Should I Finish My PhD? and Other Questions You Might Be Asking Yourself If You Want to Leave Academia

There are many reasons to do a PhD. Trust me, I’ve made a list. But few reasons to discontinue, intermit or leave a PhD (or academia). Beyond why you might leave, you should also consider what you should do on the way out. Hopefully these ideas will help you.

  1. Should I finish my PhD?
    a. For the most part, I’d say “yes”. However, there are exceptions. And it is probably a combination of factors that lead to a decision to take an intermission or cease all together. I think a common factor to all people who want to cease their PhD would be not enjoying the process. And that might be due to the project, research in general, your supervisors or the other people you work with. And like any research experiment, trying to eliminate each will be a useful way to determine what the problem is. Following on from that, if your goal for doing a PhD is to “increase your chances of being employed” that’s okay – as long as you want an academic career. Because that’s about the only time and place where a PhD is a requirement of the role. In many other research roles, having a PhD is not a requirement or a necessity. It might be useful. I could even give you a competitive advantage, but it’s often not required. In fact, for most people in most circumstances, experience trumps education. So, getting a job – almost any job – could give you a competitive advantage over those with a PhD and no work experience.
  2. (When) Should I tell my supervisor?
    a. Yes, you should tell your supervisor. And yes, tell them as soon as you can. Even if it is just a thought that you might leave. Now, I know there are power imbalances. I know it will be a tough conversation. So, you’ll need to weigh those things up. And if it were a job rather than training, not telling your supervisor is completely acceptable. In fact, it is the norm. But in my experience communicating earlier allows everyone to make adjustments. Your supervisor might encourage you to undertake different experiments. You could seek out different experiences. Your supervisor might suggest different experiences. Given that 50% of PhD graduates will leave academia upon graduation, and 90% will leave at some time, you might even be able to be introduced to previous students or group members who have left academia.
  3. How should I tell my supervisor?
    a. Firstly, prepare yourself. Know what you want to say. How you want to say it. Know why you are wanting a non-academic career. Know why you don’t want an academic career. Maybe even write and rehearse what you want to say. Once you’ve done that, book a meeting. Make it clear it could be a tough or emotional conversation. Choose a location that manages the emotions. If your or they are inclined to be angry or frustrated – a café might be good. If you are, they are inclined to be tearful – a private office or meeting room might be good. Try to avoid telling them via email, or text message – or if you do, expect a follow-up meeting or phone call. And as I mentioned above, in non-academic settings getting a new job and then telling your supervisor is often how things are done.

  4. (When) Should I tell my staff?
    a. It depends on the relationship you have with them. If you could tell them you are thinking of leaving academia, and that news would not really impact them – go for it. However, if that will alarm your staff. Or make them want to move too. Then re-think your approach. I reckon most people would like to know that you are leaving, as well as when you are leaving. Or at the very least a rough timeframe. Building on that, I think you also need to know what will happen to your grants – particularly if your staff are funded directly or indirectly through them.
  5. (When) Should I tell my students?
    a. Your higher degree research students should be treated like your staff. PhD students might need more support or solid information. Those in the early stages will want to know how they’ll make progress and what the transition will look like, and any changes to the direction of their PhD. Those in the write-up stage will want to know they still have your full attention. That you’ll be able to provide useful feedback on drafts, as well as guidance on assessors and response to assessors (if required).

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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