According to Dr. Daniel G. Amen, each person has his personal definition of success. Therefore, you can't argue with anyone regarding their personal definition of success. My personal definition of success is to have a Ph.D. in CS and become a teacher in a university. To me, not having a Ph.D. is like living as an incomplete human being. I have become so obsessed with the idea of having a Ph.D. that I have already sacrificed various things for this ambition, and I am prepared to sacrifice more.

Now, for me the problem has been, due to my undiagnosed clinical depression and, apparently, insufficient math background, I dropped out of two Masters in CS programs from two different EU universities. Now, I am taking the medication regularly, and in a stable situation.

I never wrote a thesis before, and don't have any publications.

What should I do now to go ahead and restart my aspirations to become an appropriate candidate for a Ph.D. program?

  1. Do I need to go return and complete my MSc degree in order to get accepted into a Ph.D. program?
  2. If I must go back to an MSc degree, would a 1-year MSc suffice given that the MSc programs I dropped were of 2 years in length?

A comment by Peter caught my eye:

obviously, I can't tell with certainty because I don't know OP but mental health issues, an obsession with completing a degree just for the sake of the title, and subpar math skills are not a promising combination.

I would like to reply this.

Firstly, if I were not stuck with my health issue and math skills, I wouldn't have come to academia.SE, and probably would be answering this type of question for others. academia.SE is here to give suggestions.

Secondly, I am having my medication regularly, and I am having good health now. That is why I am thinking about restarting my journey.

Thirdly, I have been studying college and graduate-level mathematics for the last three months. I have been improving. Probably, I will sit for the GRE Math subject test at the end of this year.

Fourthly, yesterday, I have received a national scholarship from an EU-country to work on a research project. So, I think, I still have something in me.

Fifthly and finally, read Napoleon Bonaparte's story about Line of Fate. This is probably a fictional story, but you get the idea.

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    This may be closed as a duplicate so I won't provide a full answer. I'll just note that, in the US, a masters is not required for entry to most PhD programs. There is a lot of completion, however.
    – Buffy
    Dec 12, 2020 at 20:37
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    I do not believe that wiki covers the OP's situation (though a good answer here would likely be a good addition to the wiki).
    – cag51
    Dec 13, 2020 at 22:09
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    Frankly, the goal of getting a PhD to become a college teacher in the US is a recipe for poverty. Please look at publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education to understand the US job market. Getting a PhD as a vanity project (which it sounds to be for you) is fine if you are independently wealthy.
    – Dawn
    Jan 18, 2021 at 15:50
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    @user2768: This should probably be moved to chat and obviously I can't tell with certainty because I don't know OP but mental health issues, an obsession with completing a degree just for the sake of the title and subpar math skills are not a promising combination.
    – Peter
    Jan 19, 2021 at 10:47

4 Answers 4


Your post does not explain the broader motivation for your goal to complete a PhD program, and it also sounds like you have some problems that are going to make that an arduous (and possibly unsuccessful) journey. Candidature in a PhD program is often difficult and stressful even for the most elite students with no accompanying clinical depression. For that reason, I recommend you take a moment to reflect on whether you really need to complete a PhD in your field in order to achieve your broader life goals, and whether this period of your life is the appropriate time to do that. Nevertheless, I will take the premise of your question as given, and try to give some basic advice on how to achieve your goal.

As with the acheivement of any goal where you have already made failed attempts, it is important to identify the impediments that are presently preventing success, and then overcome those impediments. Your post identifies two impediments to your success: (1) depression; and (2) insufficient maths background. I will leave it primarily to medical people to assist you with the first, but I will just mention that you might find some wisdom and assistance in reading some of the philosophy of the Stoics (particularly Epictetus and maybe also Seneca the Younger). As to your insufficient math background, the simplest way to improve this is to undertake revision on all your previous mathematics courses, with particular attention to the mathematics you encountered in your previous MSc program.

You mention that you do not have any academic publications, and I think it is premature to attempt this. However, once you have learned some more of the base material in your field you could start out by trying to publish small posts about it on relevant websites. Since you are already using StackExchange, once you learn some more mathematics you could attempt to answer some questions on Math.SE or CS.SE. Another possible activity here is to write some blog posts explaining the mathematics you have learned to other students at your level. These are all "publications" in a minor sense (though not academic publications), and they are a reasonable way to practice making public posts about mathematics that can be subjected to critical feedback from experts.

In these circumstances, where you are already struggling, I think it would be beneficial to complete your MSc program before attempting entry to a PhD program. The main reason for this is to give you an opportunity to complete postgraduate level coursework and improve your skills (including your math skills) up to a level that would make you competitive for entry into a PhD program. A secondary reason is that you may then obtain some ideas for possible research projects (and supervisors) that you could pursue as a first attempt at academic publication.

To finish, I will just make two last points. It is possible for weak students to improve and later be competitive students for higher-degree programs. That is usually a long and difficult process, but it is certainly possible for a student with sufficient diligence and commitment. Having said this, it is also important to ensure that you are setting reasonable life goals that are actually going to lead you where you want to go. Some students (and I am certainly not saying you are in this category) look at the PhD program as a kind of elite social-proof and they pursue it as an end in itself, rather than taking a realistic view of what it will actually add to (and subtract from) their career or life. Take some time to reflect on your broader life goals and consider what you really need to be successful in your life. Good luck.

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    @user366312: Based on the information you've given, it sounds like your present academic record is unlikely to be very competitive for entry to a PhD program. So yes, I think you would be an underdog. The GRE is a test, rather than coursework, so while it tests your skills, it is not the same as doing a course.
    – Ben
    Dec 15, 2020 at 2:47
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    I suppose the PhD does give some flexibility, but seeing academia as a backup to industry positions is pretty misguided. Usually it is the reverse. Plus part time academics make poverty wages most places. If the main goal is to have an industry career and have some stability, then look at pursuing industry jobs where you can also have a second freelance income.
    – Dawn
    Dec 15, 2020 at 3:12
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    I agree with what Dawn says here. Moreover, any motivation for undertaking a PhD other than genuine passion for the subject matter is likely to constitute a pretty thin support for four years of full-time study. Unless a student is passionate about research in their field, a PhD program is a bad idea.
    – Ben
    Dec 15, 2020 at 5:12
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    In the US, if your main goal is to become a teacher (say HS), you should get a Masters in teaching. If your main goal is to teach at the college level, a PhD might get you there, but it is very financially insecure. College teaching wages are often below those of HS teachers.
    – Dawn
    Dec 15, 2020 at 15:37
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    Several years salary in the bank is also very helpful for stability, and something you won't get during a PhD program.
    – Adam Burke
    Dec 17, 2020 at 4:49

Something to consider (I wanted to leave a comment but am too new to be able to), the Math GRE subject test is VERY hard. I know people who came from top undergraduate math programs and said it was very hard and did not do well. If you are able to do well on the GRE Math Subject test, I would assume you have enough of a math background to do a CS degree (since the test is for Math Graduate School). However, if your math background is not strong enough for a CS PhD, it is probably not strong enough for the Math Subject Test either. To put things in further perspective students who come have technical industrial engineering backgrounds can do the math needed in CS without a problem but not necessarily the math needed for Math graduate school.

The being said having a MS is always a way to fill some doubts an admissions committee may have about your candidancy (and take some time to build your skillset). Getting a MSc can only help your case, and if you have the money, applying 2 years in a row won't hurt. It is very hard to start a PhD program when you don't have an adequate background that happened to me and I ended up adding a year to my PhD to take "remedial" courses, but some programs can't absorb that cost and you will be dismissed from the program. Not to mention the stress that comes with being completely overwhelmed. Have you thought of applying to PhD programs and then checking the box that you are willing to be considered for MS programs as well. Then you can have full information about your options. Also, if you enroll in a MS with a thesis option you can start building your research career and potentially stay with the same advisor for your PhD (ultimately graduating faster). These are all options that will allow you to hit the ground running instead of starting from behind.

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    I know a professor who wants me to do a master's thesis under his supervision, not a master's degree. Would that be good enough to complete a master's thesis without completing the entire 2 years degree?
    – user366312
    Dec 18, 2020 at 22:04
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    If you do a MS Thesis w/o a MS, it is just independent research. Many professors won't do this b/c it is risky. There is no guarentee you'll do the work & nothing keeping you from bailing when the next better opportuntiy comes. Also, if you do a MS w/ thesis you will normally get funding which will offset some of the cost for your MS. What is your hesitation to getting the MS? As I said in my post you're most likely going to pay for those years anyway, either the additional time to degree in the PhD (which carries more stress and less flexibility change schools after 2 yrs) or in the MS.
    – TudPims
    Dec 19, 2020 at 1:26
  • @user366312 Some universities offer a Master of Philosophy degree that's a Masters-level research degree. Working on a thesis like that might qualify, though you'd need to talk to the university to find out.
    – nick012000
    Dec 19, 2020 at 8:57
  • @TudPims, My bachelor's is from the 2000s. What if I enroll in Bachelors's in CS again?
    – user366312
    Dec 21, 2020 at 19:31
  • That I can't speak to, but I feel like that will be more money and less focused than just doing the MS.
    – TudPims
    Dec 22, 2020 at 20:27

Ben's answer covers just about all the main points. Motivation and rationale are crucial considerations for undertaking a PhD. Your desire to become a teacher in your comments is an important consideration. The other concerns about your math's skills is also an important aspect that Ben raised. I worry that the level of maths skills needs to be quite advanced if you are going for the usual CS PhD rather than a pedagogically focused CS PhD.

Even in a pedagogical CS PhD, your writing skills would be also another very critical consideration that you have not seemed to have emphasised. Writing blogs and even these SE posts etc is a great way to improve and gain helpful feedback, but really consider doing academic writing courses and blogs. Since you are keen on PhD level teaching, remember there is an overemphasis of a very formal and a highly nuanced form of writing that other forms of teaching may not. Informal teaching or high school teaching would be fair less critiqued by peers or students. Your PhD thesis and publications are more likely to undergo harsh criticism especially peer reviews as well. So are you keen or motivated enough to increase your written and spoken skills to this expected level?

With respect to your two Master's attempts, do the Master's cover essential knowledge or skills that you need in CS or for a CS PhD? I suspect they do, especially since you seem to indicate that you have an insufficient maths background, so it sounds like a Masters program would be very helpful for you to gain the knowledge and to improve your written and spoken proficiency as well? Also start taking care of your mental health more so now too. Tablets are great, but also seek therapy and online help to increase the range of your strategies for when you get stressed and unwell. Your health is always worth the investment when you are well, to prepare you for the stressful times with deadlines and pressure.

  • Sorry, the italics is not very obvious in the app version of your comment, I was confused why you kept referring to me instead of you. Consider using quotations "" instead of italicisations when referring and quoting text.
    – Poidah
    Dec 21, 2020 at 19:32
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    "I suspect they do, especially since you seem to indicate that you have an insufficient maths background, so it sounds like a Masters program would be very helpful for you to gain the knowledge and to improve your written and spoken proficiency as well" --- My bachelor's is from the 2000s. What if I enroll in Bachelors in CS again?
    – user366312
    Dec 21, 2020 at 19:33
  • Improving written and spoken work requires practice and not more study unfortunately. Specific and deliberate practice with more feedback with specific critique would be more helpful than more bachelor study. Feedback from a bachelor degree may not be specific and deliberate enough to improve to a PhD level for example. The knowledge component would be something else to consider.
    – Poidah
    Dec 21, 2020 at 19:35
  • Both of the MSc in CS programs, I enrolled in before, had 50% of courses from Bachelors. I.e. all the courses in the 1st two semesters were from Bachelors. I know that because most of my classmates were from Bachelors.
    – user366312
    Dec 21, 2020 at 19:38
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    Marks such as A+ do not matter in the world of PhDs unfortunately. Consider whether your knowledge and interest are remains in the leading edge of publications and the research interest.
    – Poidah
    Dec 21, 2020 at 19:55

If its just about the qualification - you can get one of those by mail order.

What about the actual research you want to do?

What does being a successful graduate look like in the area you want to work?

What kind of capabilities do you need to succeed in that area?

I would start by thinking about what area of research you would like to specialise in and work back from there.

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