Updated December 11, 2022
I almost quit grad school. I drafted my resignation letter at least ten times.
It wasn’t much of a mystery why. I realized that my degree wasn’t preparing me for anything, that I was unlikely to get an academic job, and I wanted out. I realized that academia was basically a pyramid scheme, and I figured I’d run.
Above all, I was tired of feeling helpless. I felt that if I quit, I could take back control of my life.
I speak to lots of students who want to quit grad school, especially as the options in the academy dry up for many of us.
The hardest thing is knowing when to walk away (I wrote about how you know here).
I didn’t walk away. And I don’t regret finishing — I was in my fifth year by the time I thought about leaving. The end was in sight.
Your life is different, and your decision may be. And it’s yours alone to make.
It really is.
Nobody can make that decision for you. Far be it from me or anyone else to tell you what’s right for your life. You may go through months of back and forth. You may doubt yourself.
You need to live with the decision. And you shouldn’t spend your life hating someone else for making the decision for you, whether it was to stay or go.
This post is really for those who have already made up their mind to leave. If you’ve decided that it’s time to quit grad school, I’d like to give you some thoughts on how you might accomplish it, and survive with a career intact.
So how do you quit grad school and not ruin your life?
(If you’re not in graduate school but thinking about leaving academia, I wrote a related post on quitting academia).
What follows is a roadmap for quitting.
But notice, I’m not saying you should quit. I ultimately didn’t quit, and I don’t regret finishing. I’m being very careful here because this decision is yours.
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Here’s the plan…
Step 1 – Recognize That It’s Not Just a Career Decision
Step 2 – Accept That There’s No Shame in Choosing to Quit
Step 3 – Start Searching While Still Enrolled
Step 4 – Be Careful About Who You Tell
Step 5 – Find Out What You’ll Walk Away With
Step 6 – Visit the Career Center
Step 7 – Find a non-academic mentor
Step 8 – Build a Mental Health Routine
By the way, I wrote a book about building a career after academia. You can check it out and read the first chapter for free, here.
1. Recognize that it’s not just a career decision
Let’s start with this. And it might shock you.
You’re worried that if you quit grad school you won’t have a great career or that employers will judge you.
I’m here to tell you that quitting grad school doesn’t mean you can’t have a great career, so don’t get hung up on that.
First and foremost, deciding to quit is a decision you can make based on what’s right for your life, your mental health, and the impact you want to have in this world. You’ve got great things to do, big problems to solve, and stuff to build. If grad school doesn’t fit within your big, audacious vision of your own future anymore, then maybe your time is better spent somewhere else.
Likewise, if you are drowning in debt and seeing no end in sight, piled up by a hopeless job market (and you only really wanted to be a tenure-track professor anyway), I can certainly see how grad school might slowly disappear from your horizons of what you consider to be a great life.
Either way, stay or go, grad school won’t make or break your career
Quitting will mean you probably can’t be a prof. I say probably. Talk to my friend with only an undergrad who teaches at a policy school because of real-life experience, or the many business profs who are from the private sector).
2. Accept that there’s no shame in choosing to quit grad school
There’s really not. Whether you decide to stay or go, please don’t let shame make the decision for you.
As I’ve said before, going to grad school isn’t joining a monastery, and there are absolutely no moral requirements on you to stay.
Grad school is supposed to be training after all. If you see that the training is going nowhere, or to a place you don’t like, it’s totally your right to walk away.
Now, that doesn’t mean that it will be easy to quit grad school. You may feel judgment from your supervisor or peers. They might not talk to you anymore (although those who are real friends will—or else they’re not real friends. It’s just like high school).
If you’re only staying because of that judgement, or fear of what people will think, you’re staying for the wrong reasons anyways.
Be free. Set yourself free. Your greatness lives on the other side of facing that fear.
3. Start searching while still enrolled
If you’re looking at quitting, and you have some time… If you have a few months before the next tuition check is due. Start looking outside now.
Your transition will almost certainly require networking, unless you already have an offer of some sort. Do networking first. I know it’s scary and uncomfortable, but it’s what opens up careers. I’ve got tons of posts (linked below) on how to do it.
Go start talking to people everywhere you can find them. Build your network in any way you can.
Networking is exploring. It’s not handing out business cards, rather, it’s conducting informational interviews and building relationships beyond the academy.
Not every conversation will lead to a job. But each will lead to a possibility. Go explore.
You don’t even have to tell the people you’re networking with that your job searching or thinking about leaving academia. Just tell them you’re exploring career options. They won’t care.
The reason I say to do this while you’re still enrolled is because:
- People like to help students. They really do.
- Your title—master’s student, PhD student, PhD candidate, will carry some weight for people. It will likely help you build your network.
- If you have any stipend, it can support you while you look. It might take you months to find a job. Really the best time to search might be while you’re still funded and can get paid to do it.
More reading on networking
Build a Resume
I would network before resume. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but doing networking exploration is really vital.
HOWEVER, if you know where you want to go or you see a job that’s too good to pass up, you’ll need a piece of paper called a resume. (In North America, a resume and a CV are two very different documents.)
Start creating it. You can find some directions at these posts.
A few great resume guides
4. Be careful about who you tell
You can take a read on your department, but in Twitter polls I’ve done I’ve found that about 30% of students feel that their supervisors or departments are openly hostile to non-academic work. Some have even been penalized for expressing interest in leaving the academy, left off projects, grants, or passed over for teaching or research opportunities.
This is disgusting, but it does happen.
I don’t want you to be terrified to leave, but it is important to be strategic about it. For some students, it might be wisest to tell your PI or supervisor once you’ve already decided to leave.
You might treat it as you would leaving any job. Often you don’t tell your employers that you’re thinking about leaving, you tell them once you are ready to jump.
But it’s really hard to be concrete on this. You may have a confidant within the academy who is supportive and encourages you to explore options outside. They may even be able to arrange meetings for you with people in interesting careers. Use your judgment about having these conversations.
5. Find out what you’ll walk away with
I said this in another post on leaving academia, but do be aware of what you’ll leave with. If you could arrange to leave with a master’s rather than nothing, it might be a wise decision. In American schools, this is referred to as “mastering out,” and it can be a great option for those who need to leave.
There’s a great story about mastering out here. As the article rightly points out, a master’s degree is not a “consolation prize,” but a valuable accomplishment!
You can have conversations with supportive professors or staff at a graduate school to find out what this would entail. The graduate school staff, in particular, are usually required to keep your conversations confidential.
6. Visit the career center
I know from my conversations with people in career centers that they are generally underused by grad students. Which is a shame, because they have fantastic resources for building a career with your degree. They’ll likely have connections to alumni, info on programs and placements that are available, and links to industry.
Go see them! Today!
For whatever reason, I never did. I don’t know why. I think I was ashamed, to be honest.
And there’s no shame in it. Check your career center to see what they can offer.
Go get started. The time is now. You don’t need to tell your supervisors or department.
7. Find a non-academic mentor
If you can, try to find a confidant or mentor who’s not in academia. It could be a family friend, or maybe you’ll find from your networking conversations (above) that you discover a kindred spirit who’s happy to help you walk through the journey.
Don’t email someone asking if they’ll be your mentor, really you don’t even have to call them a mentor, but do try to find someone who can help you walk through the journey.
8. Build a mental health routine
If you are going to quit grad school, you’re about to go through a massive transition in your life. Create some space around yourself for the mental work of it. Prepare yourself for one of the most challenging mental works you’ve ever gone through. Support yourself by whatever means necessary and brace for impact. Because no matter who you are, it can be rough.
I’m adding this final bullet like 5 years after leaving academia. I spent some time working in public policy, for a think tank and for the government. And then I realized that I hated that shit, so I started working in tech — and doubled my salary again.
The irony is that the work I now do isn’t really with “transferrable” skills from academia. It’s the stuff I learned by launching this blog. It helped me pivot and now I spent my time writing and advising on SEO for tech companies. You might not get excited by that, but I realized it’s the thing I love!
So, I need to say, that teaching myself skills has been a big part of my journey out. And it might be for you too.
Do you want to know the really good news? People quit grad school all the time and go on to live fantastic lives with great careers. I’ve added some caution in this post, but if you’ve decided that it’s right for you to go — more power to you! Be as smart and strategic as you can. As I’ve said before, two of my friends quit grad school and both are further in their careers and make more money than I do.
It’s not a death sentence. It actually might be the beginning of your life. Listen to your heart.