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In September I started a mathematics PhD at a UK university straight after my undergraduate MMath degree at a different university. On the whole, I am enjoying the experience. However, I've been having recurring thoughts that perhaps I am not cut out for doctorate level work and it might be a good idea to revisit mathematical studies at a later stage.

Basically, since coming here I've been feeling consistently like my heart isn't in it (and this has had a negative effect on my work ethic). This is not necessarily because I’m not capable of doing it, but rather because I never had a proper break from academia and I feel like I've been running out of steam. I know PhD students very frequently go through spells of feeling dispirited, but I feel that if my heart is really in mathematics that this shouldn't be happening. I would rather go into doctoral studies with a running start knowing that I am adequately trained in the area I am in, rather than adjusting to a learning curve (and an inexperienced supervisor).

Here are some options I have considered:

  • Having a complete break from academia (6 months to a year), followed by a period where I slowly ease myself back in at my own pace by reading.
  • Taking CDT (Centre for Doctoral Training) courses. I had previously applied to this and been rejected, but now I think I would be more competitive. I think this rigorous training would be helpful for me.
  • Doing something altogether different -- learning another programming language and doing a programming job, or working in simulation/modeling at the Met Office, or another company that relies heavily on fluid dynamics. Or maybe even the EPSRC (which is where a lot of the funding for PhD mathematics students comes from)
  • Getting a normal job to demonstrate people skills, and saving up money to do another Masters programme, which will put me in a very good position for my PhD.

After doing the above, I could return to a PhD programme much later, when I am a much more mature person with a better mindset towards my work.

Thankfully, my parents are willing to support me emotionally and financially while I pursue any of these.

My question is whether this is a good plan. In particular:

  1. Is it a good idea to take a break from studies if wanting to continue them at a later date, especially for mathematics? Would it hurt any opportunities later on down the line to take up a PhD a year or so from now?
  2. Would my department or supervisor think badly of me for wanting to terminate my studies - and (generally speaking) would I not have to pay back the studentship instalments that I've been paid so far? (I've been funded solely by the University, not by a funding body such as the EPSRC).
  3. What would be some worthwhile things to consider doing during a break from academia?

Update: it sounds like this would not be a great idea, and I should only make the move if I am really, really convinced about it. Nonetheless, I'm leaning further and further towards it because I think it's better to take a break from my studies now rather than 3 years down the line. I don't seem to have the motivation required to be a good doctoral student at the moment. This is something I might speak to my advisor about.

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  1. Is it a good idea to take a break from studies if wanting to continue them at a later date, especially for mathematics?

That's a tricky question. There are probably some people for whom this is a good idea, but I wouldn't say it's generally one. If it's possible in your current situation to essentially hit the "pause button" on your studies and be guaranteed the ability to come back (I think this is possible at many US universities), it might not be so bad, but otherwise you're taking a pretty big risk. Also, in even as short a time as 6 months or a year, you risk forgetting a lot. Certainly this is something a lot of other people I know who've taken breaks (say between undergraduate and graduate degrees) have mentioned.

I would think about trying to arrange a shorter vacation (maybe 1 month) first, and see how that feels. Taking a whole year is a genie that will be hard to get back in the bottle, and you don't know how you will feel, say, two months in.

Would it hurt any opportunities later on down the line to take up a PhD a year or so from now?

It certainly might.

Would my department or supervisor think badly of me for wanting to terminate my studies - and (generally speaking) would I not have to pay back the studentship instalments that I've been paid so far? (I've been funded solely by the University, not by a funding body such as the EPSRC).

I can't speak to them (or speak about the financial aspects), but probably it will not look great. You should be prepared for everyone in the department to assume this means you are dropping out, no matter what you say about coming back.

What would be some worthwhile things to consider doing during a break from academia? Has anyone else on here had experiences of a PhD (particularly maths) not going too well and feeling like they have had to stop or recharge their batteries?

I do know of one situation where this worked out a very well. A friend of mine in grad school took a year off (after 3 years in the program) to teach in an inner city school. I think at the time he started he was not so sure he wanted to finish, but the experience motivated him very effectively to go back and complete his degree, since he realized teaching middle school was definitely not for him.

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I realize this post is old, but I feel compelled to contribute:

Here's an answer from a former academic who left university for greener :) fields: Just do it. Look, the number of people in this world who are even capable of handling the intellectual and emotional roller coaster that is a PhD is exceptionally small. We ALL feel inadequate. We ALL question our decision. We ALL suffer the imposter syndrome and contemplate leaving. But you've made it a long way already. Why not continue on this path, at least to completion, even if your mindset is 'later dudes, i'm out!'? Are your job prospects now really better than they will be in 3 years, PhD in hand?

As for feeling like things aren't going well - again, we all feel that way. The system is set up to MAKE you feel that way. Also, the system draws in people with extraordinary need for achievement, and those people, myself included, always feel like things forever balance on the edge of disaster. It just isn't true.

You did not state your age (or if you did, my mistake), but if you're ~30, 35 or younger, just complete this remarkable journey. Remember - a PhD, even if not used, can never be taken away. It will stand as a testament to not only your acumen, but your ability to deal with difficult situations and persevere. I'm not in academia anymore, but today it hangs on my wall, as it always will, and I am filled with pride when I look at it.

Don't give up - when all's said and done, your future self will be proud.

Its a PhD. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

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    Let me add: as a high need-for-achievement individual, the level of remorse you'd feel for having almost, but not quite finished your PhD will FAR outweigh any benefit you'd glean by quitting early. – HEITZ Apr 15 '16 at 6:06
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    Thanks for the comprehensive response. I should probably mention that I did take the decision to quit my PhD after 8 months, due to personal issues which meant I couldn't see a way forward with my PhD. I have no immediate plans to return to academia, unless I find an area that fascinates me so much that I like reading about it in my own time anyway. However, it turns out that the personal issues I was facing affect me in more ways than just academic - so I'm seeking professional help for those. I am now training to become a teacher and am enjoying it quite a lot. – user32670 Apr 16 '16 at 0:55
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Sounds to me like you may be depressed right now. Try speaking with your supervisor about the possibility of taking a week or maybe two off.

Is it a good idea to take a break from studies if wanting to continue them at a later date, especially for mathematics? Would it hurt any opportunities later on down the line to take up a PhD a year or so from now?

Yes, it will hurt future opportunities. At the very least you will forget many things during that time.

Would my department or supervisor think badly of me for wanting to terminate my studies - and (generally speaking) would I not have to pay back the studentship instalments that I've been paid so far? (I've been funded solely by the University, not by a funding body such as the EPSRC)

Maybe they will not think badly of you but they will certainly move on in the meantime. Your supervisor will very likely accept new students and may not have time to work with you in the future. As for the financial aspects you should consult that with the institution. The terms of my PhD funding (not UK) stated that if I did not finish my PhD I owed all the money that I had received plus interest.

Has anyone else on here had experiences of a PhD (particularly maths) not going too well and feeling like they have had to stop or recharge their batteries?

Yes, I did have the experience although not during my PhD but during my Masters (applied math). In fact I did drop out after having a very rough time. During a 2 month period I was able to sleep for only 2 to 3 hours per night Monday to Sunday. Even though I lived only 4 blocks away from the institution I did not have time to go home and slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. During that time I only left my cubicle once a day to buy take-out food and every second or third day for a quick shower. After 2 months of this I hated everything and everyone: my professors, the institution, my fellow students and my life in general. One day I stood up and decided that it was not worth it. I announced that I was dropping out and simply left.

After sleeping some 18 or 20hrs straight I started thinking that I may had acted a bit hastily. After a second good nights rest I decided that I had definitely rushed my decision. 72hrs after I left I was speaking with the department head asking to be readmitted into the program. It was not easy, during those 72hrs I had missed one exam which meant I was expelled from the instituion. Fortunately (for me) I was readmitted and was able to obtain my Masters degree.

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    "Sounds to me like you may be depressed right now. Try speaking with your supervisor about the possibility of taking a week or maybe two off." This is an interesting point - I do actually suffer from depression in general (and this may be a corollary of me having Asperger's syndrome as that can make it much more difficult to deal with). I think this would be a good idea, but there are still lectures I have to go to, workshops I need to teach, lectures to sit in and take notes for (as I get paid for note-taking for special needs students). So I would ideally like to take a week off but can't. – user32670 Apr 6 '15 at 0:28
  • I am not sure I quite understand your comment above. You spent quite a bit time to write this long question, yet you can't take some time off? – scaaahu Apr 7 '15 at 5:11
  • I say that, but then I just realised that next week is the final week of lectures, so after that, I could take some time off. – user32670 Apr 10 '15 at 18:56
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I agree with your own feeling. You do seem to need time to find out about yourself in a more ordinary working environment. (Met Office Modelling Department ? Come on. They have the pick of Math/Atmos Phys PhDs there and you should know it. Take it handier.) Exeter has been one of the first UK establishments to introduce US-style major/minor degrees. The Math Dept's web page shows an interesting With Year In Industry program. I'd look into this avenue. Buona fortuna.

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  • Also, I don't think pointing someone who already has an MMath to the UG programmes of Exeter University's maths department is going to be helpful – Yemon Choi Jun 1 at 2:14
  • I stand corrected. But the Exeter MMath course has a similar option as well as one on International Study. – Trunk Jun 1 at 12:01
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So yeah, that does sound like you're depressed. (I will admit, I did not read the WHOLE post). The angst is definitely weighing you down, and affecting you day by day.

Sometimes it's better to slow down, in order to speed up...

Speak to more and more people about your concerns. One : to hear what they have to say, Two : to hear your own thoughts reflected through their minds.

But one thing is for sure, you can always rely on your own mathematical ability. Your innate skill to think, reason and absorb mathematics.

Maybe let your mind travel around a bit.

To give your mind a break, there are plenty of YouTube channels that will entertain and motivate you ... since it has to be 'maths' related, why not Numberphile, ViHart, StandUpMaths, SingingBanana, MathoLoger. Hell, even step outside your intellectual zone and dive into other disciplines ... MinutePhysics, SixtySymbols, Periodic Videos, Vsauce, The School of Life, The Film Theory, The 8-bit Guy etc...

Maybe a few books to guide your decision:

  • The Professor is In - The Essential Guide to Turning Your PHd into a Job - Karen Kelsky (auth.) - 2015 - 0553419420
  • A PhD Is Not Enough - A Guide to Survival in Science - Peter J. Feibelman (auth.) - 2011 - Basic Books - 0465025336

oh, and one for the LULz:

  • Surviving your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School - Adam Ruben (auth.) - 2010 - 0307589447

the first recommended book, started out as a blog, in case you wanna take a browse --- Blog :: The Professor is In

The second book shows you how to plan ahead in a cautious manner, while the third one will have you crackling in one sitting.
But I personally prefer the first one.

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