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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.

  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?
  4. 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.


Edit:

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.

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    I must admit I did not read through the whole question - too long. However, this is my reaction: if you want to take a break, take one. Just be aware of the possible consequences such as: you will get the PhD later than you planned because you are absent for a year, you will take time to refresh those math that you thought you knew, your department may not like it (they need someone to fill in the spot, etc. – scaaahu Apr 4 '15 at 9:59
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    "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.)". This probably shows that you do not have such a good idea about what a PHD means. It is about writing YOUR papers and so much more than just reading other people's papers. – Alexandros Apr 4 '15 at 10:47
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    Come to think of it, I probably should have said that these are things I have to do as part of a PhD - but it's not limited to these. I do know that the main goal of my PhD is writing a thesis, getting published, making some original contribution to my field of research in which I am an expert. But along the way, additional responsibilities include those that I mentioned. – omegaSQU4RED Apr 4 '15 at 18:16
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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.

  • 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. – omegaSQU4RED 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. – omegaSQU4RED 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. – omegaSQU4RED Apr 10 '15 at 18:56
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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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