If a similar question has been asked before, then I'm sorry; it's just that so far I haven't found much here or elsewhere related to the specifics of my situation. Maybe I'm not using the right key words. Also, I'm posting anonymously because I don't want my university to know (yet) that I'm considering these options.

I'm a first year MPhD student at an English university and I'm considering either switching to the Master's degree or taking a Leave of Absence, all due to my mental health, if not dropping out entirely.

I've had First Episode Psychosis for a couple of years but it's under the control of risperidone, a drug that might be making me feel sleepy. It's either that or I've developed depression, since for the last six months I've felt fatigue, having lie-ins until midday and hours of naps in the afternoon most days, so I'm ridiculously behind on my studies. I've been referred to a psychiatrist (again) and I've been getting therapy via the university.

I absolutely adore Mathematics and I've wanted to do a PhD in it now for over a decade. Thus it's strange that it's gotten like this. I came in strong, having prepared for such a long time, but around January of 2018 my mental health started to decline.

I'm fully funded by a scholarship that was awarded competitively by dint of my academic background (but it's not ESPRC). This makes me feel extra guilty that I'm not doing enough.

My supervisor said recently that I should be doing at least five hours a day but I rarely do over an hour.

What should I do?

I know my health should be my number one concern.

I don't know whether I'm able to take a Leave of Absence with my funding situation.

Switching to the Master's degree is an option that might take the pressure off, meaning I'd get an MRes and graduate in 2019 instead. To be honest I kind of want to do that, since then I could apply for a PhD elsewhere; it's not that I don't enjoy the research project - because I do - it's that the topic was a compromise to start with: I wanted to do algebraic X but ended up doing combinatorial X.

I've had better PhD offers in the past, really, like from The University of St. Andrews, but I missed out on them because I'd had a panic attack during my very last exam, meaning I had to resit it the next year and they were ESPRC funded - they couldn't defer. I might get a stronger offer the next time round.

Then again, I might not get any . . .

I'm scared for my future. If I switch course or drop out, it might result in a bad reference and, in turn, an inability to get onto another PhD programme.

Could I reuse my 2016 MMath degree references in the event of a bad reference from my current university?

I don't think I can stick to the full PhD programme. I doubt I could make the confirmation from MPhD status to PhD status following my next supervisory panel meeting, even, especially if things continue with my sense of fatigue.

Please help.

My goal is to become an academic.

Update: I have taken a Leave of Absence.

  • This somewhat depends on your longer term goals. You don't need a doctorate to do mathematics, though it helps to have access to other mathematicians. Take care of your health without closing out those goals if at all possible.
    – Buffy
    Jul 30, 2018 at 18:28
  • @Buffy My goal is to become an academic. Jul 30, 2018 at 18:31
  • What is an MPhD? I'm not familiar Jul 30, 2018 at 18:59
  • It's a temporary position before being enrolled onto the PhD programme, @AzorAhai. Jul 30, 2018 at 19:02
  • Have you been able to get advice from someone in your department about the possibility of intercalating? This might provide a period of recuperation during which you can try to evaluate your options - and it may still be the case that after this period you choose not to return to your PhD
    – Yemon Choi
    Jul 31, 2018 at 13:25

2 Answers 2


It is possible that your issues are entirely due to stress alone, or possibly stress combined with burnout. I can't diagnose anything, of course, but stress itself is a killer. Even without other issues you are wise to reduce the stress to manageable levels.

I think that keeping on as you have been will likely be damaging. If your advisor is a sensitive enough person, the place to start would be with him/her. If you are otherwise happy with your situation (as it sounds like you are not) you might be able to stretch out your studies, depending on the project. It might not be unless your project is relatively independent of other things going on in a research group, however. But to do this will require being forthcoming to your advisor and you need to judge whether that is reasonable.

If you can take a Master's without prejudicing the future you might have the best situation, given what you say about not being so happy with your current project. Solve the stress problems, apply elsewhere and start anew. It will take you additional time, of course, but a fresh start with a fresh faculty can be empowering. You will leave some baggage behind. I did this for a different reason and it made a world of difference. A leave of absence may put you back where you are or not, depending on too many factors to deal with here (funding, baggage, ...).

But the bottom line is to take care of yourself and secondarily try not to close out your dreams. You can't know the future, but you can do what you can to maximize your place in it.

  • This is a good answer overall, but I just want to point out that "if you are otherwise happy with your situation (as it sounds like you are not) you might be able to stretch out your studies, depending on the project" might not be feasible within the UK system. Many universities have a rule of the form "PhD students must submit within 48 months of starting the program(me)" and although there are possibilities for stopping the clock (intercalation) this requires formal interruption of the program(me)
    – Yemon Choi
    Jul 31, 2018 at 13:32
  • @YemonChoi. Thanks for the clarification. You can't argue with the law, though it seems overly rigid to force actual humans into such a rule. I understand the thinking behind it, of course. This closes off some options for the OP.
    – Buffy
    Jul 31, 2018 at 13:37
  • @YemonChoi, yes. It is something that requires buy-in and not resistance from the faculty involved. Some will be willing. Some not. Some will be bound by external constraints of the funding or the nature of the research. Very complex, but the OP should have a handle on the local situation.
    – Buffy
    Jul 31, 2018 at 13:49
  • Sorry, I should have said, when I referred to "faculty" in my now-deleted comment, I meant the Faculty of XYZ who are the organisational level above the department. E.g. my department in LU has to play by the rules imposed by the Faculty of Science and Technology, who are to some extent our bosses. So what I meant is that while it may be possible to go over time, the Faculty of XYZ see this as missing a deadline and might take some action against the Department, e.g. withholding funding or putting pressure on the Head of Department
    – Yemon Choi
    Jul 31, 2018 at 13:51

There's a very clear difference between the three options that you've listed- depending on your long-term goals, the right option should be easy to determine.

If you still want to ultimately complete the Ph.D. program but know that because of your health you simply can't be successful as a student now, then you should try to take a leave of absence for however long it takes you to recover your health. It's a bad idea to try to work through your current problems- you might do so poorly in your studies that you'll be asked to leave the program.

If you've changed your goal and decided that you'd like towards a master's degree, and if you think that you can be successful in the master's program without taking a leave of absence, then you should ask to switch to the master's program. If you don't think you can be successful as a master's student right now, then you might ask for a leave of absence first.

If you've come to the conclusion that completing a graduate degree isn't one of your long-term goals, then simply withdrawing from your graduate program is probably the appropriate path.

Of course you may not be sure what your long-term goals are. Figuring this out while dealing with a serious mental health issue is very difficult. Requesting a leave of absence might provide you with the time you need to figure that out.

You should certainly find out what the consequences of a leave of absence would be for your scholarship. You'll need to discuss that with the scholarship sponsor.

  • 2
    Note that the UK MRes is not really a separate programme to the PhD; the work involved is the same, the duration is simply shorter. It is usually awarded in cases where, at the progress review at the end of the first year, the candidate is either not up to the required standard for a PhD or themselves choose to leave (maybe they aren't enjoying it, want to go to industry etc). Jul 30, 2018 at 20:14
  • @astronat I thought that was the MPhil? In my own institution/department, the MRes seems to be the name given to the first year of an integrated 1+3 PhD programme. Although looking online it seems that different institutions use the terms in different ways
    – Yemon Choi
    Jul 31, 2018 at 13:34

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