In September I properly 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 - the teaching, being part of a department and reading about mathematics. I get on pretty well with my supervisor and I do quite enjoy the work I'm doing. However, I've been having recurring thoughts that at the moment perhaps I am not cut out for work at the doctorate level and it might be a good idea to revisit mathematical studies at a later stage.
Basically, at the moment I’m a bit worried that even though I love specific aspects of mathematics and learning about the subject on the whole, at the moment I don’t feel I have the right mindset for doing research as 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, because I have a very good idea of what is involved (i.e. reading research papers, books, literature surveying etc.) but come to think of it, I never really had a proper break from academia as my life has been on autopilot, and I feel like I've been running out of steam over the years and this has taken its toll on me perhaps more than I first realised. I know PhD students very frequently go through spells of feeling dispirited, incapable and not really getting anywhere for weeks and even months, but I feel that if my heart is really in mathematics that this shouldn't be happening in the first place. 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 what I have done and adjust to a learning curve (and an inexperienced supervisor) with limited success.
Since graduating from Exeter I never really had a proper break; immediately after all my degree work was finished there, my new supervisor here suggested reading and having meetings in the summer - which I was okay to do to please her (and which I suggested in the original interview, more for brownie points than anything else), but I personally didn’t feel ready to do it just yet. Even though I know I have the mathematical aptitude (and now to an extent, a more well-balanced background) to do well, I want to convince myself that I’m capable of functioning in other ways that are not maths/academia-related, so that I can work on myself as a person and take a more open-minded approach to life. Otherwise, I will be spending my twenties having done nothing other than academia. So whilst I'm adament at the moment that a career in academia is what my long-term life goal is, at the moment I feel as though I need some time out before going into it fully again. It is also worth bearing in mind that I have been renowned by my parents as being the type of person who is considered highly intelligent and prefers not to make a big deal of my achievements – so even when other people say I am doing really well, I’ve been ignoring/blocking this out and only focusing on the negative aspects of what it is that I am doing. This is why I might benefit from doing something different as this will allow me to convince myself that I am functioning in other ways.
Here are some options I have speculated upon:
- Having a complete break from academia (6 months to a year) where I don’t have to worry about any overarching supervisors or qualifications. And then after that I could slowly ease myself back into academia at my own pace and do some reading relating to the field I want to be studying. I have some books which are tailored towards real analysis for graduate students, and analysis of PDEs, which I could teach myself from.
- Some universities offer CDT (Centre for Doctoral Training) courses in partial differential equations, such as Oxford and Edinburgh. I applied to the Oxford one during my final year as an undergraduate and was turned down (and the interview went spectacularly badly) - however, I’ve been filling in gaps in my knowledge which they would consider desirable, I have now had some experience of what it means to be a research student and furthermore Oxford rates the university I'm at highly as well as having ties with them in this area of research, so if I was to re-apply for an interview there I would have a lot more to talk about. I also think that if I were to go to a CDT course, I would be much more rigorously trained as a research student than doing what I have been doing now, and trying to figure it out as I go along and get disillusioned later on down the line.
- I have also thought that I need to do something different for a while - e.g. Perhaps by learning another programming language and doing a programming job, or working in simulation/modelling 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, plus it’s based right around the corner from my house in my home town!)
- Maybe doing the above or getting a fairly normal job, to demonstrate people skills, and saving up money to do another Masters programme (e.g. The Mathematical Tripos Part III course at Cambridge) which will in turn put me in a very good position for my PhD.
- After doing the above, I could always return to a PhD programme much later on down the line, when I am a much more mature person with a better mindset towards my work.
Thankfully, I’ve had a long and hard conversation with both my parents about this and they were incredibly supportive – as long as I have a plan of what it is that I want to do with my life then they are willing to support me emotionally and financially, as well as letting me stay at home until I’ve figured out what to do.
I do have a few questions, as the option of dropping out of my current PhD (or maybe jsut continuing on and settling for an MPhil qualification) is looking all the more appealing.
- 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?
- 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).
- 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?
TL;DR: Currently in my first year of a maths PhD programme but thinking it might be a good idea to take a break from academia, recharge my batteries, do something else and revisit mathematical research at a later stage, to help reignite my spark and ultimately be in a better mindset.
Thanks for the two replies - I also asked about this question on The Student Room. The bottom line was that in general it would not be a great idea, and I should only make the move if I am really, really convinced about it. The thing is, I'm leaning further and further towards it because I'm thinking if I would like to take a break from my studies it would be better to do it now while not much progress has been made, 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, but I would like to think this is because of my current mindset and general factors rather than simply an inability to do the work. I know for a fact that if I put my heart and mind into it, I can achieve anything, but I am failing to achieve things at the moment which I should think are relatively straightforward (and probably don't even require that much mathematics), purely out of motivation than anything (or lack thereof). The same thing happened during my Master's project, so maybe it wasn't the best idea to go straight into a PhD programme knowing that this mindset was taking place. However, at the time I was told that taking a break wasn't the best thing to do so I went along with the advice, but this seems to have bitten me in the backside.
This is something I might speak to my advisor (a different person to my supervisor) about, as he is a lot more experienced than my current supervisor in dealing with and supervising students. Furthermore my main supervisor is really nice although I can tell that I've been disappointing her recently, and she once mentioned that if I felt that this wasn't for me then that would be fair enough. There isn't really anything wrong with the way my supervisor is doing things as far as I am aware.
I'm thinking in terms of the bigger picture it would be the right thing to do, even if it does become a slight obstacle in applying for future positions. In this instance, I might see if I could do another Master's somewhere, if I can get a job to fund it, as this could then act as the "refresh" I'd need before going into a PhD. I'd rather do another PhD in a few years and do a really good job of it, rather than doing one now with a mindset that'll lead to a half-arsed piece of work.