Leaving Graduate School Early: Get Outta Town or Hang Around?

Graduate school serves as a means to an end.  It provides the training necessary to take the next step on our career development path- whether than means performing postdoctoral research or finding a job.  But grad school is a long process and a lot can change over five or six years, which can significantly complicate the process of leaving graduate school.

For some of us the pursuit of the PhD may necessitate changing labs, but as @deray28 points out in the comments of that article, finding a new lab can be a very positive experience.  For others, we realize that our career goal itself has changed over the years and the path that originally required a PhD no longer does.  Assuming that by the fourth year, students have passed the qualifying exams and fulfilled class requirements, most schools will award a masters degree to students who leave before obtaining the PhD.  So what’s a student to do?

Sometime around the fourth year, we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Words like “graduate”, “postdoc”, or “job” are sprinkled cautiously into conversations and labmates may jokingly start calling eachother “Dr” as they embrace their new titles as “senior students”.  But if we know we don’t need the PhD in our new career path, should we stick it out simply to get a few letters behind our names?

Of course, the decision is not that trivial.  For many, completing the PhD, even if they know they don’t need it, is a measure of personal accomplishment.  Yet, by staying two (or more) extra years to finish the PhD are we wasting time that would be better spent pursuing our new career?  Are we wasting funding that could instead go towards supporting another student who is going to continue on to the PhD?  Would leaving early hang our PhD advisor out to dry if we leave the project unfinished?  Or are we close enough to obtaining the degree that it’s worth getting – just in case.  Afterall, we never know if the degree may come in handy at some point later in our career.



After 4 years of grad school, if you decided to pursue a career that didn't require a PhD, would you leave?

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What would be your reasons for staying in or leaving graduate school?



2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. @FLOSciences

    wrote on April 18, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    A lot can depend on what "4 years" means to a person. After for years you could be less than a year out from finishing, but I know many who are five years in and having formulated an official dissertation proposal yet.

  2. [email protected]

    wrote on April 18, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Absolutely right- I've had friends on both sides of that equation. Some in and out in under 5. Some struggled to get out in double that.

    I think the unknown is part of what makes the decision to stay or leave so hard. If you were guaranteed only 12 more months, it would probably be worth it to hang around. But it's not that simple. What's worse- if you're already sure you don't need the PhD, your heart is probably not really in it as you finish up, which will likely only add more time to graduation, which will likely only make you more apatheic and frustrated, which will likely only add more time, which… you get the picture…

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