UW Graduate School

October 3, 2019

Mastering Out — How and When?

“Mastering Out….What’s the best way to do this? Who do you tell first? Your advisor? An administrator in the program? When is the right time?” –Anonymous

The following people and online forums were invaluable in writing this blog post:
Elba Moise, Ph.D. candidate, College of Education
Jaye Sablan, assistant director, Core Programs
Rebecca Aanerud, former dean, the Graduate School
Reddit/r/GradSchool // GradCafe // YCombinator

Hi, there!

Thank you so much for writing in. I know this is a big decision that likely carries a lot of emotional weight. I hope this post will help you think through your options and make a decision that is best for you.

It seems there are two parts to your question: How do I know if I should master out? And, if I decide to master out, how should I go about it?

Let’s tackle the first part — when is the right time — first.

The truth is that there are no right or wrong reasons, or right or wrong times, to master out. But there are resources and strategies to help you figure out your motivations for mastering out, and whether you want to act on them.

1. Consider whether your frustrations with graduate school are temporary or fixable. Is your interest in mastering out due to frustrations about something that you might be able to change — for example, the projects you’re working on or the classes you’re T.A.ing? If so, consider approaching your advisor to discuss some of these issues. If you think it might be a difficult conversation, the Office of the Ombud is a great place to help you prepare.

Making healthy changes for yourself in your program before deciding to master out will help you feel more confident down the road that you made a thoughtful decision. If possible, you might consider taking a leave of absence so you can take time away from graduate school to reflect.

2. Chat with trusted people in your circle (friends, family, mentors) about why you are considering mastering out. Reach out to individuals whom you know will listen without judgement and support decisions that work best for you and your needs. You might find it helpful to process this decision with a counselor in the Counseling Center, and/or a career coach in the Career & Internship Center (Jon Olivera has expertise specifically in grad student development). 

3. Read blogs and articles written by people who made the decision to leave their doctoral programs. See if their experiences resonate with you. In our own research, we found this post and this one (and many others) to be helpful. Hearing from these folks may help you think through your own motivations. One insightful post is even written by a UW alumni!

You might also consider the book Work Your Career: Get What You Want from your Social Sciences or Humanities Ph.D. by Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy. It presents information for making informed decisions about graduate education, including leaving graduate school prior to the Ph.D.

4. Reflect on your own definition of success. Is it a job title, a salary, the impact of your work, having work/life balance? Will getting a Ph.D. set you up for success in the ways YOU define it? Success can mean staying in your program despite challenges, and it can also mean knowing when it’s no longer the right path for you.

Remember: Getting varied perspectives on the pros and cons of this decision for your health and wellbeing, for your career, and other factors is important — but try not to let too much input cloud your own voice.

Say you’ve made up your mind to leave with your master’s. What should you do?

Check the Master’s Degree Requirements and dates and deadlines for submitting paperwork for the Graduate School to make sure you are on track to obtain your master’s. You also need to connect with your Graduate Program Advisor to discuss the details of your program requirements. If you have further questions about the requirements, please contact the Graduate Enrollment Management Services.

Who to approach first – your advisor or an administrator – depends on you, your situation and reasons for mastering out. If you think you may be met with pushback from your advisor, it might be helpful to speak with an administrator inside or outside your department and have a set plan for mastering out before approaching your advisor. That way it is not so much of a question – “Should I master out?” – as a statement, “I’m mastering out for these reasons and here is what I need.”

Start applying for jobs. This is an opportunity for you to explore workplaces where you can try new things and apply the skills you’ve built in your program. This blog details how a former graduate student (and UW alumni) used informational interviews to explore career options before mastering out – and may be a source of inspiration for your own job search. Handshake is a great resource for finding jobs and internships.

Please know that there is no shame in leaving a program with a master’s degree. This is your decision to make and you have every right to make it. Remember to take your time, show yourself compassion, and to trust your instincts.

Wishing you the best,

The Grad School Guide