Returning to study after illness/1st Phd failure


Hi guys,

I'm not sure how unique my situation is, but I'm hoping to hear from people who have been in similar positions or from others with helpful advice.

A few years ago, I registered for a 4-year science PhD for which I did the research, produced a thesis and had my viva. After the viva, I was awarded an MSc instead of a PhD as it was felt that while the thesis was well written, my research wasn't coherent enough for a doctorate degree. However, during the degree I suffered with mental health difficulties (depression mostly). This flared up badly a couple of times during my PhD (leading to weeks out of the lab at a time).

For the past two years, I've worked as a Research Scientist for a biotech company. My illness is much better controlled now - I am on the right medication with minimal side effects, and I know my triggers and how to spot the signs early if I am getting ill again. I'm much more forthcoming in getting support now too (which I admit I wasn't in the past).

Despite what has happened, I still want to get my PhD, even more so if I can beat my illness to do it.

I was wondering if there were any people out there who have successfully returned to a PhD after failing their first attempt and/or after illness? How did you explain it in your application? Were supervisors sympathetic to your position?

Any replies would be really helpful. Cheers!



I left a biomedical PhD a few years ago midway (without any qualification from it) because (i) the project wasn't looking like it was going anywhere (ii) I'd decided I didn't want to be a lab scientist for the rest of my life (iii) I wanted to get more into public health (iv) the lab I was in was a rather unpleasant environment. I'm now on my second attempt at a PhD in a different field to the first and so far it's going well. So it is possible.

I was very fortunate that I had a contact in my target field with whom I'd previously done some work experience, so I went to them for careers advice. I ended up working for them as an RA for a bit which was a good experience, and then did a masters. I then applied for a PhD in a different institution after that and was accepted.

It was a bit difficult to work out what to do with my CV, but in the end I've headed that period as 'Postgraduate researcher'. I didn't want to say 'Research Assistant' as that is a salaried role and that's not entirely honestly what it was, although I'm sure the distinction probably wouldn't bother most people. If asked about that period I am open about it, but it doesn't seem to have bothered anyone, perhaps because I was no longer in lab sciences and my current field is a little more open minded as to the nature of people's academic/work experience.

I realise my situation is slightly different, as I transferred fields between PhDs, but I think the fact that you have successfully had two years industrial experience since bodes well. I think you can put a positive spin on your experience - you have a far more realistic idea of what a PhD is about than a fresh graduate would be, you have both academic and industrial work experience, you've show resilience by overcoming health issues and returning to work and managing your condition well.

The one thing I would say is be very selective about your choice of place to do a PhD. Make sure that you're going to be in a group that is a supportive and encouraging environment. It's made a massive difference to me to have that second time around, and having been burnt once I wasn't going to accept a PhD offer in a place that had any hint of a bad vibe. I would guess that a group that is sympathetic to your past experience might be more likely to be a supportive workplace than one that judges you for it, but I might be wrong.

The final thing is that it helps to have some kind of champion/mentor on your side. The person I worked for after leaving the lab was incredibly supportive and wrote me very good reference letters for my masters and PhD, as well as encouraging me to go for those opportunities. If you can get at least one good referee on your side who believes in you and wants you to succeed, then that might make things easier.

Hope this helps :)


Thanks for your reply Hazyjane, it was very helpful. :-)

I have arranged a careers interview with the National Careers Service to get some help with my CV (unfortunately, my two year post-graduation entitlement to my former University's careers service has expired). How to explain the "MSc after 4 years of full-time education" situation has been a difficult one for me but your suggestion of "Postgraduate researcher" is definitely one I could use.

My workplace has been very supportive and sympathetic to my health situation. My team leader has been fantastic, and I'm sure he would have no problem in acting as a good referee for me.

G 8-)


I didn't fail my first go at a PhD, but had to leave it after falling seriously ill. I was a full-time funded computer science student, but fell ill soon after starting. It took years for me to be diagnosed properly. By then I'd had to leave the PhD. I was finally diagnosed with a very aggressive progressive life-threatening neurological disease. I was extremely lucky to be alive, and still am.

7 years after leaving the science PhD I started a history PhD. I'd studied in between, to take my mind off aggressive chemo treatment I was having to undergo and do something positive, and I'd picked up a new history BA(Hons) and Masters. But starting a second PhD was really scary. What if I failed to complete again? Could I cope with that? Would I manage it?

I gave it a go. I was honest with my supervisors about my prior history. I initially started the history PhD as a self-funded student, but in my first year I applied for funding from AHRC. Again I had to declare my prior funding to them, but I was still successful, and won funding from them for the rest of my PhD.

I started my part-time history PhD in late 2003. I took one 5-month break for medical reasons in the middle of it, but then resumed and submitted just within the 6 years part-time deadline set by university. I passed my viva with minor (typo) corrections. And I was delighted to have got to the end successfully, as were my former lecturers/supervisors from the science degree.

Starting a second PhD, if you get a chance, can be scary, but you have advantages tackling things the second time around. I used my experiences the first time to make sure I made as a good a go of it as possible the second time. I was also - somewhat ironically - more confident as a PhD student, partly due to my age, partly again due to experience.

Whatever you do don't cover up your prior PhD attempt. Be honest about it with potential supervisors. But stress why a new PhD opportunity is right for you, why you are in a good position to take it, and a new supervisor ought to consider you fairly.

Good luck!


Forgot to say that if you are still dealing with mental health difficulties, even if well controlled with the right medication, do make sure you sign up for support from the university for the very start. Your university should have a Disability Services or similarly titled body, which is there to level the playing field for disabled students, whether they are battling physical disabilities or mental health problems, or both. It is also important to be able to feel free to talk to a supervisor about disability problems, so they can support you too.

Throughout my part-time history PhD I was battling my still progressing neurological illness. Even though it's very rare, literally 1 in a million, it's very similar day to day to multiple sclerosis, so I was able to explain it to the required people, and get help from them. My GP wrote a letter for me to the university confirming my diagnosis, and I was registered as a disabled student.

This had the advantage that I was able to claim Disabled Students' Allowance, where if there are gadgets or other things that can be bought to help you - even things you wouldn't think of yourself - you can get them paid for and bought for you to do your PhD.

It also meant I was able to get help where needed from the staff. For example at my final viva I asked if the viva could be restricted to just 1 hour for disability reasons. Any longer than an hour and I start to struggle brain-wise, get very confused, can't hear properly, get slurred speech etc - not good when trying to represent yourself adequately in an oral exam situation! The request was put through the disability team, at a prof's suggestion (not my supervisor, but another supportive prof in the department), and it was agreed.

Towards the end of my part-time PhD I was managing on no more than 5 hours total a week, spread throughout the week in 1 hour chunks. Ridiculously small! But it's a sign that it's quality over quantity that counts when it comes to study, and this degree can be completed in even the most difficult situations.


Thanks BilboBaggins, your post was very encouraging to read. I have similar fears about the 2nd time around but as you say, you learn from the past experience of the 1st go.

I think my major stumbling block here is trying to convince a potential supervisor that I'm much better now healthwise and that what happened during the 1st attempt won't happen again. Putting a positive spin on my work experience and my past educational experience will definitely help.


Hi there comebackkid! I was lucky enough to get through my PhD in one go, but prior to that I dropped out of my BSc course three times due to mental health problems and had to re-start the year each time. I have bipolar disorder and it has played havoc with me, but like you it made me more determined and I got my PhD and am now doing a post-doc in bipolar disorder research, which I love. I just really wanted to encourage you to aim high and to keep going. My university were very understanding about my health problems during my BSc, MSc and PhD- even though I got through my PhD okay, there were wobbly bits! I have just recently been discharged after 3 months in hospital as a result of the bipolar and am about to start back at work in the next week or two, and the university and my supervisors have been pretty good about it all so far. I would just be honest- my PhD supervisor and my current supervisors all knew about the bipolar prior to me starting the positions and were still willing to give me a shot. Just make sure you have a good support network and are making use of any opportunties such as student counselling services, mental health advisors etc etc. With the right support and medical care you will be fine. Good luck! KB


Hi TheComebackKid, I recommend that you read an article titled " A word to the struggling PhD student" and the story of a Professor titled
"Monica A. Coleman's Story of Mental Illness". They are all available on the Web. I hope this can help you take a wise decision. Good luck.


Hi all,

Thanks for all of your replies - they've been very encouraging and supportive. It's given me the confidence to apply for a couple of PhD projects advertised on here. Plus, I told my manager at work about my plans and he's given me an academic contact to make a speculative application to.

Fingers crossed!