Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Giving Notice: How to Gracefully Exit Graduate School

So I haven't been blogging lately, in part due to the whirlwind of activity that has defined my life in the past few weeks. First, I should announce that I officially gave notice just over a week ago. Second, I should emphasize that I did so without having a job lined up.  Third, I should mention that I have never felt happier, more free, or like life has more potential.  Ultimately, I decided that my desire to leave was strong enough that not having a secure offer was ok, but it tool a lot of work to get to that point.

How does one exactly give notice?  I had four nominal bosses in my program:  the department chair, with whom I worked closely on research; my adviser, with whom I am very close; my TA supervisor, who assigned us to courses and needed to be informed ASAP regarding my decision; and the department personal/secretary who seemed to have her hand in everything administrative.  Who I even needed to tell, let alone in what order they should be informed, presented quite the roadblock.

Ultimately, email seemed to make the most sense for me since my biggest fear was being talked out of leaving. This allowed me to carefully consider my reasons, and make sure I communicated them in a straight forward way that left little room for doubt.  I wrote a draft, then had a fellow grad who has contemplated leaving many times, but was emotionally removed from the process, edit my emails.  I also paid a visit to everyone I emailed, or talked with them by phone.  This allowed them to ask questions, but having already framed my leaving in the email, these conversations went much more smoothly.

Mainly I focused on the fact that my leaving had everything to do with my realization that my ideal job involved both a different path and different set of tasks than the Ph.D. provided.  While I valued my experiences and training, I realized I no longer wanted to do research.  This made my leaving a lot easier for the faculty to process.  Many of the people who questioned my leaving were not trying to undermine my decision, they simply wanted to make sure I had thought everything through.  Many felt shocked and surprised by my decision, and felt obligated to ask about how I arrived at my choice.  Several alluded to the fact that I was a successful graduate student, and seemed genuinely perplexed that someone who was not  having problems would chose to leave.

If you decide to quit don't be shocked or upset if people ask why.

Understand that questioning does not mean that you are being judged for your decision.  This was my greatest fear in leaving.  Meeting with my therapist the Friday before to discuss my leaving, my worst case scenario included being scolded, yelled at, and shut out.  Instead, I could not have scripted a better exit: my faculty were sad, but supportive, and even helped me look into how to structure my leave so that if I decide to return I can.  They told me they respected my decision (several even called it brave and courageous) and said that they would welcome me back with open arms if I decided to finish.  The encouraged me to look into various options, and supported my leaving in a way that provided me the most flexibility.  I will be working with several of them to finish publications over the next few months, and they have emphasized that I can continue to use my institutional affiliation for those publications.  I was even asked how they can support me in leaving (extended library privileges, Please!).

Part of my luck is a direct result of the fact that as a graduate student I went out of my way to talk to faculty, whether they were in my relevant area or not. I said hi in the hallway, volunteered for department service, and generally tried to engage with everyone, including admins.  Life is about relationships, and now that I am leaving I have a lot of people who are wishing me well.  Even when our graduate student life is unfulfilling and angst inducing, the opportunities we have to engage with others can also provide a ladder out, either through references or leads on other jobs.  It feels nice to leave on my own terms, and with the support of even those who while sad about my decision, want the best for me.  Even though I'm not finishing in the way that was expected, I still want to exit successfully: with grace, good will, and optimism.  If you're reading this because you are thinking of leaving, good luck!  If you are still questioning whether to stay, I want you to know there is light on the other end.  


  1. Thank you for writing this post! I myself am leaving at the end of this (fall) semester. I don't know how I can have this conversation and like you, I have many people whom I need to tell. I like your idea of writing an email and then meeting with them.

    My goals for leaving are to do so without any anger or resentment, and if there is those things on their part (I'm not sure how they'll react), I want to have the courage to take the high road.

    Out of curiosity, do you think it is appropriate to wait until the end of the semester, or to have this conversation earlier? Although every situation is different....

  2. Libet that is an excellent question. I ultimately decided when to give notice based on the TA selection deadlines. Our assignments were normally finalized and announced in mid December so I gave notice the first week of the month so that the TA coordinator had one or two weeks to make adjustments and do some on campus interviews since she would have to hire outside the department. She also had the built in cushion of winter break for her to make arrangements.

    I think the biggest concerns with having the conversation too early in the semester are concerns over grades (though in graduate school these concerns tend to be less a problem) or if you are leaving at a degree milestone and have concerns your advisors will lose interest or not pass you. The reality is once you quit most departments will just want to pass you out. I also worried if I told my advisor too early she would find a way to talk me out of it--though you will get questions regarding whether you are just burnt out with end of semester stress if you wait.

    Finally, my biggest concern on timing had to do with concerns over not having any employment. I ended up giving notice without a job lined up because by that point I had decided I would rather work at Starbucks than stick around an extra semester, and it all worked out fine. The benefit of being paid poverty level wages is that pretty much ANY job will pay more. That makes it a bit easier to quit in some ways.

    Good luck! I hope you find the right balance of what works for you. Just remember, this too shall pass and taking the first step toward asserting what works for you and what doesn't is a powerful move with the potential to set things in motion.

  3. Thank you for this post. I am in exactly the same position, as I plan on leaving my program at the end of the semester in December. I have written and deleted so many different versions of this email, but do not know where to begin. I don't suppose you would consider sharing yours? Or at least, would you mind speaking a little to how detailed you were in it?