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During my masters I experienced a burnout and as a result of that my masters took 3 years instead of the usual 2 years. I will have an interview soon for a PhD position and one of the questions that could come up is why my master took longer than usual. Should I tell this reason? Or should I just say it took longer without further explanation

Pros of telling:

  • it is more honest and it could be relevant for the position
  • it gives a valid reason for the delay

Cons of telling:

  • it could be considered oversharing or not appropriate to mention at that time
  • it could possibly negatively impact my chances of getting the position

The question Should I mention mental condition? is similar to this but talks about a CV instead of an interview.

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  • Was the burnout during Covid?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 13:37
  • It happened just before Covid but I think it exacerbated it. Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 13:57
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    Taking one year longer in your studies is so common I can guarantee you I wouldn't even notice. Also, within academia the "speed of completion" isn't the yardstick of academic success that it sometimes seems to be to other people - we value students who want to learn and go the extra mile more than those that can min-max their courses faster.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 15:45
  • I've had the interview by now and it went pretty good! The interviewer didn't even ask about the delay so I had no need to even mention it. Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 11:22

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I recommend making honesty and candour a general part of your dealings with others, so I would recommend being open to disclosing limitations and obstacles in this type of situation. But before you even get to that part, agonising over whether you should or should not disclose this information is jumping forward a step. The more important preliminary step is to ask yourself why you think you will succeed in a PhD candidature when you experienced burnout even over a substantially shorter Masters program. Presumably you have thought about this and have a view about it, so either you have some good reason to believe that you will do better this time, or you are likely making a bad decision for yourself by pursuing a PhD candidature at this time.

Start by engaging in this type of introspection and have a think about what, if anything, has changed since you did your Masters program. What caused the burnout in your Masters program? How did that affect your life? What, if anything, has changed since then that would make you more resilient to this type of burnout (or less susceptible to its cause)? If you were to eschew a PhD candidature right now, what are your other options? Is a PhD candidature a good pathway for you right now relative to these other options? Would you benefit from some other opportunity at present (e.g., experience in the workforce, etc.)? If you can think sensibly about these questions and make the right decision for yourself, that should significantly reduce your anxieties about explaining your position to others. Often anxiety over disclosing true information in such cases stems from a lack of confidence that the problem raised by that disclosure is actually solved.

Now, assuming you decide to go through with your application and you get to the interview, what can you say if the matter is raised? Firstly, you can point out that you finished your Masters program successfully, albeit in a longer timeframe than initially planned. This shows that you can experience an adverse circumstance and push through it to successful completion. Secondly, you should have done some introspection on this experience and learned from it, so you should now have a set of methods (perhaps including taking longer) that will allow you to get through a PhD candidature even if you experience burnout again. Once you are able to explain your pathway adequately to yourself, you should be able to explain it to others.

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    Thanks for your advice! The reason I had this question was that I was preparing with my mom and she said it was not a good idea to tell this. I did not necessarily agree with this but she has been right a lot of times. I have been thinking about some of these questions already but I guess it's good to have the answers to most of these clear in my head both for the interview and for myself. Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 16:14
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    Its worth noting that a well supervised PhD could possibly end up being less likely to cause burnout than a poorly supervised masters. A supervisor who understands your needs, and puts those first, including providing you with the support you need will be critical. Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 23:01
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This is a judgment call that you might consider making at the time it might seem advantageous or not to do so. I wouldn't decide in advance to do it, but would retain the option.

Burnout is pretty common and the reasons are varied. I had the same issue and know that my own reason was overextending. Too many courses, too many important outside interests. Not health, per se, but just exhaustions with some loss of focus. In my case, however, the issue never arose and I was lucky to have advisors who recognized the issue but still supported me. You might have that same advantage.

There shouldn't be any "shame" around burnout, but it can also seem like a facile excuse for poor performance.

I wonder, also, how common it is for students to take an extra year where you are. If it is moderately common then it probably isn't an issue.

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  • "There should be any shame around burnout" is there a word missing here? Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 21:03
  • Fixed thanks, @astronat. I have old fingers and the spelling "corrector" sometimes doesn't.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 21:20
  • Thanks for the advice. I guess that only mentioning it if it comes up would be a good way to go about it. In my master's (theoretical physics) I think it is common to have at least some delay but I couldn't find any statistics on it. Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 16:38
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I don't think there's a right answer for how to proceed, just different strategies, and you have to pick the one that feels best to you.

An alternative to the "completely honest" strategy, is the "selectively honest" strategy. You want to be honest (and of course you must not lie), but you aren't obligated to go into details of your personal life in an interview.

Taking one extra year to finish a master's degree seems fairly innocuous to me. I don't think a big explanation is required. I think you could say that due to a personal matter, you were delayed in completing your studies. Or you could say that you decided to take an extra year to complete the program, rather than rushing, to ensure that you achieved your best possible performance. I think these are true statements that should sufficiently explain a year gap to an interviewer, without revealing details of your personal life that you might not be comfortable sharing.

One last piece of unsolicited advice... it's good to have a strategy for questions that could come up about sensitive topics. But, don't overfocus on your response to the point where you neglect to prepare in other areas. If this issue really is a big deal to the PhD program, then maybe that program isn't a good fit for you. If it is not a big issue (which I suspect it probably isn't), then your performance on questions they will ask you about your knowledge of the material and field, and your interest in their department, will be much more important for how your interview performance is judged.

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