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Three years ago I got kicked out of graduate school in physics. I was suffering from mental illness, which led me to believe I made a huge discovery in physics. But my advisor kept saying that what I was doing is nonsense and that I should focus on something else. I just ignored him and kept working on huge discovery, convinced I was going to win a Nobel prize.

I started sending many emails to many physics people (I had a list of thousand email addresses I found online) hoping someone would realize my amazing discovery. I got kicked from school which made me send more emails (almost one a day near the end), and when I got negative responses I sent an email to everyone on the list insulting them and saying I deserved to be in their place.

I got psychiatric help, and eventually doctors found a brain tumor, which they removed. I am now taking drugs, and doing much better. I now realize how insane my behavior was.

I want to re-apply to grad school, but I’m scared people will recognize my name or contact my university. My undergraduate grades were very good. Should I mention my illness (with proof) when applying? Should I send apology emails to the people I’ve contacted?

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    For context, since admission systems vary around the world, what country did you study in, and/or in what countries would you be applying? For the US, for instance, I would emphasize the importance of letters of recommendation from former professors who can attest to your recovery and ability to do reasonable work going forward. – Nate Eldredge Aug 21 at 16:55
  • Answers in comments, discussions thereof, and similar have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Aug 22 at 10:29
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    Great title ! :-) . Good luck in your endeavours. I once encountered the opposite where a brilliant student just short of completing their PhD sustained a brain injury in a car accident. I acted as an "expert witness" in a small claims court and could not understand his devious behaviour until I discovered the background. I'm pleased for you that your journey has been in the positive direction. – Russell McMahon Aug 22 at 11:47
  • From Feynman: "You are under no obligation to remain the same person you were a year ago, a month ago, or even a day ago. You are here to create yourself, continuously." – Quora Feans Oct 26 at 20:40
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A few suggestions:

  • If it were me, I would be very forthcoming about the illness. Of course, no one is entitled to your private medical information, so you will have to decide what you're comfortable with. But "an undiagnosed brain tumor caused me to act erratically" is a very convincing explanation, and does not reflect poorly on you.
  • Consider reaching out to your previous advisors / colleagues. Even those who were furious at your previous behavior would probably accept that an undiagnosed brain tumor caused you to exhibit poor judgment. It's a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" situation.
  • Along similar lines, consider contacting the university, and the specific school within the university, to discuss whether the expulsion can be expunged or converted to some other classification. Most universities are really understanding if you speak to the right people.
  • When you apply, I would absolutely explain what happened. I would give a shorter version of what you wrote above -- even if they don't recognize your name, they will see that you were expelled, so it's better to tell your story. And you did a good job telling the story above, so I trust that you can write an explanation that is similarly clear and compelling.
  • There will likely be no need to provide medical proof. You could (perhaps even should) offer to provide proof, but I suspect most admissions committees would not request it. Among other reasons, it will likely be clear from your tone that you have recovered.
  • I don't think it's necessary to send an apology to your entire mailing list. But I don't think doing so would be inappropriate either. If you do so, be concise: no need for more than a sentence or two.
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    "It's a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" situation." I guess you have not read the book. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 21 at 7:59
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    haha, I suspected I was messing up that reference. I actually just purchased a paper copy of it this week, which is probably why it came to mind. But as you can tell, I have not started reading it yet, perhaps this public shaming will inspire me :-) – cag51 Aug 21 at 8:04
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    >There is no need to provide medical proof. In light of the erratic behavior, I'm not sure how many people would buy a seemingly outlandish excuse of a "brain tumor" without some amount of proof. I imagine many if not most researchers who recognize the name will simply disregard any explanation. It will be an uphill battle. On the other hand unless OP's name is particularly unique there's a chance that they won't be immediately recognized. – user2647513 Aug 21 at 15:25
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    I disagree; most "cranks" would not be able to put together a respectable application package, nor to characterize their previous behavior as "insane." That OP has done both suggests that the story is true. The only place I could imagine asking for proof is if OP's former grad school wanted to readmit them outside of the normal channels; they may need some justification for bypassing the normal channels. – cag51 Aug 21 at 16:03
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    I agree that no one should need proof, but also wonder how skeptical people will be. As the OP is obviously open to sharing, I would suggest a possible middle ground: Show the former advisor. He is a key ally in any event. And the more fully convinced he is, the more effective an ally he will be. It would also be good to share with the advisor those concerns about having alienated others the advisor may not have known about; he may even be proactive in convincing colleagues the OP has recovered – Mike Aug 21 at 16:03
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Change your name

I don't know about other countries but in the UK one can change their name by deed poll. https://www.gov.uk/change-name-deed-poll

It is also acceptable to write academic papers under a pseudonym. If I publish under a pseudonym, can I still take credit for my work?

Also in the UK, universities are required to take issues of mental health very seriously. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/stepchange

If you did very well in your undergraduate studies, I suggest you contact lecturers who were kindly disposed towards you then and ask if they will help by providing references. Remind them of your record (get a transcript) because, if at that time you were an 'ordinary' student they may not remember you. If they got word of your "craziness" they will only have heard it second hand. Tell them about your brain tumour and its removal - no need to mention follow-up drugs IMO. Remind them of how you were when they knew you and ask if they will support you on that basis.

Once you have been formally accepted at a new university, now is the time to notify them of your legal name change. The paperwork will go through the office.

How do I know this? I actually did the name-change thing. I didn't do what you did in terms of mental health, but for personal reasons I wanted to leave my old life behind (see note). No-one but my family and a few old friends know what my name used to be.

If you are not in the UK then of course you will need to research the situation in your own country. (or apply to a UK university)


Note: Don't worry, nothing criminal!

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    Wikipedia summarizes name change policies & law in various places. – Basil Bourque Aug 23 at 1:45
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    Before changing my name, I'd try to switch the subfield of my research or try my luck in corporate research. Changing one's name will lead to questions from the environment (friends, colleagues, family, future partner), which were not aware of being a crank in academia. – usr1234567 Aug 24 at 12:06
  • Seems a bit extreme, but might help. I'd be interested to hear what happened to the OP – Nathan Sep 8 at 0:03
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Your case is very special and not something one encounters usually. So I doubt an accurate and confident answer is possible by the community here.

Bad things happen in life for everyone. In your case, you are out of it. And that is positive. Your past actions definitely will have an impact on your life and career but you should note that memory of people is dynamic. Your present matters more to your future than the past. And you have a very good and honest reason for your actions in past.

I do not think you need to apologize to each and everyone except the people who you have an in-person connection with. Definitely to the people in your previous school. Others would have forgotten you already. Change your email-id. Start fresh.

You are not a crank anymore. That person is cured and you are different. Mention this in your application. I am sure that you will eventually get a good PhD school, and who knows, might win a Nobel prize.

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Congrats on identifying and moving past your illness! You'll find academics a comparatively accepting crowd as you move on.

I would suggest contacting those you've "cranked" to, telling them exactly what you've told us. You had a brain tumor, and it's been removed. You're embarrassed by your behavior during your illness, though not apologetic, as people don't need to apologize for being ill. Tell them future contacts from you will be in only professionally appropriate situations, and request that earlier contacts be evaluated in appropriate context.

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    I think it's definitely reasonable to contact the people most intimately involved - definitely the past advisor and likely other colleagues at that institution including those who were involved in their dismissal, thesis committee, etc. But I would be far less sure about contacting the potentially thousands of people who were emailed...(an apology to a listserv might be an exception, I wouldn't really consider that to be an email to thousands). – Bryan Krause Aug 22 at 1:42
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    In this specific case, If you do contact those people, I think a form letter might actually be significantly better than a personalized one. If I got a personalized email from someone who had been a crank in the past (and whose behavior I might have perceived as threatening, in particular), I would tend to be concerned. But if I were BCC'ed (NOT CC'ed, make sure to know the difference) on a general apology-to-all email, outlining the story above, it would feel more similar to getting it through a mailing list -- it would not feel threatening if it's clearly not directed at me personally. – Glenn Willen Aug 23 at 18:29
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    ... although, as a counterpoint, the mere act of contacting a huge number of people who may not want to be contacted is itself a crankish behavior. So perhaps better to limit to to the listserv and to specific people who need to hear it, and let the news diffuse through the grapevine to the rest. – Glenn Willen Aug 23 at 18:30
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Since the release of the movie A Beautiful Mind I'm certain that a lot of academics have seen it and can understand that mental illness can happen even to the most brilliant people.

The story begins in Nash's days as a graduate student at Princeton University. Early in the film, Nash begins to develop paranoid schizophrenia and endures delusional episodes while watching the burden his condition brings on his wife Alicia and friends.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Beautiful_Mind_(film)

If you haven't seen it yourself then I recommend it as a confidence booster. This true story shows that it is still possible to be successful despite having to cope with major delusions.

With regard to apologies/explanations, I think the people who need them most will be those you know personally. They know you by sight and will recognise you at conferences. A short but sincere apology and explanation is all that is needed.

A possible title for an email might be, "Apology from a student who was ill". The body could simply be: "I would like to apologise sincerely for an email I sent you when I was suffering from a brain tumour. It caused me to have delusions. Thankfully surgery has corrected this and I am planning to resume my normal life in academia. Once again I apologise for any offence I may have caused."

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  • +1 Professional recovery is possible, I know someone who acted like a maniac at work due to (hormonal) cancer treatment. After it was all behind her, she was a valued and respected colleague. I honestly wish the OP all the luck in the world. – Ivana Aug 24 at 9:59
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Unless you were previously known to them or legitimately made them anxious for some reason, most of them will have forgotten your name. (If we are talking about a few-year gap.) It's normal for a crank to get offended when their idea is shot down, it's only when it turns into extended harassment that it becomes noteworthy. If someone told you about a perpetual motion machine a few years ago you might remember it but probably not their name.

I have gone through something similar to you (I know how priceless your recovery is and I know that the subtle stuff takes years to mend). Here is what I would tell you:

It's a war story, not a sob story. You've learned a lot that many people never will. There are lots of interesting things you could tell; you have, I'm sure, learned a lot about the mind and soul, about human behaviour. This sort of thing can help you be more successful because you have more insight into how other people's minds work. "Own" your past behaviour—show why it's interesting rather than apologising/showing how "you're better now"/are safe to be trusted. You can use humour to lighten it up, but intellectual people often want to learn more about the hows and whys.

People are prejudiced about mental disorders. Unfortunately. I've noticed subtle changes in first impressions if I speak freely to people. Now I understand what "covert racism" is. People treat you with respect but somehow you get far fewer follow-ups to the proverbial résumé.

Once people have formed a relationship with you, hearing your story actually makes them gain respect for you. But don't volunteer too much too early is my advice.

Nothing says "sane" like face-to-face. If you meet someone in person and they get the impression you are a normal, intelligent person, this carries a lot of weight over any written or word-of-mouth communication. If you want to start on the right foot with someone, try to catch them at an event, or better still, have someone introduce you. (Dammit, COVID.) I'm not saying this is guaranteed but if you want to apologise to someone, and you have the option to do it in person, do that.

Find the language. For unusual experiences like this, it's hard to find the right words. It's easy to fumble or say nothing, which leaves people confused or making the wrong assumptions. I had to learn to say "oh, sorry, I got overexcited, that's embarrassing" and "sorry I'm not feeling well right now." Sometimes it's about spin, for example "I became obsessed with an idea that wasn't very good" compared to "I had an idea that was utterly insane and acted like I had just discovered one of the biggest breakthroughs ever." I'm still not very good at this. I like to tell my story from my perspective, when the "objective" perspective is probably better most of the time.

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    I am confused about your fourth paragraph. What point are you trying to make? – Azor Ahai -him- Aug 23 at 19:44
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I'm sorry this happened to you. I too suffer from mental illness, and sometimes people just don't understand.

I would explain what the circumstances were behind your episode. People will be very sympathetic when they realize that a tumor in you brain was the cause. Even those you insulted will understand.

Do not change your name as some have suggested. That makes it seem as though you are hiding from what happened.

Do not contact the 1000 people you emailed. If you feel that you want to explain your actions to specific people, then do that. If you got into an exchange with a specific person, maybe get in touch with them and explain. I'll bet that the majority of the people on the email blast you sent out have forgotten your name and/or never opened the email to begin with.

Move on with your life. Continue your education. You didn't intentionally lie or try to trick people into a believing a sham theory. You had a brain tumor. Again, people will be very sympathetic when they know the reason behind what happened.

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Nobody on this site should be advising on your recovery from illness. Discuss that with a professional who has examined you personally.

If you apply for a new PhD, you will be required to give a record of your previous studies. This will show you were "kicked out." To convince an admissions committee you should be readmitted, you will need to tell them your expulsion was related to an untreated illness and you will need to inform the committee of the degree to which you have recovered from the illness and probability of recurrence (ask your medical professional). You do not need to provide proof of the illness, or even say what it was. You should explicitly state that the illness caused behavior which lead to expulsion.

Any educated person who read your emails would have realized you were ill. Apologizing would be a matter of personal preference.

Based on the limited information you provided, I do not see any reason why you could not get a PhD.

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    I think the first sentence is a bit unfair - the OP didn't ask for any medical advice, only career advice. – D Greenwood Aug 21 at 15:00
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    @AnonymousPhysicist if your answer addresses an older version of the question and isn’t pertinent to the current version, you should delete or edit your answer rather than complaining of unfair treatment when people think you’re not making sense. – Dan Romik Aug 22 at 5:48
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    Being a "crank" is not a medical condition, it is a professional faux pas. OP never asked "how can I recover from my brain tumor" they asked "how can I recover from being a crank". Adding "professionally" in there makes it super extra clear, but I see no reason to interpret crankdom as a medical condition in the title, nor did the body of the post ever suggest OP wanted anything besides professional advice: they asked about mentioning the condition in applications and apologies. They also mentioned clearly that they have been under medical and psychiatric care. – Bryan Krause Aug 22 at 14:50
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    It also seems a bit rich to me to refuse to edit an answer based on a request you specifically made to edit the question (and which you could have done yourself). If you thought the question should not have been answered in the original form, you should not answer the question. – Bryan Krause Aug 22 at 14:53
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    It seems pretty clear (to me) that the original, unedited question was not asking for medical or psychiatric advice. Your opening para does seem to detract from an otherwise helpful answer. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Aug 22 at 23:57

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