Are you thinking about applying to a PhD program? Are you already a doctoral student? PhD is a huge investment of time and money. So make sure you spend 15 minutes of your time reading this blog devoted to PhD program success and survival tips. I'm confident that these tips can save up to 10 years of your life, up to $1,000,000 of your money, and, most importantly, your physical and emotional health.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Best Way to Quit a PhD Program: Taking a Leave of Absence

The best way to quit a PhD program is to take a one-year leave of absence. During the year, you can try to put your life back on non-academic track. If, after one year, you want to come back - you are legally entitled to do so. Quite a few PhD students in our program took a leave of absence and came back to finish their degrees.

There are a few things you need to know in relation to taking a leave of absence:

  • When you request one, don't burn the bridges by saying that you are sick of the program. Cite personal issues instead: health, the need to take care of your family member, financial situation, etc.
  • Make sure you know the rules associated with leave of absence. For example, you need to find out whether you will lose one year of funding if you decide to do so
  • Don't come back into the program because you haven't succeeded in finding a decent non-academic job. If you think that hiding out from real life for a few more years will solve the problem of figuring out your place in life, you are up for some serious problems in the future. You should only return when you are hundred percent sure you want to continue your academic career


  1. I am really impressed with you pal...

    You are an impactful person!


  2. My friend, I love your blog.

    i am deciding whether to take a leave. but i don't know how to bring it up to my advisors. if i say i want to do some soul-searching (which is the truth), they may think i am not committed to the program. on the other hand, if i lie about a sick family member, i feel that's morally wrong. what would you suggest?

  3. I wish i had read this before I started my PhD,I sincerly had many illusions about the whole program.
    I gave up a job I liked and which paid adecent salary and this is because I was not strong enough to resist the pressure from friends and family how prestigious a Phd is.
    4 months into the programme I realise this is not the path I want my career to take and I took it up for all the wrong reasons.I have a masters degree and I know I can fall back on,but my esteem is in the gutters at the momment I am even scared of telling my proffesor that I want to quit.
    Right now am being driven with guilt of wasting funds (since it is a schorlarship,but there is no single day I have been happy with the decision to take a PhD.
    Please advise on the way forward.

  4. I feel exactly the same as this previous post - already have an MS, was working at a good job in the field, but wanted to be able to teach and/or reach a level in the field that was not an option without a PhD. I am 2 years in, and realizing that maybe I don't need the PhD to do some of the things that would make me happy and intellectually satisfied. I feel like everything else in my life is on hold, when maybe I could be progressing on some of those things (relationships, earning money, traveling, being near my family) instead of spending 3+ more years struggling and depressed trying to earn this degree. I am thinking about taking a leave of absence but also do not know how to approach this - anyone have advice or personal stories?

  5. Hi Alexander,

    I'm so glad I found your blog. While other contributors may have found their experiences to be similar,my story is really crazy, and I need advice as to whether I should continue.

    In Sept 2007, I went into a Canadian PhD program, after separating from my husband, who's from Bermuda. It felt like I was getting my life back on track, because I had given up further education to have a normal life i.e. work, marriage and children (none worked out). I had very low self-esteem at that time, and was determined to get my PhD, especially when the department gave me a prestigious fellowship.

    I had done my BA and MA in Canada, and I found my experiences positive (I'm not Canadian). But I didn't like the new school. It was in the boonies, near a high-crime area, and student housing was grubby. I moved out after finding cockroaches, but the second place had bedbugs after 3 months, and so I moved again. The third place was noisy, but much better than the previous two, and so I stayed for over a year. Then I had a really bad fall during gym practice(in the middle of my second year, just when graduate students ended their strike) and couldn't walk properly for months. The doctors thought I had RSD, because I never recovered. I was all alone, and got really paranoid and fearful.

    So I moved again (it's incredible!) to a small quiet town to recuperate, and to finish up my coursework (I still had two papers outstanding from my first year). It was the biggest mistake, because my roommate was a manipulative liar, so I moved AGAIN, to a seemingly nice place. The landlady was a control freak, and harassed me and the other two students to no end, and so in Oct 2009, I applied for medical leave (1 year), and it was granted.

    By this time, I was experiencing heart palpitations and chest pain. I was scared to death, because my PhD was all screwed up. I did all the readings, but I produced very little. There was added stress from the knowledge that I had fallen so much behind.

    The program director and my profs were understanding, and they said I should be able to finish the work while recuperating. My mum has been supportive, and took care of me really well. Except that I have a WRITERS BLOCK and I can't finish up my papers. I started one in May, and started the second in June, and it is now August.

    I do not know what to say, except that I feel I'm too far gone to salvage my PhD.

    Please advise.

    I have been asking myself, if I would even think of giving up if not for all the unfortunate circumstances. I turned 32 in May, and all my friends are married, with careers, and having babies. I have no clue what is happening next in my life.

  6. I completed an online distant learning PhD to the point of my dissertation (ready to turn in the first draft). I did a one month internship in St. Kitts (leaving my children and husband). When I turned in my first draft I was informed that the school closed. Yes, just shut down. I had nothing.
    I applied to a local college (a very prestigious one) and have muddled through all of my coursework and maintained a decent average with the exception of statistics (which I failed). A short time ago (probably 2 semesters ago) two professors called me in to tell me that I wasn't cutting it and they felt that I should maybe look elsewhere to complete my doctorate. I had too much to lose in the way of credits if I applied somewhere else so I stuck it out. Now, with just a dissertation left (and the comps) I have been told that I may have difficulty finding a committee for my dissertation (they don't want to support someone who "isn't cutting it").
    I have given myself permission to be ABD.

  7. Alexander

    This blog describes my life right now, and I totally identify with it. I took a personal (family and medical) leave of absence last July and I am taking time off to reconsider whether I want to go back to graduate school (PhD in Neuroscience) and to recover from chronic burnout/anxiety. It has been an incredibly difficult road this year. My graduate advisor left the university, I had important family members sick and had a nasty breakup with my previous partner. But all of these circumstances obscured the real issue.....I was fed up with graduate school and the "process" of getting a PhD. I suffered from panic attacks (first time in my life) and generated some anxiety disorders, I sought therapy and it is gradually disappearing with. One thing worth mentioning is that I am also in an dual degree program (pursuing an MD/PhD). I am 99.99% certain I will leave the PhD and focus on the MD, which is also stressful but I am sure will be more rewarding than graduate school. I am hopeful to become detoxified from graduate school. One of the steps to do that is doing some volunteer work abroad where I will have personal rewards for helping the underserved and will give me time to appreciate greater things in life. This will probably reinforce my desire to become a physician rather than a researcher.

    Thanks for such a great post