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.)

  • 2
    Here's what I see: all the things you have listed (except perhaps the bullet about picking up social cues) seem completely standard for someone beginning their PhD, even without Asperger's. Perhaps your condition makes some of the issues more pronounced, but a lof of the difficulty you are having is just a natural part of being a young researcher, and the only way to overcome it is with experience. Of course, you should also try and mitigate the things that are affected by your condition (for example, you could try telling your advisor about the need to tell you things explicitly).
    – tomasz
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 7:30
  • @tomasz You've hit the nail on the head - these are issues that anyone can expect to encounter in a position like mine, yet people on the autistic spectrum have fewer tools for dealing with anxiety and stress and so those issues may indeed be more pronounced. If I want to potentially work with another supervisor in the future, I will be upfront with them about my condition and explain to them how it affects me - based on their response I will then consider whether I would like to work for them and whether they seem adaptable.
    – user32670
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 11:55
  • 1
    Your question focuses on all the negatives of your first PHD attempt. Were there any positives? Have you actually enjoyed doing research? Because from all your posts you seem to expect that your advisor will pick you from the hand, show you what exactly to research by setting precise expectations and deliverables and help you overcome obstacles when stuck. Unfortunately, this is not how PHDs work or are supposed to work. Your plan "I am taking a pause.. to broaden my horizons and regain my motivation" is excellent and would help you focus on being happy on a work you love doing.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 12:30
  • There were some positives from the PhD attempt. I did like reading books and learning about areas of mathematics I had not come across before, but this is more in a "know as much as there is to know" type way rather than a "probe deeply into one aspect and become an expert on it" type way. My approach is probably more in line with that of an undergraduate student than what a PhD student should be doing. It also boils down to research area - if it's one I absolutely love then learning it becomes easy. Otherwise it feels like a chore and then I don't feel like putting 50 hours a week into it.
    – user32670
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 13:22
  • 1
    None of these difficulties seem to be entirely specific to an academic career. Perhaps it will help you to tackle this issue in two parts: (i) how do I manage the challenges of my condition in the workplace, and (ii) how does academia differ from this general case. Note that (ii) probably has positives as well as negatives. No doubt the internet can help with (i) - perhaps try workplace.SE?
    – avid
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 18:30

2 Answers 2


While I don't have a direct relevant experience, let me offer you some advice. First of all, I would like to express that I am quite impressed with your achievements as well as your attitude and spirit toward achieving your dream. Now, the promised advice.

My first point is that you are presumably is still relatively young and, thus, it is possible for you not to worry too much about the speed of your return to academia. So, my first advice is to take one step (in the right direction) at a time. The second advice is, when doing professional networking (via online, offline or various hybrid modes), try to find and connect with people in academia, who are less focused on immediate results and more on the human factor. In other words, people, who see potential in other people. It it not easy to find such people, I know, but you have to be persistent and, at the same time, patient, as it might take time (which you, hopefully, have, as I assumed).

Finally, it is IMHO very important, when being in a Ph.D. program, to periodically self-assess your motivation with the selected topic or area of research. If you will find that your motivation has a downward trend (not when it has already reached dangerously low level), try to improve your motivation by looking at the topic or field of study at different angles, in other words, from different perspectives. If that approach won't infuse an additional portion of motivation into you, consider changing the topic or area of research, based on, perhaps, your new interests or shared interests of you and the above-mentioned people in academia. While this last advice of mine seems like a common sense, sometimes we forget about simple solutions to our problems and lose precious time in unnecessary struggles. Hope this helps. Good luck!


I also have autism, although discovered this quite lately, and I am doing a PhD in theoretical computer science (which is very mathematical, way more than most other branches of cs).

Let me share my experiences with you. I can relate to some of your points very well, but regarding my supervisor I am really lucky, as far as I know he did not know that I am on the autistic spectrum. We get along really good up to now (1 year), he is a kind person, gives me lots of freedom, encourages me and so on. So I really enjoy being here.

But in the first year up to now I have not accomplished anything scientifically important, I do not even have a topic for my thesis fixed; and over the course of the last months this comes up more and more, and yes builds up tension on myself, but I try to stay focused and built a plan for the next months.

Where I really have problems is in my social life, I have difficulty bonding with people, to understand why they act like they do. I am also more or less a "closed" person in that I cannot talk well about feelings or "everyday stuff", or sometimes act inappropriate in social situation, feel inhibited, which makes me act disorganized or planless, and so on; I guess the mix of all of them makes it difficult for people to relate to me too, alienates them from me or they just think I am chaotic/stupid whatever. Let me mention that this gave (and still) gives me a really hard time here in my new place as I had to move the city to start my PhD, where in my hometown the people I know there accepted me as I am.

But despite from that, maybe I can tell you something about "inappropriate advisors". I have also studied mathematics (after computer science), therein I specialised in an area of algebra and the experiences I collected there with my advisor where totally different; and hypothetically if she where my PhD advisor I can imagine things would run very different for me, in the bad direction. I still remember one of the first meetings with her, where in some sense she was putting me down, as how difficult her field is, how much work you have to put in and that this is not for everyone, and even questioned my ability as a person. Later I heard that she did this with other students too (but before drawing a wrong picture, there are also student which come along with her really well).

Anyway, as I was genuinely interested in the field I specialised in it. During the course of me working in this field I had some difficulty with her. One time she totally put me down on one approach, it was quite an basic issue, but anyway still after 3 years I cannot say what I have done wrong.

Later I read (peer-reviewed journal-) papers from her, even discovered many (substanciel) errors (maybe due to the fact that I was quite new to the field I suspect that I questioned many "standard" arguments more closely). And suprisingly to this criticism from me she was very kind, accepted them, and even sincerely thanked me for them.

Eventually I started my PhD, and moved to another city for it. I meet her at a conference later (as I said, I still have an interest and the conference was in my past home town and I was anyway around at that time, so I visited it despite not being in the field anymore). And there suprisingly she was very kind to me, I still remember I was standing away from the crowd outside smoking and she came to me, quite enthusiastic, smiling and asking me a lot of questions of what I am doing now and so on.

If you would see me you would not think that I am autistic, guess I have learned some strategies to cope with it in the long term, so people might get a different impression from me at first. As written above I often make the impression (and indeed I am much to often) desorganized/inappropriate/chaotic. But on the other side, on an intellectuel level: I started programming quite early, participated in contests in my teenage years, and even got it to the finals of a national wide programming contest two times, as a student I won prices, often had the best marks, was among the best in the university of the students I started with (thats why I got recommended for student grants), my thesis got published and I also won a price for that.

Also I am very formal in my thinking, on an intellectuell level in math and cs, I always question things, and I also critize others quickly for it, expecially for bad notation or sloppy reasoning, this I already started in school - quite contrary to that I am a very shy person in social aspects.

Let me add, I already worked for one and a half year before starting my PhD as a programmer. I had great freedom therein and I was the only programmer, in this context I got along with my colleagues very well, but as I know myself this was partly because of this independence I had there (and also which I had here in my PhD again).

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