The Question:

How do I reframe getting an MPhil instead of a PhD the first time round, in the context of applying for a mathematical postdoc?


I tried for a PhD in group theory at respectable university in England; however, the pandemic, a lack of funding, and the onset of schizophrenia meant I had to leave with an MPhil. I got a paper out of it in a pretty good (Q2) journal. The project, I feel, was taken as far as it could have been, given the state of the art: the open cases were similar to those in related endeavours.

It feels like a failure. It took me five years full-time to get that MPhil (though around a year of that time was spent off for health issues); typically, a two year degree. I passed my viva with minor corrections.

Currently, I am studying for a PhD, again in group theory, at a university in Scotland. I'm in my second year. (Since this is a UK degree, the maximum duration, as you might know, is four years.)

I still have schizophrenia.

Why ask?

I want to prepare for postdoctoral applications early. I did my best here to put the MPhil in a good light (bar thinking of it as a failure) but it feels inadequate.

Application committees are likely to ask about the MPhil.

The most I can say at the moment is: it just wasn't the right time for me. That's a platitude, sure, but it applies.

  • 10
    People evaluating your applications will be interested in what you've done and what you plan to do in the future. It seems unlikely that they will be terribly interested in having you "explain youself" or dissecting why exactly your previous attempt at a PhD did not work out if your current one goes well, since this has no bearing on whether you will be a productive postdoc or not. I am confident that the actual underlying issue here is how you can learn not think of your previous PhD as a failure, because I assure you most people will not care about the minutiae of your educational history. Mar 27 at 21:56
  • 2
    Particularly the whole Covid thing made lots of plans go kaboom in many different ways. Postdoc applications will focus on your PhD work.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 28 at 0:29
  • 1
    To clarify, this is no issue if hypothetically you apply for postdoc just after you finish your phd right?
    – BCLC
    Mar 28 at 9:01
  • Yes, @BCLC. I think it's okay.
    – Shaun
    Mar 28 at 11:32

1 Answer 1


I don't think you have to frame it or reframe or anything, instead focus on your accomplishments and what you'll do next in your applications for post docs. Since you haven't finished your PhD yet, that's the most important thing: finishing the PhD and securing accomplishments in research (publications, etc) while doing so.

The place the previous failed PhD may have hurt you was in getting another PhD program to take you on and believe you can finish. You've done that, so congratulations, it's in your past now. If you dwell on it rather than focusing on what you still have in front of you that's only going to hurt you

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