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I’m a Syrian refugee residing in Europe. I am about to complete my undergraduate degree in mathematics, and have applied to several graduate schools. To my surprise I got into a few very good ones. However, the last years I have suffered from tinnitus as a result of an explosion in Syria. I am afraid that the concentration problems that come with it (usually manageable, but sometimes severe) will prevent me from success when the difficulty level of study increases. Especially because I have never heard of a successful mathematician that suffers from the same condition. Being a mathematician is my dream, and it would be hard on me to give it up. I lost a lot already.

Could you give advice on how to proceed? Are there strategies to adapt for people in academia with tinnitus?

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    Just that you never heard of successful mathematicians with tinnitus, does not mean that they do not exist. Some estimates say that about 10-15% of all adults suffer from tinnitus in some way (estimates vary for different countries) , so I would guess that there are mathematicians among them. – Dirk Feb 7 '18 at 13:40
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    I am an academic who has been suffering from tinnitus for many years. A high quality noise cancelling headphone that produces light white noise helped me manage. – dsfgsho Feb 7 '18 at 14:12
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    @dsfgsho - Could you expand on that in an answer rather than in a comment? Let me give you my upvotes :) – eykanal Feb 7 '18 at 15:17
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    People don't usually announce to the world that they have tinnitus (or any other non-obvious health condition). You probably have heard of a successful mathematician who, without your knowing it, has tinnitus. In fact, you've probably heard of a number of such mathematicians. – Andreas Blass Feb 7 '18 at 20:34
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    @StrongBad I disagree. You may or may not be correct in asserting there isn’t anything specific to academia, but that’s a statement about the fact of the matter not a statement about the question. The question is specific to academia. – Stella Biderman Feb 18 '18 at 15:07
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Frame of reference: I am a mathematician with disabilities that impair my focus and my ability to do mathematics, but not tinnitus.

Disabilities and chronic illnesses suck. Very often, there is no easy way around them. But that doesn’t mean that you should give up on mathematics, not remotely. Giving up means that you don’t even have a chance of living the life you want to live, whereas not giving up means you have that chance. Go and try. If it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out. But don’t decide it’s not going to work out ahead of time.

It may be the case that your condition prevents you from pursuing a career in mathematics. If that happens, it happens. In a year or two you’ll be in the same position you are now, and not much will have been lost. But I promise you that if you give up on it without trying you will wonder for the rest of your life what would have happened if you had tried.

Every school in the US has an office dedicated to helping students with disabilities, and I can only assume it’s the same in Europe. I’ve taken exams in silent, distraction-free environments, gotten large extensions on assignments, and extra time on exams. The process of obtaining those accommodations can be frustrating, but they’re totally worth it. Since healthcare in most European countries is so cheap, it shouldn’t be that expensive. In the US, the required tests can run you several thousand dollars. The disabilities office might not advertise themselves particularly well, but any academic advisor and many deans or other figures of authority should be able to point you in the right direction.

Again, I cannot speak specifically to your condition, but I and many people I know have similar conditions it seems. Here are some suggestions for coping techniques:

  1. Buy the best noise cancelling headphones you can afford and wear them all the time, even when not listening to music. These changed one of my classmate’s life and enabled them to do homework again.
  2. Find the quietest places on campus and spend your working time there. Many universities have some libraries or reading rooms dedicated as silent zones.
  3. Seek out locations where you’re unlikely to be interrupted. My concentration comes and goes, and the worst thing for my productivity is interruptions. If you’re working near/with friends, tell them how it’s really important that they try to not interrupt you or distract you. I had a habit of working in the astronomy tower, which was not only out of the way but had a locked room that only about 20 other students had access to.
  4. Seek out others with similar conditions, and see if there are any disability advocacy groups near your university. The moral boost you get from being around other people with the same or similar struggles is incredible, and they might have location-specific coping suggestions.
  5. If you feel comfortable doing so, tell all your professors. In my experience professors tend to be extremely accommodating, and will often go above and beyond what the law or university policy dictates. I understand if you don’t feel comfortable doing this, but it was a huge boon for me to out myself to my professors.
  6. Be kind to yourself. It’s really hard on your psyche to struggle with things that used to come more naturally, and it’s extremely common for people with disabilities to become depressed. It’s okay. It’s not your fault. You’re not worth less (or worthless) because of it. Anecdotally, severe depression as a result of disability tends to cause more people to drop out of school than disabilities do. Keep an eye on your mental health and focus on healthy behaviors.
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    Getting accommodations in Europe should be, at least, not expensive, since most doctor's visits are free (or almost). Mine may require you to go to their psychologist to determine how much is it affecting you (as opposed to the doctor certifying that you physically have it), but that is completely free. Depending on the university, they may not be so good at advertising how to get them or who to ask, but someone must know it, so keep asking! – Davidmh Feb 8 '18 at 7:16
  • @Davidmh That’s a good point! In the US, the requirement is much the same: you sit a battery of psych and academic achievement tests and you have the psychologist who administered the tests write up a course of recommendations. Whatever the psychologist recommends is legally required for the university to accommodate (when possible). But it’s often not covered by insurance so it ends up being several thousand $$$ in the US. – Stella Biderman Feb 8 '18 at 14:25
  • @StellaBiderman - Some evaluators will do a targeted evaluation so as to be able to charge for fewer hours. I believe less than 10 hours doesn't require "prior authorization." Another approach is to get thorough evaluation and documentation (IEP or 504 plan) before graduating high school. This history by itself isn't enough, but it can help. // "Whatever the psychologist recommends is legally required for the university to accommodate (when possible)" -- this might often be the case in practice, but it isn't always this way, and Section 504 doesn't say it needs to be that way. – aparente001 Feb 18 '18 at 5:11
  • Anyway, great outline, great tips. // I've been curious for a while how things work in Europe and even posed a question here but there wasn't much of a response, so I'm still wondering.... – aparente001 Feb 18 '18 at 5:11
  • Are you in an academic position or an industry position? Industry is often much less hostile to people with disabilities than academia. – Elizabeth Henning Feb 19 '18 at 4:16
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+250

I have tinnitus as well and it started when I was an undergrad. I made it through that, grad school, postdoc, and am now a full professor. So there is an example of someone who made it through.

I don't know how bad it is for you. When it started for me, I found it very distracting (and emotionally taxing to know that I would have it for the rest of my life). I had trouble falling asleep. But as I've heard is the case for many with this issue, your brain will adapt over the course of the years and you will notice it less and less over time. Today, some 20 years later, I still have it, but I notice it maybe a couple of times a week -- it's always there, but it doesn't bother me any more. I wish you the same progression and that you take the example as motivation to push through it.

  • The point about adaptation is critical. While there is no known cure for most cases of tinnitus, there are a range of options to help manage symptoms. As @dsfgsho mentioned, background noise can help mask the perception of tinnitus, and another focus of tinnitus management is to change the perceived annoyance of the tinnitus. A counseling program may help you adapt to the tinnitus. – Adam Bosen Feb 8 '18 at 19:30
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    +1. That is a very encouraging story for the OP. Has the loudness remained constant for you? Did you have any "relapses" during those 20 years after initial adaption, for example during stressful periods? – user81365 Feb 14 '18 at 14:23
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    I think that the objective loudness has stayed the same, but the subjective perception of it has become much better. For me, it doesn't seem to be tied to stress. Instead, I notice that it gets louder (sometimes significantly so) when I'm substantially dehydrated. It's a good reminder to drink occasionally. (This happens maybe once every 2 or 3 weeks.) Like so many things around this, I can't say whether there's any objective correlation, but the whole thing started on a day when I got severely dehydrated, and I may be making up the connection. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 14 '18 at 14:32
  • I had (have) the same experience. The brain is a wonderful thing. It will become less distracting over time, even if no less loud. The brain will also adapt to some vision problems, etc. – Buffy Jul 20 '18 at 13:04
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I have tinnitus, and unfortunately it seems to increase with stress, so I can empathize. However, as this is a problem you will regrettably have to deal with forever, my advice would be to not let it rule your life. You have to pursue your passions irrespective of your condition. Will it set you back? Maybe, but then I'm sure many scientists and mathematicians have ADD, or depression, or social anxiety. If you make your decision based on your condition, then your condition is under control, and that would seem unfortunate.

And in fact, I find I do not notice the tinnitus as much when deeply focused on an interesting problem, so following what interests you may offer some respite from symptoms, however fleeting.

  • Agree. Stress is bad (but it is anyway). Intense focus is good (but it is anyway). You are what you are. – Buffy Jul 20 '18 at 13:05
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Health problems do not necessarily preclude success in an intellectual field, though obviously it imposes an additional difficulty that you will need to manage. You mention having never heard of a successful mathematician suffering from the same condition as you. I am not aware of any with that specific condition, but it is certainly the case that many famous mathematicians/philosophers have suffered from health conditions on a similar or greater level of severity. This is not surprising given that mathematicians and philosophers have been active over previous centuries where health and medical practices were far less advanced than they are today.

There are literally hundreds of influential mathematicians, philosophers, and other thinkers, who have been plagued by ill-health during their lives, many of whom died young. In this context, it is likely that the health problems you mention would be viewed as relatively minor compared to the afflictions that plagued many influential thinkers during previous centuries. An exhaustive list of examples would be very long indeed, but here are some well-known ones:


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): An influential modern philosopher who wrote a number of works of philosophy. Since childhood he suffered from severe migraines, which has been attributed by some to a neurosyphilitic infection (disputed). In his middle-age he unfortunately suffered a mental breakdown and stroke and became physically incapacitated. Prior to this he managed to write a number of important works of philosophy. In his most famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he famously criticised those philosophers who get "good sleep".

John Nash (1928-2015): An influential mathematician who contributed to differential geometry and game theory (winning the Nobel prize for the latter). Nash suffered from schizophrenia that included severe delusions and paranoia. He was involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities at various points in his life. Nash had difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy and his mathematical work was derailed at various points by overactive pattern-recognition stemming from extreme paranoia and hallucination.

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920): An influential mathematician who made contributions to number theory and analysis. He suffered from severe health problems during his life, including tuberculosis (or possibly hepatic amoebiasis) and bouts of dysentery. He spent some of his life in a sanatorium. He died at a young age owing to severe health problems.

Gotthold Eisenstein (1823-1862): A mathematician who made contributions to number theory and analysis. Suffered from ill health for most of his life and died of tuberculosis before reaching thirty years of age.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) An influential mathematician and physicist who made contributions to geometry, probability and physics. Pascal suffered from poor health over his entire adult life. He fell seriously ill with tuberculosis and (possibly) stomach cancer, and spent the last three years of his life with severe illness.

Bernhard Riemann (1826-1866): An influential mathematician who made contributions to number theory, analysis, and differential geometry. He suffered from nervous breakdowns at a young age, and died of tuberculosis before reaching the age of forty.

Frank Ramsay (1903-1930): A mathematician and economist who made contributions to probability theory, economics and algebra. Ramsay suffered from problems with his liver and developed jaundice, and died young.


These are just some examples of influential thinkers who have suffered from severe health problems, and have nonetheless achieved eminence in their fields. There are many other examples of mathematicians and philosophers who died young of various illnesses, though they were not necessarily productive through the those illnesses. Hopefully this puts your own health condition into context. While not wishing to minimise your problem, it is perhaps instructive to note that there are others who have succeeded previously in these fields with severe health problems.

Good luck with whatever you decide to do; hopefully you are able to succeed in whatever field you choose, and manage your illness successfully.

  • Just wanted to contend your statement "on a similar or greater level of severity". While tinnitus has no obvious physical manifestation, it drives people insane and causes many to commit suicide. I would rather have some level of physical handicap than my present tinnitus and hearing loss. – Meep Aug 9 '18 at 21:22
  • @21joanno12: Fair enough. I have no medical training, so my statements on the comparative severity of illnesses may be taken with a grain-of-salt. Sorry to hear about your tinnitus. – Ben Aug 9 '18 at 22:35
  • No worries. I apologise- I realise I came across as quite sharp, but would like to raise awareness of the matter! – Meep Aug 10 '18 at 8:11
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PhD student in engineering here.

I have congenital tinnitus, and it seems I started out where Wolfgang Bangerth ended up 20 years later. I notice the tinnitus when I choose to, but it doesn't bother me much. In fact, I often find my tinnitus soothing as it's the only sound of silence I have ever known. The tinnitus also can block out more irritating noises. So no, it's not all bad. I can't say my tinnitus has had any measurable negative impact on my life.

My main advice would be to accept your tinnitus and focus on more productive things. This is easier said than done, unfortunately. For many people, tinnitus is a reminder of a traumatic event. As someone who never knew any different, acceptance was likely much easier for me than it is for most people with tinnitus.

In terms of coping with tinnitus, I find most recommendations to be ineffective. For example, several people answering this question recommended noise canceling headphones. I never found those to do anything for my tinnitus (though they decently remove background noise). And I have read people who claim noise canceling headphones make their tinnitus worse. I suspect a scientific study would find noise canceling headphones to be not statistically different from placebo. Over the years I've also seen recommendations for sound therapy like this. The sounds can be amusing, almost like video game background music, but I can't say they've done anything to help my tinnitus. With all this being said, I have found noise machines to be useful, but mostly to drown out background noise, which I think I have trouble filtering out because my brain is constantly filtering out tinnitus. I find noise machines to be considerably more effective than noise canceling headphones. My final piece of advice would be to try to minimize further hearing damage. When I use headphones the volume is relatively low. Also, my hearing and tinnitus become appreciably worse for a few days after flying, so I wear both earplugs and earmuffs on flights.

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You've had some solid answers already. Here are some additional thoughts. I've collected these ideas from my own experience with a hearing impairment and as a parent of a child with Tourette Syndrome.

To figure out how to modify, adapt and accommodate for a particular disability, the following are helpful:

(1) Brainstorm creative ways to accommodate, modify and adjust your environment to help you work more comfortably and effectively. Read (example) and talk to people to find out what's been helpful for others. (Don't limit this research to your specific disability.) Experiment to see which ideas are helpful for you.

(2) Ask advice from a variety of specialists. Since it can be exhausting to see a lot of specialists all at once, you may want to spread them out. Here are some ideas for specialties that may have helpful practical guidance for your condition:

  • assistive technology (e.g. noise canceling headphones)

  • specialized audiologist who focuses on auditory habituation therapy (see https://www.ucsfhealth.org/conditions/tinnitus/treatment.html)

  • social worker who specializes in coping mechanisms for the hearing impaired

  • occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing

    • an educational specialist.

    • a large pediatric neurology group (I realize you're not a pediatric patient -- but this might be helpful nevertheless)

  • general tip for searching: this might sound weird, but some of the best specialists I've found, I found by searching within Google Maps. It's a process. More specialists will appear (like the Cheshire cat) as you play with panning left to right, up and down, zooming in, zooming out. As names come up, google to find the practitioner's website. Also check patient reviews (but do take them with a grain of salt).

(3) Disclosure and self-advocacy get easier with practice.

But note that you may want to postpone disclosing to an educational institution or an employer until after receiving and responding to the acceptance letter or offer letter.

(4) Develop a clear, proud identity as a person with a disability. This really helps. Read about the history of disability rights. Find some figures with disabilities that inspire you and that serve as positive role models. (Fun book about growing up with hearing loss: "El Deafo". The protagonist's situation wasn't the same as yours, and it's intended as a children's book, but still, I got a lot out of it. This author interview is quite interesting also: https://longestshortesttime.com/episode-86-the-secret-life-of-a-deaf-superhero.)

(5) For reference, even though you're not in the U.S., take a look at some US universities' disability accommodation web pages and the Office for Civil Rights pages about disability accommodation in higher education: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transition.html

(6) Cushion yourself with some emotional distance from people who aren't supportive of your educational goals.

(7) Keep your sense of humor. This has been key for me.

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    My recommendation (from experience with Tinnitus and other things) would be the make the OT the first specialist you see, because OT's tend to be very good at knowing all the specialists you should be directed to in turn (including everyone else you have listed). – Lyndon White Feb 19 '18 at 6:33

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