I am a mathematics graduate who recently dropped out of a PhD for personal reasons. I also have Asperger's Syndrome which I was diagnosed with in 1996. Since dropping out, I have been thinking long and hard about why it did not work out, and something that's just occurred to me is that being on the autistic spectrum has presented greater challenges in trying to succeed in academia than I originally anticipated. It is something that I have tried to overcome and repress in very recent years but it has still played a major part in how I learn and interpret things compared to other people.
Here are some ways in which I am affected by my Asperger's Syndrome:
- I can be more easily overwhelmed by dealing with unfamiliar people and environments than most other people, which may present challenges in moving departments.
- I often find independent and open-ended learning tasks overwhelming; even if the work is relatively straightforward.
- I have difficulty picking up on the social cues of supervisors and implicit ways of communicating to me that something needs to be improved. By the time it is made much more explicit, it is often too late.
- I find learning unfamiliar content a challenge, and although I can learn things fairly well if they engage me well enough, I find the whole process daunting, particularly when I don't know what I am working towards or if I don't have an underlying sense of what is "correct". This is especially challenging in experimental and research environments, where this preconcieved knowledge is not present.
- I can get sidetracked from a task if I am overwhelmed by it, which leads to me going off at tangents and being afraid to approach the task at hand.
- I am very prone to forgetting things and mixing things up unless they are written down or stated very explicitly.
- I find it difficult to manage my time, and based on previous experience, I find I cannot simply say "I am going to learn chapter X in Y hours".
- I can often find it hard to articulate my emotions and separate personal matters from professional matters.
- I often have major difficulty interpreting criticism. If it is presented in a diplomatic and ecplicit manner then I can correct what was wrong, but sometimes my mind struggles to know how to process it and how to move forward. In some instances people have expressed their disappointment about my apparent inability to complete a task which may seem somewhat basic to them, and things like this can send me on a downward spiral which makes me feel depressed and demotivated, thus making me feel much less like improving my work and finding a way forward. (This is what happened during my dissertation and the PhD that I started and dropped out of, but this is a problem that I didn't really acknowledge at the time.)
I have always been a consistently high achiever at school and university (gaining several awards along the way) but this has not come without its difficulties. Although learning new things can be challenging for a lot of people, people on the autistic spectrum, myself included, often have fewer tools in being able to deal with the associated stress and anxiety than most other people. I have worked with academic faculty before and they have been completely oblivious to this aspect of my life, even though there has been documentation provided by the universities' support units which has been freely accessible by the faculty involved. As a result, they simply think of me as a highly capable student as most of my exam marks have been 1sts, and then they become surprised or disappointed when my progress is slow due to finding the tasks psychologically challenging to process and make progress with. I tried to mention my specific needs to my supervisors but their response was that the expectations they have are those of anyone they work with, and even when they have been disappointed with my progress for one reason or other, they have been unwilling to adapt their supervision techniques or people skills to make me feel more comfortable and more able to progress. I have had some rotten luck with supervisors before, who seemed ill-equipped to deal with people like me, which is probably a reflection of their people skills and the extent to which they were worth me working for in the first place.
I really want to become an academic mathematician in the long run and make a return to it in the forthcoming years, although I'm very aware that the challenges I face may make this very difficult to cope with if I'm doing a PhD or a post-doc or so forth, especially as the whole point of research is to delve deeper into some unknown aspect of a subject that hasn't been uncovered before. However, this would make successfully completing a PhD incredibly rewarding for me as it will have helped me to convince myself that I can overcome such obstacles, thus providing personal gain as well as building my academic career. I have had numerous attempts at research projects, although both supervisors expressed their disappointment at how slow my performance has been, despite this being more to do with the personal challenges I've already mentioned as opposed to being lazy and not putting the work in (which incidentally is what my supervisors thought I was). I am not giving up with academia though. I am not letting these bad experiences make me think I’m simply not cut out for academia, as people with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism can accomplish a great deal of success if the right type of support is in place for them. I want to return to doing a PhD in the future although I am taking a pause from academia to broaden my horizons and regain my motivation.
Does anyone have any advice on how to overcome these issues in the fullness of time, or more realistically, alleviate them? Also, how would I mention this to a potential future supervisor without making them potentially think I may not be capable of doctoral level work?
(Also, I am not looking for any comments on my suitability as a PhD student. I know that given my predicament, doing a PhD or other academic jobs will be difficult, but advice telling me that I am not good enough, I should just give up or settle for something else is not what I am looking for.)