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Programs Is it acceptable to leave a PhD program after a semester or a year?

  1. Oct 6, 2011 #1
    I'm currently in my first semester of a physics PhD program, straight out of undergrad. At the end of my senior year of undergrad, I was already feeling burnt out and tired of course work, but my profs pushed grad school as the smart and best choice. So I went.

    Since I moved here (14 hours from home), I haven't been happy. I haven't been able to make friends with my cohort, even though I've been trying. I haven't been able to find any motivation to do my homework, and I don't like my classes. Although I was studious and disciplined as an undergrad, I haven't been able to get things done here, and I've started having episodes of depression coupled with bad homesickness. (I just recently started seeing a counselor.) I'm starting to think that maybe I'm just not ready for the demands of grad school.

    I realize everyone has problems in grad school, but I can't seem to get my act together. I think that I would do better if I took some time off to teach or do part-time research. Would it be acceptable for me to quit after this semester or the next? I don't want to waste the department's time and funding if things are so bad, but I don't want to be that person who quit after one semester.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 6, 2011 #2
    It is often very possible to take a year off for personal reasons.
  4. Oct 6, 2011 #3


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    Quitting after one semester or two semesters is pretty much the same thing. If you really want to quit, quit.
  5. Oct 6, 2011 #4
    Acceptable to whom?

    The other problem is teach or do part time research where?

    Finally, what are your options. No matter how bad quitting is, it's better than going through a few years of hell and then getting kicked out.

    Most departments will let you have leave of absences, and it's probably better to talk to someone about getting that done first rather than quitting. If you take a year off, and you magically feel better, then that says that you should do something else with your life. If you take a year off, and try something and you don't, then maybe you can go back to graduate school.

    Also if you don't feel comfortable talking with anyone in the department about these sorts of things, your first task is to find someone that you can talk about this with. Something that I have seen is that in some situations the department secretary becomes the unofficial department therapist, since sometimes he or she is less intimidating than the professors (then again sometimes they happen to be more intimidating).
  6. Oct 6, 2011 #5
    I was thinking about how it would look either to potential employers or to another grad school if/when I reapply down the road.

    As for teaching and research, Texas has an Alternative Certification Program for teaching, and there are ALWAYS postings for math and science teachers. I've got experience from teaching and tutoring my way through undergrad. Also, there's are a few research institutes and labs that I know hire students and recent graduates. For whatever reason, I just didn't see these as "real" options as a graduating senior.

    I'm not comfortable talking about the people in my department, because I'd be concerned for my funding. However, I have a physics professor from undergrad who went through a similar experience. I'll talk to him for sure at some point, but for now I've been trying to find information on attrition rates and other students who have had the same problems.
  7. Oct 6, 2011 #6
    For employers it's a minor negative, but if you are going to quit, its far, far better to do it sooner than later. For graduate schools, it's a major negative, although less bad than getting kicked out.

    The reason that it's better to do a leave of absence is so that if you change your mind and decide to go back, you don't have to go through an admissions process.

    One other thing to consider is whether a good resume is worth five to eight years of hell. It usually isn't.

    First of all, getting a certificate is a good thing to do even if you stay in the program, because there is a good chance that you'll need it after you graduate, and so you may go through the program and end up with a teaching high school anyway. Why go through of five to eight years of difficulty to get somewhere that you would have gotten without taking the trip? Why climb Mount Everest?

    Second, teaching high school is something that you want to try before you jump in. You may find it better than graduate school. You may find yourself hating it.

    You are going to eventually have to have the conversation eventually, and starting it with "I feel lousy right now" is better than "I quit." Department secretaries can sometimes be the informal therapist because you have to go to them to get the forms anyway.

    Attrition rates are extremely department specific (and the department secretary knows them). Also if the problem is just being tired, then taking a break may be a good thing to do, but the procedures for that are also extremely department specific.

    One thing that makes it difficult to figure out what is going on is that even under ideal conditions, graduate school is painful and brutal, and everyone has bad days (or sometimes bad months or bad years), so it's hard to tell between "normal bad" and "I really should quit bad." One reason leave of absences are good for this sort of thing is that you can figure out if after leaving the university, do you feel better or do you feel worse? I know of people that took a leave, felt so much better that they decided not to go back. I also know of people, that took a leave, tried some things, and figured out that as bad as they felt in graduate school, they felt worse out of it.
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