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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 | 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.





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Terry Bidleman (August 7, 2019 3:03 PM)
Always a gut-wrenching decision! Speaking to this from the faculty side, I was a professor in Chemistry at a USA university for 17 years, starting in the mid-70s. In that time, there were students who "dropped out" of the Ph.D. program for two main reasons: they failed their "watershed" oral examination, or lifestyle choices indicated that stopping at the M.Sc. was preferable. This was a time when Chemistry departments strongly discouraged M.Sc students, and in many universities it was regarded as a "flunk out" degree or "consolation prize". Students who entered with the intention of getting an M-Sc. were strongly advised to enter a Ph.D. track. The attitude of departments at that time was that it was a waste of time for a faculty member to take on an M-Sc. student, who in the long run would be less productive (i.e. fewer publications) than a Ph.D. and yet demand comparable training and time commitment.
In those years, I took on some M-Sc. students who were rejected by other faculty who wanted only Ph.D. students.

In 1992, I moved to Canada and joined a Federal Government laboratory, but maintained close ties with Canadian universities. How refreshing it was to learn that in Canada the M.Sc. was a respected degree, worthy of being pursued on its own or as a prerequesite to the Ph.D!

There are reasons why getting an M.Sc. is a good plan. First, it is solid accomplishment that demonstrates commitment, ability to achieve a goal and make a contribution to science. Second, it opens a wider door to many careers that are narrowed for Ph.Ds. Third, it gives a "breathing space" to assess if the particular chosen branch chemistry is the right path, or perhaps there are other paths that are more appealing, for example switching from organic chemistry to physical chemistry, or moving outside chemistry to consider a Ph.D. in environmental sciences, engineering, public health or oceanography. Sadly, the M.Sc. as a terminal or interim degree in Canada is in jeopardy, as departments are encouraging a "cross-over" from the M.Sc. to the Ph.D. track in the early years for promising students.

I argue for retaining the M.Sc. as a terminal or stopping point for all students, who can later decide if they want to pursue a Ph.D. This removes the stigma of the "failed masters" and affords them the above options. Yes, in the long run it takes more effort to "train" several M.Sc. students than a few Ph.D.s, who will be around longer to produce research and write papers, but we are in the university to educate students, not just generate publications.

Anon (August 7, 2019 5:14 PM)
Glad to hear you stuck it out as i walked away from mine. My academic and industrial supervisors gave me little support when I fell ill during my research which resulted in surgery to correct. i was not alone in the matter others in the group felt very hard done by with little direction given while others were spoon fed and subsequently offered jobs on completion with their respective sponsors!
Jared Dopp (August 8, 2019 12:01 PM)
I would also add the option of pursuing a graduate internship or co-op. One of my labmates did a summer internship last year and I'm currently doing a summer/fall co-op. I'm in a chemical engineering PhD program and was curious just how important a PhD might be for my personal goals after receiving my MS. In a relatively short time at the company, I've found out that a PhD is essential for my career goals. Also, once I started searching for openings I was surprised at just how many companies are interested in graduate internships/co-ops. Unfortunately, not every adviser will fully support this but at the end of the day it's your career. I highly suggest considering it if you're experiencing burnout.
Anon 2 (August 8, 2019 12:19 PM)
This article seems to contemplate only 2 situations: (1) obtaining an MS only after failing out of a PhD program or deciding a PhD is not for you after all or (2) applying to get only a PhD.

There is a 3rd situation (or at least there was in the 1990s, when I got my MS): getting your MS "on the way". When I was in a PhD program (at one of the UCs), once you got the required course credits and passed your 2nd year oral exam, you could apply for an MS. It wasn't a a consolation prize or a way to kick people failing the program out. I was doing well then and decided only later to "drop out." But I am well aware that the fact that I got only an MS is likely perceived by most people in the sciences as a consolation prize because I was failing, or they think I applied to get only an MS (however, back in those days, most UCs did not have this option, and mine did not).

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