Any advice for a Ph.D. student contemplating a leave of absence?

May 31 2013 Published by under Late-stage PhD student

Folks, I have a friend who just finished her first year of grad school and is wondering whether she rushed into this whole Ph.D. business (sound familiar?). Now she wants to take a leave of absence to get some "real world experience" before committing the next 5-6 years to finishing her Ph.D. I counseled her as best I could and told her to consider several things: 1) her department's policy wrt to taking a leave of absence, 2) how long of a leave did she want to take and whether "real world experience" jobs would hire her for that length of time, and 3) whether to do it before or after finishing her qualifying exam.


31 responses so far

  • Jelena says:

    I think that if she's having doubts, now is the optimal time to leave and reconsider - I mean, they're a long 5-6 years, but once you're 3 years in, you're really pretty stuck in that path, because of how much you'd lose at that point. No idea with the regulations etc., definitely worth checking out - I've known people in the UK to take a leave of absence, then happily get back to their PhD, but the PhDs here are shorter anyway. How flexible her funding is would be I think the most important thing to investigate carefully.

    • AmasianV says:

      I think she's just finished up her rotations and hasn't chosen a lab to join yet. Wasn't sure if it made sense for her (in looking out for numero uno sort of way) to finish her qualifying and at least be awarded a masters if she ultimately chose to not continue her PhD. Although, from what I understand this is frowned upon and she could be burning bridges (wrt letters of rec's, etc.).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Take a *very* close look at University, not just Department, policy wrt overall time to completion from first matriculation.

  • Dr Becca says:

    What is "real world experience," bartending or something? If she wants more science experience she should just stay in school. If she feels she needs to travel or work on a farm or sow her wild oats in some other way, then I agree it's best to do that now, but she may indeed burn some bridges in the process.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Regarding question 2, why tell a prospective employer anything about leaving in a year? Especially for the sort of job (tech? Retail? Barista?) that is likely.

    • AmasianV says:

      I'm not sure that she should, but in the event they want a commitment. I wouldn't want her potentially burning another bridge in the process of getting real world experience.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    From your side as mentor, AmasianV, try to get as clear a bead as you can on *why* this person isn't engaged and what this alleged real-world experience is to provide. That will help to suggest courses of action.

  • AmasianV says:

    She was vague but alluded to work away from the bench--data analysis, policy, you know the uzh. She didn't take any time off between undergrad and grad.

    I think she's concerned about how best to approach administration/department.

    • drugmonkey says:

      She needs to think about the credentialing required for alternate career paths, ceilings and what not.

  • Katie_PhD says:

    1. Has she considered a fourth rotation in a different department? Like...if she's just unsure about the work in mol bio/"wet" science, try something in biostats or something?

    2. I know "mastering out" is frowned upon, but the few I know who've done it have successful careers now, so not sure how many bridges were burned (or how valuable those bridges were in the first place). If she can settle on a lab for the next year and take her quals, I don't think that's horrible advice But it implies getting Masters then probably moving on with Career rather than temp Job.

    3. If it really is just a "I shoulda taken a year out. I'mma do that and come back", then I don't think there's an issue with going now rather than after quals, just get it done.

    4. Agree with DM: she/you should look V carefully at leave of absence policies, both department and university. Don't want to get screwed with funding upon return.

    5. BIGGEST thing: She should think long and hard about her CAREER goals. If she's not motivated now for the long haul that is academia, chances are a PhD is a poor choice anyway...

    • AmasianV says:

      1. Yes, she has.

      2-5. mostly agreed, particularly 5.

    • drugmonkey says:

      It is not just funding upon return. There are places that will let you take leave but this still counts to overall timeline. Like say you have to be done within 8 years from starting or else will be booted and cannot ever get a PhD from that University.

  • Doe this mean that she didn't have any real world experience before she got into grad school? To take year off sounds kinda euphemistic to me. In short, Katie_PhD's comment #5 is right on! Best of lucke for her anyway.

  • namnezia says:

    I would take the quals, that way if she doesn't come back, she can get her masters. That's assuming qualifying exams are right after the first year and she doesn't have to be supported by an individual lab. Honestly, if she's having doubts now, I really don't think she'll manage in the long run.

    • drugmonkey says:

      oh hell yes. If this is a program where the Master's is available within, say, a year, ffs sack it up to this point of departure.

  • Bill Hooker says:

    "If she wants more science experience she should just stay in school." -- no no no no, school is the worst fucking place to get experience. It's a cloister that bears little relation to the working world, even if you plan to stay in academia your whole life. When employers ask for "experience" they mean "not including time in school"! If this is what she's after, she should spend a year or three being a research assistant in a bunch of different labs. That's what I usually advise people to do before they begin grad school, so that they will have a much better idea of (a) whether they want to do science for a living and (b) what they are looking for in a lab.

    Getting a Master's -- this is mostly feeble bullshit, just more time in school that doesn't add anything to a candidate's value in the employment market. I'd say she should skip the quals and get the fuck out while she's only invested the rotation time. Pace DM, she certainly shouldn't put in another year.

    It's not that hard to get into grad school, if she wants back in -- academia has an unquenchable appetite for cannon fodder. Even if she burns a few bridges at this particular school, by the time she's been in a couple labs she should have enough contacts to work around that. What she really needs to think about is what happens when she gets the PhD and faces permadoc purgatory, the Faustian bargain of industry, or a whole different direction that makes the fucking PhD worthless anyway.

    In other words, as a mentor your responsibility is to turn her away from grad school if you possibly can. It's only the ones who cannot be dissuaded who have any hope of surviving.

    • AmasianV says:

      feeble? I've seen quite a few jobs requiring a Master's and certainly seems more valuable/marketable than a PhD right now.

      • I also used to be of the opinion that a Master's was useless. This is massively dependent on the industry, however. Having quit my PhD, and now writing it up as a Master's, I have to say I'm finding it hugely useful. It's a nice representation to potential employers of the (invaluable) experience gained during my PhD. As AmasianV mentioned, I've also seen many many jobs asking simply for "Postgraduate experience - Masters OR PhD" or perhaps "Undergraduate degree required, Masters preferred".

        On a side note, for me, both starting and quitting my PhD were some of the best decisions I ever made. The experience taught me to be an excellent problem solver, networker etc etc but you really learn the hard way. By the end, it was starting to break me down and I was no longer getting anything out of it – sticking it out to get the qualification didn't weigh up against taking my skills and making a bolt for the real world.

        Anyway, I think my simple advice would be, whatever you do, don't just stick with it for the sake of it. But if you're learning and progressing then carry on. As long as you're moving forward then all is good!

        • AmasianV says:

          You're not concerned that potential employers will view "writing it up as a Master's" as "bailing out?"

          • I was initially, but my current employers' reactions were surprisingly and overwhelmingly positive. I explained that I felt that my sort-of exponential curve of learning had levelled out (bit wordy but no idea how else to explain that!) and that a remaining year in my PhD wouldn't necessarily gain me more than a year's experience in the job I wanted to do. To me actually it seemed like just as much of a gamble to continue in the PhD as to leave. Who knows what opportunities I'd miss out on in that year?!

            They agreed anyway thankfully and were really just pleased with the experience that I would bring on board from a few tough years in research. I can't guarantee that every employer I encounter will feel the same, but then perhaps one day that will save me from working with employers who value a title more than skill, intelligence and hard work. Who knows? Either way, I'm employed, I love my job, and quitting my PhD didn't seem to do me any harm 🙂

  • darchole says:

    Has she thought of transferring to another school? Maybe it's just a bad fit, but not so obvious that she can say why it's a bad fit. I can work at my uni, but If I was a student here, I'd either tear my hair out or the be the "troublemaker".

  • Bill Hooker says:

    The Masters vs PhD thing might be different in the US. Imo the majority of Master's degrees in Aus are awarded to people who either couldn't hack it, or decided it was all bullshit but they'd better grab some kind of piece of paper on the way out. I might well hire people from either group but it wouldn't have anything to do with the Master's.

  • Bill Hooker says:

    Argh, that was supposed to be a reply to AmasianV 6/1 3:39pm.

  • Ana says:

    I just went through a similar situation. I always saw myself in Academia and recently I realized I am not enjoying the process of doing the science. Don't get me wrong, I love learning about it and I was so set upon staying in academia that it took me a while to admit I was not enjoying the process.

    A little bit more than a week ago I talked to my PhD supervisor and told her I did no longer want to continue. I am not saying that is the right choice for your friend but I do think it is definitely the right choice for me. As you said in goal no. 5 I thought about my goals and since I came to accept I did not want to continue in Academia I chose to no longer continue with the PhD and start something new now. I am not sure what I will become, it is a little bit scary but better than being miserable and doing something you are not enjoying. I think sometimes people continue with grad school because they do not know what else to do. That is not a good choice to stay and do a Phd. For me this decision has been the hardest and most difficult I have ever made. It is even more difficult because I like science, I like learning about so I hope and I will try to get involved in science outreach.

    If your friend is having doubts now, as you mentioned before she should consider
    -Why are you doing or considering a PhD in the first place?
    - Are you and would enjoy doing a Phd for 5-6 more years ?
    -How would a PhD give you an advantage to achieve your career goals?
    -After a leave of absence (look into the specific rules of the university, in some I know your professor is obligated to take you back after your leave of absence is done) and more "real world experience" would you be motivated enough to continue with the PhD?

    It is definitely a really difficult situation.

  • rxnm says:

    I split after a year of grad school (went straight from UG). It was technically a leave but I had no intention of returning to the same place/program. It was a good decision... I did a lot of life things and pursued interests unrelated to science. I didn't care what my job was, but it was easy to find decent work. I traveled a bit, I met the person I would marry, I had a ridiculously good time, I never worried about anything. Science is always there if you want it. I would never tell an unhappy person to stick it out in grad school.

    This was the late 90s in SF, though. Kids today are fucked I guess.

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