If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Office Hours

When is it time to leave a PhD program?

Getting a master’s degree is a decision, not a downgrade

by Jen Heemstra
August 6, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 32


How do you decide a PhD is not for you and that perhaps you should downgrade to a master’s and leave academia?—Natasha .

Anyone who has completed a PhD has probably thought about leaving. Possibly multiple times. I certainly did. What is highly variable are the reasons why we might want to leave. In my case, I had burned myself out as an undergrad, then taken a 4-month break to recover, reassess my priorities, and live out my “dream life” snowboarding every day. I started grad school excited to get back to research and instead was confronted with classes and the looming threat of preliminary exams, the exact types of high-stress situations that I didn’t ever want to put myself through again. As a result, I spent what felt like every week of my first year of grad school informing my research adviser of my plans to leave. My adviser helped me see that much of my stress was arising from unrealistic expectations I was placing on myself and that the research I deeply enjoyed would be the major component of my days as a PhD student, at least after I stuck it out through the first year. Most importantly, he helped me recognize that I would need a PhD for the career options that best aligned with my interests.

Every situation is unique, and earning (or not earning) a degree is a career-changing decision that should not be made lightly. Before we dive into how to approach this decision for yourself, I want to tackle the idea that earning a master’s degree is a “downgrade” from a PhD, or merely a consolation prize. There are many reasons you might want to earn a specific degree, and a primary one should be that it will allow you to pursue your desired career path. Thus, no degree is inherently superior to any other—there is only what is best for you and will most effectively help you achieve your goals. So this brings us to the real questions: Where do you aspire to go in your career, and what degree do you need to get there?

Of course, these are not easy questions to answer. But they are extremely important to consider on a regular basis. This is in fact why I sometimes recommend working in a full-time job for a few years before deciding to pursue an advanced degree. Spending time in the “real world” can be extremely clarifying when it comes to career goals. However, if you’re already in grad school and not sure about your career goals and why you want a PhD, then now is the time to start figuring that out. Here are some steps you can take right now:

Take a personal inventory. What are your strengths, and what matters to you? What do you like about your current situation, and what do you want to be different in the future? A variety of online assessment tools and career-planning books are available to help with this. One resource specifically designed for graduate students and postdocs in the chemical sciences is the American Chemical Society’s ChemIDP, which can help you identify your strengths and create goals and plans for growth.

Research your options. Make a list of careers that align with your strengths and interests, identify people in those careers, and reach out to see if they would be willing to talk with you. Ask questions such as How did you get to this job? What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it? What advice would you give to yourself at my career stage? ACS’s College to Career website can be a good place to start, and if you’ve built a network on LinkedIn, now is the time to tap into that. If you’re an ACS member, you can also speak with a volunteer ACS career consultant.

Make a plan. Figure out which degree will serve you best in pursuing your top career choices. Consider what qualifications your future employers will want, how much time the degree will take to earn, and what skills you will gain from the experience.

I also want to talk directly to faculty—as mentors, our responsibility is to help students and postdocs figure out what career path is best for their future and then point them toward opportunities to gain the skills and experience they need to successfully pursue those goals. Many students are afraid to admit that they are even considering leaving with a master’s because they fear that this will call into question their commitment to research or their future career. If we are truly invested in the success of our mentees, then our job is to stay open minded, ask questions, and help individuals arrive at the best decision for them. I’m here because my mentors did exactly that.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at


Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.




This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.