if you haven’t yet. Let the head of your department know. Tell… everyone. Mastering out often comes with a lot of shame, but remember: to most of the world, you won’t be a failed PhD student, you’ll just be a person with an advanced degree. So don’t sell it as a failure, sell it as what it is: a graduation. It isn’t what you wanted or what you planned, and that burns, I know, but don’t close doors on possible opportunities by not using every resource/connection you have. [ellipsis hers]

This scares me, but I think it’s great advice (again, AFTER recruiting allies–including your adviser). I know a lot of people have hostile or dismissive faculty, which is unfortunate, but I think that hostility gets a little overblown in the alt/post-ac blogosphere. I can only speak of my own experience, but not one single person has had a negative reaction to my plans so far; some people have shown mild concern, but once they see that I’m fine with it, then they are, too. Most people have just been out-and-out happy for me.

Anyway, I had a lot of different ideas about how this meeting with my chair might go, but I’m glad to say I was wrong on pretty much all counts.


He was very surprised, which was nice in its own way, and said unexpectedly complimentary things. Once I explained that it was about realizing that this wasn’t the life for me, he was a lot more understanding than I had envisioned. He agreed that it’s a grueling life, and that if you don’t have the passion or compulsion, then there’s not really a reason to do it. Overall, he was very accommodating of my change of plans, and more than willing to help me however he could.

“It really is like a marriage,” he said, of academic life. “My adviser told me that, and the more years I’ve been in this profession, the less it’s been just a metaphor.”

“And I don’t want to wait until I’m at the altar before I leave,” I said.



Here’s my utterly anecdotal, your-mileage-may-vary, when-did-I-become-an-expert-on-this advice:

  • Show confidence in your decision. This is so important. Everyone will have different reactions, of course, but people will also follow your lead. If you appear confused, indecisive, or moody or depressed, other people will be more likely to question your decision. YOU’RE in control of your life, so be in control of the conversation.
  • Be as honest as you can. The conversation went smoothly in part because I was able to clearly articulate my genuine reasons for leaving. Obviously, if your reason is that you hate your adviser, you’re going to need to figure out a more political approach. And you don’t need to spill every single reason–I think therapy is incredibly useful for this transition, but this is not a therapy session. Still, thoughtful honesty will come across as clear-headed foresight, and that’s a good thing.
  • Don’t let fear hold you back… The best thing that can happen is that s/he will respect your decision and want to continue to help you–s/he might even have tangible networking/career aid to give. The worst thing that can probably happen is that s/he can be unsupportive or even rude, and cut you off. That could be traumatic, but is it really better than hiding your plans and dreading the discussion? Remember, even in a worst case, you can always find other faculty to give you guidance and references.
  • …but DO wait until you know what you want from her/him. This is advice I got from another faculty person. It’s going to be a very different conversation if you say, “I’ve decided to leave sometime soon, and I don’t know what I’m going to do,” then if you can say, “I’ve decided to leave within X timeframe. I’m currently working on pursuing Y. Would you be willing to [help me do the master’s thesis/serve as a job reference/connect me to Z network/brainstorm next steps]?”
  • Always remember that you’re doing what’s best for YOU. If your adviser really cares about you and values your intelligence, they’ll want to continue to help you succeed. And if they don’t, well, that’s one more good reason to leave.



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