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After experiencing serious academic burnout, personal health conditions, and some family situations, I think I am not able to pass my overall assessment for my master's degree. I think I'm basically failed (the actual final result won't be available until July).

A bit of background about myself, I am currently approaching the end of a 9-month master's degree in physics at a very top UK university. Before this, I obtained a dual degree in physics and mathematics at a US university with very good overall grades (3.95/4.00). I also have 3 academic papers with my undergraduate professor.

I actually did well in some modules I took in my master's course. An additional reason for my poor overall performance in the current program is I'm taking modules mainly in a new area of physics that is significantly different from my undergraduate study and research, which really takes extra time and effort.

I'm very frustrated with my current situation. I studied and worked really hard, but the result is not rewarding at all. I'm pretty sure I want to be in academia in the future and study for a Ph.D. in physics because I'm passionate about what I've been learning and doing, after all. My biggest concern is if I'm trying to reach out to potential supervisors or someone in academia and seek collaborations, my current experience will make them reluctant to work with me. I will definitely move on from my failure, but how this bad experience will affect my future career in academia, and how can I make this impact as small as possible?

Thanks for the help!

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    As in professional sports, passion is a sine qua non, it gets you in the door. Talent and luck figure into the mix too. How do you see yourself stacking up against your future competition? May 27, 2023 at 2:53

3 Answers 3

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My first post here so pls be kind and don't take things too literally.

I am a 6th year post doc in Neurobiology at Cambridge, UK.

All of these words are my reflections - I am not wearing any special truth-spectacles. Choose to take a moral high ground. I find that explaing how to game the system is despicable and a reason to why science is as in-efficient as it de facto in these times.

Here and now First things first, Don't worry about things that is currently out of your hands. See what the result is, and meanwhile talk to colleagues about your feelings and worries. They will be the type of people who gets you through this underappreciated type of work.

Still, I absolutely get your position and the accompying feelings. I am in 6th year as a post doc and feel im about to "fail" yet again ;)

Its natural to get scared or emotional about things that we are passionate about, it's a good sign! But do not let that fear control you. Planning ahead in this state is usually pointless. And if you do plan, use a best/worst-scenario type approach - find the 'lagom' middle scenario.

Failings? Control, authoritism and independent thought It is essential to define what YOU mean with "about to fail". Is this your view? Does you supervisor, mentor, colleagues also agree you are "about to fail"? Find the likely scenario an come up with some alternativ career paths. Having a backup plan, regardless if that is a similar field or becoming a gardener. Plans do not have to be used. Backup plans ensure that you don't feel your life depends on this one result.

Most of us instinctively feel that if we don't ace things we are failed. (evo-theory would say its because our fear is evolutionary coupled to a very real risk of death).

These feelings seem to be particularly strong in those who tend to be hard on themselves, often people who ace:d undergraduate education. If you had to pay for uni, and relatives stepped in. Talk to them about your fears, as on some level you will be doing this for them. "one who is in debt, is not free".

Being judged right or wrong by others is what teachers do in school, or if you have a contractual commercial boss. Not in science. In science you have mentors, collaborators and colleagues,- not bosses (despite this culture always tried to nestle it's ugly face in).

This fact has been of fundamentally importance to me. It puts me in control and is the fundament of independence and independent thought.

No one can order me what, when and how to work. It's all up to me.

If not I wouldve blamed others and left bitter and disillusioned. Now I fight on!

Naturally tho, clever people take advice from senior or trusted colleagues - but not before thinking it through and making the decision themselves.

What is Science? Novelty? Publications, goal or tool?

IMO Science naturally has a flat hierarchy. Either you establish something or you don't. Seniors do not sit on any absolute knowledge or skills.

If a professor has assumptions you can't get on board with, their whole argument hurts and there is no meaningful collaboration. Therefore a professors word does not weigh heavier than a students (as long as thorough discussion takes place). This critically depends on both parties humbleness and asking yourself what you do know and what you don't.

As such, I if you think science is a competition you are missing the point. Competition is a technique some people use to motivate themselves. There are better ways where if you "loose" you are not a looser. Say - actual interest in finding something out. Then negative results are just more data.

Neither is it about being first. Those are merely the people who did a large contribution and as a reward got an entire ecosystem attached to their name that we then remeber. Similar to how we remeber pharaohs but not the people building the pyramids.

Its not even about curing a particular disease or inventing a useful tool. Those are all potential products from doing Science. Can't and shan't be a goal.

Science is discovery, exploration and arguably the only way we can know anything in this world. First about convincing yourself. Then deciding if it is worth to communicate to peers who can independently confirm or disagree.

Instead of togheter discovering patterns in nature and increasing our understanding of the world around us. It is a common misunderstanding that science is about getting publishable results or ones theory being correct.

Publications is what we (unfortunately) are quantified by in lack of other organizational principles - but don't mix up publishing with doing science - something published is not automatically true. (requires a lot substantial repeated confirmation).

Science is not an umbrella term defined by what scientist choose to occupy their days with. Many people have long CVs or are good at writing self-similar grant applications (useful for a scientist) . But they are means to the end of doing science not the science in themselves. (chatgpt will tear these people a new one:)

Happy go lucky. Like everything in life we usually don't (really) understand what we are getting ourselves into beforehand. Who was not surprised at all what their new job actually showed to be? What young adult actually grasps what scientific work is before experiencing it?

Remember. You learn different things from different projects, different PIs. It's about getting the collection of experience you require. Therefore personal advice like this forum is always better than (commercial) "10 common mistakes PhDs do"-sites.

With the shitty situation for (most) academics, many understandably do not want to sacrifice their entire lifes and leave. I usually turn this around in my head to: "Whoever leaves the room last gets to be Professor".

Final advice (slightly lower moral highground:) I would recommend you already now start to contact people who are doing science. Remeber you are the 'essentially-free' workhorse that they have the opportunity to hire/take under their wing. Its a relationship.

Focus on making contact with scientists you like rather than aiming for a PhD in a specific field or university.

Any contact point that is personal is preferable to "open" applications. You avoid competing with the rest of the world in the sport if writing CVs and doing official interviews.

Very often open positions are already earmarked anyway.

Potential collaborators (pi, proff, postdoc) that are appealing to You are all good people to email. Those who don't answer don't, re formulate and move on. They won't even register you exist.

However WHEN you find a good match, a position might very well materialize out of thinn air. And if they truly want you there is no problem in asking them where to apply for money.

Offering (for them free) summer internships or course-projects there are as many ways as there are Universities.

Hope some of this may penetrate through your skull, deep into your brain and there lodge itself to fester. :)

Burnout is basically part of today's academic education. Unfortunately. Everyone end up with it sooner or later. The earlier you can find a way that works for you instead of trying to fit the mold, I the better.

Sincerely, Staffan

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  • Thanks so, so much for this answer Staffan! It really helps!! :)
    – IGY
    May 27, 2023 at 11:37
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[Perhaps as much of a comment than an answer, given that the post does not really contain much of a question that can be answered in a concise way...]

Well, yes, you are right: This will reflect poorly on you to whoever you apply to next. But that's not the part I'd be concerned about. If you found yourself burned-out from the Master's experience, what makes you confident that any PhD program you want to go through will yield a different experience? What I don't see from the post is some serious introspection about what made this particular situation a poor match for you, and how any other program would result in a better situation.

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  • Thanks very much!!
    – IGY
    May 27, 2023 at 9:34
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I think that you need to do some soul-searching to determine why you struggled. You will not succeed in a PhD without answering this for yourself. If there are external factors at play, you need to learn to manage them. If you have academic or research weaknesses, they need to be addressed.

Practically though, failing your overall assessment will reflect poorly on you. The only real way to overcome failure is to show that it not indicative of your true ability. I do not subscribe to the idea that certain people inherently can't handle challenging advanced academics. But you should decide if you want to continue down this path because it might be harder for you than others. If you choose to proceed, I have some advice:

  1. Identify why you are struggling. This is the most important step. You need to address whatever is causing you trouble. You have to be honest with yourself here.
  2. Find a way to show future programs/advisors that your trouble was an anomaly. How you do this is situation dependent. You may take more classes, extend your degree, or find a research job that allows you to form relationships with potential mentors. Ideally, you should target your weak areas and strengthen them.
  3. Don't fixate on failure. Acknowledge it if brought up, but do not draw attention to it. And show evidence that you have moved past it. Steps 1 and 2 will allow you to do this effectively.

Good luck!

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  • Thanks very much!! :)
    – IGY
    May 27, 2023 at 9:34

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