How to Decide to Take a Break From Graduate School

Seek out immediate academic counseling to help decide if you should suspend your graduate studies.

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It’s common for graduate students to face personal or career situations that can make them consider delaying their graduate studies.

Life is full of unexpected and challenging events, and graduate school is no exception. During my career as a dean of students, I met with hundreds of students who were in the midst of financial, emotional, medical or family emergencies.

In other cases, a career opportunity came along that merited consideration. I, too, experienced a major personal crisis in the middle of my doctoral study program.

Whatever the situation, there may be times when it's necessary to delay a graduate program. If you are considering taking a break, there are a few steps you can take to smooth the process.

[Decide if you should withdraw or defer graduate school admission.]

First, understand that you are not alone in dealing with an issue. Seek counseling immediately and don't try to handle things completely on your own.

During one of my open office hours, a student came to see me after learning that her mother had been in a serious car accident and was going to be in the hospital for quite awhile.

The student felt she needed to be with her family, and decided to take that semester off. These types of situations happen at every graduate school.

The administrators at your institution have likely worked with many students whose plans needed to change for short or long periods of time. They will work with you to determine the best way to proceed.

Be honest with yourself and face any crisis head on. Don't wish or pretend it away, regardless of how difficult or discouraging it may be. The sooner you address the issue, the more quickly you can determine the best course of action.

[See tips to make the most of graduate school advising.]

You will need to determine if you should move from full-time to part-time study. Perhaps you can no longer afford to attend full-time, or you need to step back and pursue your academic program at a slower pace.

After discussing this option with a trusted friend or family member, speak with your academic adviser, who can walk you through the process of making the transition. Continuing on a part-time basis will result in it taking longer to complete your degree, but don't let yourself lose focus.

Keep in touch with students you know who are still full-time, and participate in student activities and organizations from time to time. Be patient and do what is required to take care of yourself and your responsibilities.

In extreme cases, your personal situation may eliminate the possibility of any form of graduate study for the foreseeable future. This could be extremely disappointing, discouraging and disconcerting. If this is the case, make sure you have covered all the bases and thought things through clearly and carefully before making a decision.

[Read about the six reasons that graduate school pays off.]

If you are considering delaying graduate school for an employment opportunity, be sure you don't abandon your academic program. Find out if the employer offers tuition reimbursement, and if your institution would permit you to take fewer courses per term.

Once you have been enrolled full-time, you can almost always cut back. After my two-year residency requirement had been met at Northwestern, I started working at the university, and finished my doctoral program one course at a time over a four-year period.

I took courses in the evenings and in one instance, on the weekend. This same academic path is followed countless times each year by graduate students.

Above all, remember that these difficulties too shall pass. While your world may have been turned upside down, you will make it through the challenges.

In my case, what seemed like the end of the world was the beginning of a whole new experience. Taking a job during my doctoral program helped me finance the rest of the studies, and paved the way for my next job – a management position with much greater responsibility.