Telling tutor about personal problems affecting my studies - advice please


I posted on here a while ago about finding it difficult to cope with my MSc studies as a close family member was in hospital. Fortunately the situation is improving, but it is going to be a very slow process that is prone to serious setbacks, it is not predictable and therefore stressful for everyone.

I am putting on a brave face to my family as they would be upset and angry if they knew my work was suffering, and it would cause a lot of unnecessary tension. But I am finding it really difficult, its upsetting and making me feel completely hopeless as I feel the ability I had is slipping away and being wasted, because my mind just can't seem to focus any more.

I know I need to tell my tutors but don't know how to in a way that won't make me look like an emotional wreck. They all know me as I did my UG degree there last year and apparently I'm well-liked by them, I got a first so they must think I am capable, they are also going to support my PhD application next year. I've never applied for mitigating circumstances and don't intend to as that would make me feel like a failure, but I really don't think I'm going to do very well, I certainly won't get the distinction I was aiming for.

I just don't know what to do, I feel like my life has been turned upside-down, and like I'm letting everyone down as well as myself, but at the same time I feel like my tutors have to know in case I need their help in the future.

I'm sorry if this doesn't make a lot of sense as I'm exhausted, but any advice/moral support would really be appreciated. Natassia x


Just be honest with them. They're used to people having personal problems. You have big ones, and you're not over them yet. So just be honest and straightforward, and ask for help. You're not letting anyone down, certainly not your tutors, not your family, and - above all - not yourself.

The university authorities are there to help people get through problems. Don't be afraid to use their support.

I struggled throughout all my history degrees with incurable and progressive serious illness. If I had hid things from my tutors and supervisors and tried to put on a brave face I'd have struggled to reach my potential. So I'm speaking from bitter experience. I'm sure your tutor will understand. And don't think your distinction is out of the question. I managed one, amazingly, despite everything. You may do too. But take things one step at a time.

Good luck.


Hey Natassia. So sorry to hear that things are still so difficult for you. I know how you feel in that sometimes you just want to carry on without making a fuss and letting people know that you are struggling. In my undergrad years I lost two close relatives (grandparents) both in exam periods and my parents split up right before my finals, which was completely unexpected (fortunately they are now back together!). At the same time I became ill myself, partly due to the stress. But both times I just tried to carry on, I didn't want anyone to worry about me or think that they were the cause of problems with my work or my health. I didn't tell my tutor about the loss of my grandparents, but when I fell ill I did email him to let him know that I was unwell. I sat my finals in the sick bay, although I was reassured that I didn't have to take them, and that I would be awarded a first on the merit of my completed work anyway. In the end I got my first without having to rely on the mitigating circumstances. It sounds like you have a similar attitude to my own, and will struggle on anyway. But you really need to let your tutor know...just a simple email to let them know what is happening, and the effect it is having on you. You are not letting anyone down by doing this- they all know of your brilliant academic achievements at undergrad level and I'm sure they will be extremely supportive whilst you are having such a hard time. If you miss your distinction but come close then this will go in your favour. It's not cheating- nobody would be able to do their best work in your situation. And I hope you're also getting some support with this- maybe go talk to your uni counsellor or something? It's a lot to carry on your own, especially when you're trying to put a brave face on for everyone else. I really hope you manage to have a break over xmas. Best wishes to you and your family, KB.


Thank you both for the replies, its difficult talking to family about this because all they seem to be concerned about sometimes is my ability to get a Masters and a PhD, sometimes I think they don't really understand the difficulty and emotional investment involved. Saying that though, they only want the best for me; they know how much I enjoy my course and they want me to make the most of it.

I think I will tell my main tutor, in the New Year though of course. I'm sure he'll be supportive, but as you said KB I don't like to use things like mitigating circumstances - in my UG class a lot of students made them up to get extensions etc when really they were being lazy - I know I'm not like that but using them would make me feel like I was abusing the system, its like they come with their own stigma attached.

Its difficult because I absolutely love my work and the reading I have to do takes me to another world (however cheesy that sounds!), I actually find it quite relaxing. But everything thats going on stops me from doing it, even though it would help. Its really difficult to explain, but its like a vicious circle where I seem unable to help myself. I am looking into getting some counselling as well as I think this is partly due to me not being able to experience stress properly, and generally burning out. I was on anti-depressants for anxiety a few years ago and I don't really want to take them again, however I might have to.

Thanks again for the advice, its really much appreciated. Nx


Counselling's a good idea. Another option I used when I was going through a really difficult patch was to speak to the university chaplain. I'm agnostic, so this was a bit radical! But I was facing the increased chance of dying very soon, and very suddenly. It made me incredibly detached from the everyday world and I found it very hard to get on with my PhD. The counsellors couldn't relate to the severity of what I was going through, but the chaplain could, and she was a huge support, in a very non-religious way which suited my circumstances. So that might be an option for you as well.


Natassia. I'm sorry to hear about your problems. My advice is to make these issues known to your course organiser and supervisor as soon as you can. They will help and support you because it sounds like they regard you as a very good student who takes their work very seriously. I know a girl who- during the final months of her masters degree - lost a close friend in an accident and found out that one of her parents (who had a progressive illness) only had a few months to live. All of her friends were aware of the hideous stress that she was under but she didn't tell the university about it until her supervisor basically started complaining that she wasn't progressing well. She had a break down while writing her dissertation and got very ill. Although I don't know too much about how she performed in the end and how much support she got, she did tell me that she suspected that the university didn't believe her. There was a lot of stress and upset and it could have all been saved had she just been upfront at the start, rather than let it all get out of hand.
You need a break, and your entitled to it. Hope it all gets better over Christmas. M,x(robin)


Quote From Natassia:

I think I will tell my main tutor, in the New Year though of course. I'm sure he'll be supportive, but as you said KB I don't like to use things like mitigating circumstances - in my UG class a lot of students made them up to get extensions etc when really they were being lazy - I know I'm not like that but using them would make me feel like I was abusing the system, its like they come with their own stigma attached.

You've already had good advice from the others, I just wanted to comment on this. I'm pretty sure they would know that you have genuine mitigating circumstances - they know you are a good, conscientious student and probably think very highly of you. They are probably also quite good at telling the difference between somebody making up excuses and somebody who is having real problems anyway! So please don't let this put you off talking to your tutor.

Good luck with it all and I hope you are able to relax a bit over the Christmas break! :-)


Hi Natassia,

First off I'm so sorry you're having a difficult time, and well done for coping alone so far. I know how difficult it can be sharing personal problems but I just wanted to offer a bit of encouragement. I suffered from depression during my PhD and it took me a long time to tell my supervisor as I felt, like you, that everyone thought i was doing just fine and would think less of me. As it turned out, my supervisor was brilliant and told me that he was being treated for depression himself, and two other PhD students in the department also told me the same. Mental illness is such a common phenomenon (although a hidden one, because of the perceived stigma attached) that you might be surprised by the sympathy and understanding that you get from people.

Secondly, you say that you don't want to ask for mitigating circumstances because you would "feel like a failure". In my undergrad days I contracted laryngitis days before an oral exam and asked for mitigating circumstances. Does that sound like failure? Mental illness is an illness, just like other forms of illness and I think you should be less hard on yourself. Having said that, I do understand that you don't want to feel like you got a good mark "just because" you asked for a concession. Maybe you could decide in advance exactly what you want to tell your tutors and why - are you telling them "just so they know", because you want concessions, or because you think it might affect your future performance? Being clear about why you are telling them might make it easier for you to decide how to phrase it.

I hope this helps and I hope that you get the support you need.


Thank you for the replies, I really think telling them will be OK now, I probably won't fulfil anywhere near my potential otherwise, so I need to in order to help myself. I don't think I'll find it too difficult, I just don't want to burst into tears in front of him so I'll send an email - its more of a 'letting him know' thing at the moment, but as I said I might need more help in the future. If they don't know they can't help me, he may even be suspecting that something is up anyway.

I'm probably not giving my tutors the credit they deserve, due to my own insecurities about asking them for help. Its difficut as I have an amount of respect for them and the influence that they may have in the future (references etc), its like I feel like I'm under scrutiny and constantly need to give an impression of stability and capability. Thats my problem though, they are only human after all and have undoubtedly been through things like this themselves.

Thanks again, Natassia x


Glad to hear you're feeling a bit better about things! Tutors and supervisors are there to help, and I have been amazed at how understanding the majority of people have been with respect to my own problems throughout my years at uni. The best thing is that they know you, and they will know what you are capable of academically, so try not to worry- just do your best in the circumstances and you will be fine. I really hope you manage to have a good xmas, KB


I'm sure they'll be fine as well, however my mum isn't at all happy about me getting mitigating circumstances - she thinks I'm going to fail and that my course would be a huge waste of money. Its hurtful, but I need to remember the deep down she wants the best for me and as she hasn't studied past o-level she doesn't really know what I'm going through, I don't think she wants to know either.

I'm sure my tutors will be fine, I just want them to think that I can get through this, and to appreciate me telling them.

Christmas wasn't too bad, more emotionally draining than most but hopefully next year will be better. Hope you had a good one, hows your ankle??

Natassia x


Hi! Glad you managed to get through Xmas okay- it can be emotionally draining at the best of times so it must have been a bit tough for you! Try not to worry too much about what your family (especially your mum) are saying or thinking. When my parents split up right before my finals all I had was them stressing about how bad they would feel if I didn't get the first class honours I was on target for etc, in case it had been 'their fault' that I hadn't met my potential. It was a huge relief for them I think when I was able to tell them that I had got it! Just do your best, that's all you can do, and definitely let your tutors/supervisors know what's going on. They're no idiots these people- they know a genuine case when they see one, and they are probably experts at sniffing out the suspicious ones! A pal of mine once asked for multiple extensions because he had stubbed his toe and was in pain...they soon told him where to go! The foot is okay thanks, the whiplash is causing me a lot more pain than the foot at the moment. I'm picking up my new car in a couple of days so I can sit and admire in until I can drive it in another 6 weeks or so! Keep going chick, and best wishes for the new year, KB.