Drop off the lab key, Lee: Fifty Ways to Leave your PhD Advisor

There must be fifty ways to leave the Muppets too

Paul Simon will assure you in his song that there really are fifty ways to leave your advisor, but I only have space in this blog post to discuss four of them. Forgive me – at least it’s a start.

PhD students sometimes get stuck in their dissertation writing process because of a problematic relationship with their academic advisor. There is a significant power differential built into academic advising relationships, and a lot of pressure on the graduate student in terms of getting a good recommendation to pursue an academic career.  When things go badly it can be extraordinarily stressful and challenging to find a good solution.

Sometimes it’s clear to the student that a situation is either so hopeless or stressful that a parting of the ways is necessary.  At this point the issue becomes; how do you do that and incur the least amount of career damage?

1) Try to transfer to another advisor in your institution. Factors to consider with this option include: Is a discussion with your advisor about your plan to leave possible? If not, why not? Who can you talk to safely about this idea? Is there a confidential resource like an ombudsman at your school? Are there other faculty who support you (preferably tenured) and who would also be willing to actually do something in your behalf? What are the departmental politics that may influence your chances? What institutional and departmental policies and practices are relevant? What are the funding and financial aspects of a transfer? Can you keep your research and publication focus intact, or will you have to start something new? What will be most upsetting to your advisor about your departure(ego, money, friendship, sense of betrayal, loss of control, their reputation, lab staffing, etc.)? Can you mitigate any of these issues in ways that would ease your exit by appeasing your advisor?

2) Transfer to a different institution. This option will usually not be as sticky politically because the faculty relationships are not as close. Challenges with finding a program to accept you, finding funding, and losing time because of starting somewhere new need to be considered. There is still the question of “Why are you leaving your current program?” that will raise it’s head, and you’ll need a strategy for responding to that question and getting recommendations, etc.

3) Take a leave. If the stress level is high enough, it may make sense to take a leave to rest, recover and work on your plan. Maybe you will see a way make it work and stay where you are, but if not you’ll have breathing space to map out the next step of your training and life. You have work with the policies of your institution, and have the resources to take a leave, and time will be lost in terms of finishing the PhD.

4)Just drop off the lab key, Lee. This strategy may be strongly recommended by Paul Simon, but does he really know what it’s like to be a PhD student? For grad students the consequences of a “Take this PhD and shove it!” approach are non-trivial and possibly career-ending. You really have to be super clear that it’s the right option. If you have developed serious stress-related health concerns, or have found an opportunity that doesn’t require the degree, the decision becomes easier.

Now I’m gonna to slip out the back, Jack, before you ask about the other 46 ways.

About David Rasch

Author, psychologist, speaker, teacher, consultant, workshop leader
This entry was posted in PhD and dissertation/thesis writing issues, Tips for overcoming writer's block and procrastination and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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