I’m going to guess that many reading this column also have seen the “should one go to grad school” blog posts and perhaps even its variant, “should one to go grad school in the humanities.” In April, Inside Higher Ed linked to a similarly titled essay in The Hairpin, and also last month, GradHacker’s own Andrea Zellner responded to a blog called “100 Reasons NOT to Go to Grad School.”  Then there are the animated spoofs on the topic, which in my view, are no less thought-provoking. (Since there are so many devoted to specific courses of study, I won’t link to any one clip here.)

CC-licensed photo by flickr user konstriktion

But what about a much different question about graduate school—not one about entrance decisions, but exit strategies? When should one leave grad school, and in particular, a PhD program?

While the most obvious response is “when one has a degree,” it’s not always the right answer for everyone, given the academic job market. While the academic job market in some of the hardest hit disciplines (such as English, my own field of study) has improved in the past year, the modest gains are not necessarily reassuring. And let’s not overlook the twists and turns life takes in the often many years it takes to complete a grad program: relationships come and go, children are born, people change (as do their dreams and needs).

Conceivably, then, one might be confronted with the question of leaving grad school during course work, after the MA if one is in a MA/PhD program, after attaining candidacy status, or at various points during the often-interminable dissertation period.  What is more, the question of when or under what circumstances one should leave grad school can manifest more than once and in different forms.

As of January of this year, my own exit strategy now closely resembles the traditional custom. As regular GradHacker readers may know, I’m an advanced graduate student and currently am in my last year of study, or what I’ve jokingly called “my senior year.” At the end of April, I submitted my dissertation to my committee in preparation for the defense, which will take place during the last week of May. In the fall, I’ll start a full-time, tenure-track position in English. (Phew! What a year!)

Long before these developments, though, I gave considerable thought to a few very different exit strategies, and I even pursued some seriously. So, while my exit strategy now is pretty much set in stone, it has been fluid overall. I think, then, that those in graduate school, and PhD programs, in particular, must be flexible in terms of how they envision their “way out” of grad school even as they attempt to realize a “traditional” completion of the degree and all that typically follows.

In considering the various incarnations of my exit strategies, including its current form, here are a few things I’ve learned:

Go public. Make it known that you’re thinking about or have taken steps towards leaving graduate school-with or without a degree. If you’re close to completing the degree, do not be afraid to have a frank discussion with your chair, academic advisor, etc., about your desire to finish within a certain time frame. Together, discuss the feasibility of your proposed deadline by exploring what realizing it would entail: What must you and your advisors do so that you can reach the goal of graduating within X semesters or months, and will you have adequate funding? This sounds like silly advice. However, I think it’s important to initiate  dialogue with  one’s committee about graduation and how personal, professional, and yes, financial, concerns are influencing one’s time-to-degree.

Additionally, I believe it’s important to discuss the possibility of not graduating with your advisor so that he or she might help you formulate a new, improved exit plan that will lead to the end-goal that is best for you. If you do not feel comfortable sharing such concerns with your advisor, I suggest seeking help at your school’s career center. Speaking to a qualified counselor or therapist also can be beneficial; your school even might provide graduate students with a limited number of free visits.

Talk it out. Discuss leaving graduate school with or without a degree with trusted grad-school friends, but also acquaintances in your program. Let go of the shame, guilt, and fear in broaching these topics: you are not the only one who feels this way. I kept my anxieties about leaving/completing graduate school secret from my friends and peers for so long, and this was a mistake. Conversing about exit strategies can be productive in a number of ways. On the one hand, such discussions are cathartic and actually quite reassuring, but they also have a utilitarian function, as you can discover how others are crafting an exit strategy that leads somewhere, such as employment, a different degree program, etc.

Diversify. The future is uncertain even if you have a clear exit strategy in mind, so plan accordingly by expanding your skill set while sharpening talents that you already have or are expected to have as a graduate student working in your discipline. As I mentioned in an earlier GradHacker piece, “Cross-Train Your Graduate School Career,”

Academic, professional, and personal cross-training will prepare advanced degree holders for a variety of post-graduation situations, including, but not only, employment outside of academia. In fact, based on my experience, cross-training can help one to land an academic position in a glutted academic job market.

Are exit strategies weighing on your mind? How have you confronted (or been confronted by) the question of leaving graduate school?



2 Responses to Exit Strategies

  1. Excellent post. I would imagine most of us have, at some point, considered walking away from the whole thing. I’m not quite halfway through a master’s and I’ve even had to step back the past few weeks and rethink the process. For now, I plan on staying, but I needed to really consider why I wanted to finish and whether this was actually the right place for me. Thanks for putting out there that stopping a program may not be the shame of all shames that people think it is.

    • Amy Rubens says:

      Thanks, Stephanie. I know that others have posted similar musings on the web, but this is an issue that needs to be more visible, so it bears repeating. Good luck to you as you consider your options!

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