I'm looking to apply to a Ph.D program in mathematics. I was going to apply last year, but ended up getting cold feet because I wasn't sure how having a learning disability would affect (1) being admitted (application process), and (2) if I were to had been so fortunate, whether faculty would treat me any differently (be less willing to take me on as one of their students, for example). I especially worry about (2) because I have experienced a few awkward situations with professors as an undergrad (at the university I attended, it was quite uncommon to find a student with a learning disability studying maths).

For the sake of simplifying the issue, let's assume that my understanding of mathematics is roughly equivalent to those who I would be "competing" against in the application process.

  1. Should I explain my situation in my application and can it affect my chances of getting in? (I do not mean to ask if it is legal or not).
  2. How are graduate students with disabilities seen from a professor's point of view?
  3. What would happen if I were to need a year or two more than other students needed to finish their doctorate? Would they consider this matter in the admission process? What about funding?

I apologize if I don't provide a clearer picture, but I'm not very comfortable providing too much information. I would really appreciate hearing from those in academia (though others are obviously more than welcome to provide responses) who have either personally been through a similar situation or dealt with a student with a learning disability. Lastly, please don't worry about "softening" any responses, I'd like responses to be as honest as possible.

Update: I am looking into programs both in Europe and in the United States (there are programs in both countries I would very much like to attend). I've noticed some programs in the United States state on their website they would like students to finish in 4 years (perhaps this is due to economic constraints in recent years).

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    This may well depend upon the nature of the learning disability. If you could provide a little more details about that, then perhaps a concrete answer can be given. Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 10:08
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    It could be worth contacting the disability services people at the universities you're interested in applying to to ask for their advice.
    – Tara B
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 13:19

6 Answers 6


WARNING: Stay at your home institution, even if it means that you might not get your ideal pick of subject area. Once you leave your home undergrad institution, you won't be able to get back your accomodations so easily. I was accepted and into a Math PhD program this year with full funding. I moved across the country to work with a certain professor at this new school.

The math department is awesome, but the disability services is horrible. I was told that I am the only graduate student that has ever asked for accomodations...ever! The director of the center somehow thinks that I am being insincere despite the multiple levels of documentation that I have sent. The higher your level of education is, the more likely it is that you are supposed to be a failure if you are an LD student. Since you'll be going into math, they simply won't believe that you have any problems.

Do not disclose that you require accomodations to anyone until after you have been accepted with funding. Get these issues settled before you start classes. It might even be a good idea to defer your studies until you get these issues resolved with the disability services.

If you have poor grades due to a learning disability and want to get into a grad school, then you must compensate with published research with your professors. When it comes to graduate acceptance, they are only looking for research potential. They will overlook your GRE scores or grades if they are above the 50th percentile and you have a strong research background. The GRE isn't predictive of anything for math students because it is a timed exam full of highschool math problems that you can do in your sleep. With a learning disability, you will get a low score because you will only finish fewer than half of the problems, but since you are a math major, you will get all of them right. Again, they are highschool math problems.

The only grades that really count are are your proof-heavy math courses. You should try to get As in most of these. Especially Abstract Algebra and Analysis. The grad school will ignore any past failures in the pre-calc through calculus sequence of courses if you have done well in the proof heavy courses (abstract algebra, analysis, topology, number theory, combinatorics, graph theory).

Go to all of the mathematics conferences and colloquiums. Hang out with the professors. Get to know a few of them very well. Learn about their research. They will give you toy problems to take home for fun. If you do enough of these, then they will eventually give you some real problems to work on. Then all of a sudden, you will be presenting at conferences and publishing papers with them. They will write you awesome letters for grad school.

Once in grad school, you will have to deal with another hurdle -- the qualifier exam (quals). These are typically timed exams. You will have to make a really good impression on all of the department's professors for several years if you want them to argue for giving you more time on the quals. Giving someone without a learning disability more time on the quals will not change the outcome of the exam, so they will allow more time in the case of an LD student.

In grad school, you will work with your professors very closely. Work on their problems for a while. Eventually you will run into something that they haven't thought of. This will be your PhD thesis. Every question that you can answer in math generates new questions.

Your mathematics ability is judged by creativity, not on speed.

  1. Should I explain my situation in my application and can it affect my chances of getting in? (I do not mean to ask if it is legal or not).

Don't disclose until you get in. Research the schools and see what kinds of support are available for students with learning disabilities. From my experience, it is more important to have the support of an office backing you, than to have the acceptance of professors. My Chair and dissertation committee were all supportive and worked with me to finish in the timeframe that I needed.

  1. How are graduate students with disabilities seen from a professor's point of view?

Stigma is real. Most professors that I have dealt with as a PhD student did not understand or help me (not because they didn't want to, they just didn't understand), but I got the support I needed from the disability resource center at my university and I received the necessary accommodations. Professors had to adhere to the law, so they worked with the disability office on campus to make sure that I had what I needed. You are your biggest advocate though, and it is your responsibility to follow through on everything. When you do that and you have an office backing you, you will be able to succeed.

  1. What would happen if I were to need a year or two more than other students needed to finish their doctorate? Would they consider this matter in the admission process? What about funding?

I got 2 extensions and took a total of 10 years to complete my PhD. The average time to complete a PhD at my university is 7.5 years, so 2.5 years longer was no big deal. As long as I was making progress towards completion and submitting my APR (Annual Progress Report), I was granted the time. Like I said though, I had total support from my committee, the university grad studies office, and the disability resource center, but I had to facilitate this process and that was difficult.

  • Welcome to Academia.SE! It's great to hear an answer from personal experience.
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 6:56

Edit: For some reason I mis-read the question as "physical" disability, rather than "learning disability." I've amended the answer appropriately, although I suppose it still has a slant towards physical disability.

Should I explain my situation in my application and can it affect my chances of getting in? (I do not mean to ask if it is legal or not).

This is up to you. If you approach it as "how I've overcome my disability to do well in Mathematics," then it could positively affect your acceptance. If you do put it into a statement of purpose, make sure you have someone else read it over and criticize whether or not it sounds like you're forcing the issue (you don't want to do that).

How are graduate students with disabilities seen from a professor's point of view?

As a high school teacher, I had many students with varying disabilities, and I approached each student's situation differently, always with the goals to (1) make the student feel comfortable, (2) to make the other students feel comfortable, and (3) to minimize any effects on the classroom because of the student's disability (e.g., one student had a pace maker and it affected the types of electrical experiments and demonstrations we could do during physics class, so I had to plan around it to minimize the issue). As a college instructor, I've had students with hearing disabilities, and I wore a microphone during lectures that the student could tune in to with a radio. I've also had students with eyesight disabilities, and we made sure that front-row seats were available, and that they had access to any slides before class (a good idea for any student, actually!).

For students with learning disabilities, I've always encouraged them to use the resources available through the school. As long as a student has a documented disability, they get the benefits of that diagnosis (e.g., extra time on tests -- although I almost always give everyone extra time if they need it).

I never felt any ill-will towards disabled students (physical or learning), and we worked around the challenges mutually. I'm sure you've already handled this individually with many of your previous teachers and professors, so I would continue to do that when you get to grad school.

What would happen if I were to need 5 to 6 years to finish my doctorate?

You'd be the average!


In my first response, I didn't really focus on what might be different in grad school (vice undergrad).

  1. You'll have many more one-on-one interactions with your advisor and other professors -- if your disability might somehow affect these interactions, consider that carefully when you decide on your advisor. For example, if your disability involves poor memory skills and you need to read notes before answering your advisor's questions, don't pick an advisor that gets upset when you don't immediately have answers.

  2. You will most likely have to give presentations in class and at conferences and workshops, which you may have gotten away with not doing in undergraduate school (and certainly if you have to defend your thesis before your committee). If your disability will prevent you from doing that effectively, you need to think about how to mitigate it.

  3. You'll spend long hours at school, in an office or lab, or the library. Consider this if your disability will be affected by it.

  4. You'll read a lot. A LOT. If you thought you read a lot in undergraduate school, stand by. Again, if your disability limits the amount of time you can read or the ability for you to read, you will have to figure out how to mitigate it.

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    About "You'd be the average!": I rather expect the OP is not planning to do a PhD in North America, since I'm pretty sure everyone is aware that 5 or 6 years for a PhD is normal there.
    – Tara B
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 13:08
  • @TaraB - good point; I forgot that many countries have different timelines for PhD studies. That said, it would surprise me if schools set a hard limit of four years to complete the degree (in the U.S., I've seen hard limits of seven years and ten years). Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 13:14
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    A hard limit of four years is actually very common in the UK. The 'standard' completion time is supposed to be three years (I know very few people who have achieved this). However, in some circumstances one can argue for an extension, and I expect that having a learning disability might be such a circumstance.
    – Tara B
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 13:16
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    @TaraB If UK students don't have to take courses, how do they develop a foundation in much more advanced topics? I would assume that would be necessary to do research, no?
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 18:41
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    @Mark: The undergraduate degrees are much more focussed, so they get to the advanced topics earlier than in North America. Aside from that, they just do lots of reading, or attend some courses without taking the exam. It does seem to be increasingly common for courses to be required, though (but still without exams). (This is all only for mathematics, I don't know much about PhDs in other subjects.)
    – Tara B
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 19:14

Echoing some of the other good answers: in the U.S., "reasonable accommodations" must be made. A modicum of formal documentation, and interview with our "Accommodations Office" will easily get accommodations such as more time on timed exams, for grad students or undergrads.

Beyond contests and quiz-bowls, "time" is usually not a key issue in the practice of mathematics. For that matter, some people who've done very well in contests find genuine mathematics not to their taste.

So, in the vein that "slow and steady wins the race", indeed, reasonably-talented (and interested!) people who can stay more-or-less-focused for weeks, months, or years will tend to produce good work, while quiz-kids who can only work for an hour or a day will not.

This does leave up in the air the issue of appraisal of mathematical talent (which is not a scalar... it comes in varying forms) in the face of some sort of learning disability. The fundamental issue would be to convince the admissions committee that you have the talent, perhaps despite problems with standard filtering devices such as GRE... Hopefully, you have faculty mentors who can attest to your talent in much subtler ways than grades and such. If not, things become tricky.

I've been on grad admissions committees for decades, and the bottom-line question is really about capacity and interest in finishing the degree. Achieving a good outcome a little more slowly is not desirable, but that aspect is secondary to the quality. Years later, a year or two now won't matter too much.


EDIT: My answer is about research based PhD in UK from real experience, not from a leaflet.

First of all it depends where do you want to study. I can tell you my experience from my UK perspective (I do PhD at the moment in Engineering, I finished undergrad Math with Stat).

The PhD is completely different than Undergrad. You do not have to much contacts with Professors even with your supervisor quite rare. At least it is completely different than an undergrad level. You do your own study. They expect you to write some forms every three months. After about a year you should have written Literature Review (about 20-30 pages), after that start to produce some results.

The aim of PhD is to make an input into knowledge. You need to find something new and nobody will do it for you. Do not expect that you will go to someone and ask how to do that because nobody will know. After your first year you should be the best expert in your small piece of the field and nobody will know better than you.

Remember PhD is about writing. You have to write articles and only this can give you strong diploma.

All your skills counts and there is no perfect candidate. You can have something what other don't have and this can be your strong point. I think nobody really cares about learning difficulties, because you do not have exams, do not have coursework, but your job is to write articles, if you can do that in your time and space, you fine.

You will get funding usually for three years. After that you have a year to write your thesis but you do not have money. After that they push you to finish, so you need to pay the fee by yourself. Nobody will give you more money because of your difficulties. It is your choice. You can do your PhD part time and have founding for six years or you can try to find some sponsorship.

To finish I would like to tell you what one of the professors told me about his recruitment strategy. I asked him what is the most important factor if he have to chose his postdoc. He told me that he does interview and ask himself if he would like to spent 15 hours fly to a conference with the guy who is interviewed. There are all different reasons why one person is selected and another not.

Keep applying, keep in mind you will not get your first, probably not second or even third position, smile and don't give up.

Good luck.

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    "You do not have contact with Porfessors even with your supervisor very rare." I found this to be exactly opposite in grad school: I met more often with my professors and had weekly one-on-one meetings with my advisor. Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 12:59
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    I agree with Chris, but I think this may be somewhat subject-dependent. The OP is intending to study mathematics, and so I think much in this answer will not be so relevant (for example, a literature review is not usually required in mathematics, and meetings with supervisors are usually fairly frequent).
    – Tara B
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 13:06
  • How I said on the beginning. This is from my experience. On my PhD I do Maths and Stats, mainly Bayesian filtering, mathematical modelling etc. The literature review is the obligatory part and it have to be done for transfer from PhD to MPhil. I am surprise you see your supervisor so often, as from very beginning I was told it is not the case. Before I started my PhD I asked around and this is not my case, but very general rule.
    – tomasz74
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 13:40
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    @tomasz74: If someone told me that they'd been admitted to a graduate program where students have "no contact with professors", my immediate reply would be "Don't walk. Run."
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 15:12
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    @tomasz74: Where I did my PhD it was considered somewhat unusual to see one's supervisor less often than fortnightly. But a friend who did his PhD in politics saw his supervisor once every three months.
    – Tara B
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 19:16

Since I can't see it mentioned yet, I feel the need to point out that not making accommodations is illegal in some juristictions at least. Of course that is not the same as prevailing attitudes, but those change best when someone fights. Whether you are willing to be the person that fights is another question. However, what your experience would be will vary between institutions - some will be better at dealing with disabilities than others, so I would suggest getting in contact with current students to find out what things are really like.

Another big factor is exactly what the nature of your difficulties is. If they are fundamental to your ability to do maths then you probably won't get anywhere, as you don't have a right to be excellent at something. If they are more about how you learn mathematics then you might be OK. Doctoral study is much more individual than undergraduate study, so you should be able to adapt working patterns to suit you better. On the other hand, some aspects of certain disabilities are so prevalent within mathematics that you won't get any sympathy from some people.

I think that a key thing to consider is that the nature of accommodation would very likely change. Doing a PhD requires high level performance. You will not get credit for writing poor quality papers because it's hard for you. What you should get is help to build up your coping strategies so that you can produce high quality work despite your difficulties. The research community at large will not make any allowances for you, so you must learn how you can keep up.

Personally I would think that taking an extra 2 years sounds like a lot. Universities and supervisors are likely to get hassled about a student taking that long. There should be systems in place to deal with people who have unexpected problems while studying and so need time out or just longer, but going in expecting to take that much longer doesn't sound like much of a good idea.

I think you should discuss your needs with the disability office as part of your application process. Also, as I said before, talk to current students to find out what the local culture is like in practice. But also be prepared to take responsibility for yourself.

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