A Conversation about Intermitting: ‘It’s not the end of your academic career; it’s just a pause.’

Hannah Graham 14 May 2014

After a series of incidents which severely affected her mental health and wellbeing, Ellen* left Cambridge at the end of Michaelmas for an intermitting year. She has agreed to talk to TCS about her experience of intermitting

To begin, I ask her if her time out of the bubble has been a positive experience.

‘Yes, I personally am now having a very good time in the real world. It’s taken me a while to get to that point. I would have said at first that the prospect of intermitting was scary as hell and I was very worried about what I would do with myself for the 8-9 months that I had off. I think the thing that made it work for me is that I found a job and I took up some new hobbies. But yes, intermitting has been very good for me in that I certainly could not have finished my degree at the time that I left and it would have had a severe impact on my health if I’d tried to.’

I wonder how she feels that intermitting has prepared her for coming back to Cambridge. She tells me, ‘In terms of coming back from an academic point of view it’s the right thing to do by miles. From a social point of view, I degraded going into finals year so almost all of my friends are going to graduate without me, I’ve lost touch with almost of all them, and I really miss them. I feel like even though it’s completely the right decision for me it is very much a benefit-cost thing. You have to weigh up what you're losing against what you're going to gain. The only place where I really feel the impact of having degraded is socially. I was lucky because I got to know the year below me, but for somebody who made friends mostly within their year I can see that being a real problem.'

'I would also say that generally if a student feels like they are suffering enough that they need to intermit they should consider it very seriously because ultimately if they have got somewhere else to go, something else they could be doing, if they can make use of the time for a year then it could be really good for them. I certainly haven’t found there to be a huge amount of stigma about it.'

'Intermitting happens to all sorts of people for all sorts reasons, I know people who’ve intermitted and gone on to get firsts, I know people who’ve intermitted and got starred firsts. Having come from an incredibly intense academic background, all the way through school, college, up to university, the possibility of problems building up relating to that environment is quite high. If a year off from academics is what people need to jolt them out of whatever’s going on or give them time to recover then I don’t think there’s any shame in that and I think it’s really positive of the university to support that process in the way that they do.'

I ask Ellen how she found the process of intermitting: ‘The main conversations I had were with my tutor, she was very supportive and didn’t push me one way or the other, and made it clear that I would be supported whatever my decision was. My tutor was exceptional, but obviously tutor coverage is patchy in Cambridge. I can imagine having a bad tutor would make it very difficult I have heard of friends who have desperately wanted to intermit but didn’t until it was too late because they didn’t feel comfortable approaching their tutors.

What advice would Ellen give to any students who are finding things difficult, and might consider taking some time away from Cambridge?

'I think finding structure is one of the most important things that you can to do make sure your year of intermitting really helps you. I can see that as being one of the biggest pitfalls, just going back home and getting stuck, especially for people with mental health issues, with physical health issues that prevent them from doing certain things.

I very much took it, after the initial phase of recovering, as a gap year, I thought, ok, how can I turn this year into an advantage, even though it’s not something I’ve planned, how can I get control of that, use it to develop goals and skills that I’m interested in that I wouldn’t have an opportunity to do in Cambridge. Intermitting when it comes about is a disadvantage, it’s somewhere that you weren’t expecting to go, you didn’t want to go, but if you turn that into an advantage, if you use the opportunity of having free time, no matter how you came by it, it can be a really positive thing for students.

So, turn it into an advantage. The other part is obviously addressing any shame and stigma still associated with it. Something that I’d like to change is people being scared of intermitting: it’s not a scary thing; it’s just a year away from Cambridge. If you need a year off to care for your family; if you need a year off to fix your broken leg; if you need a year off to fix your broken brain, that’s all fine. It’s so much better to take the time; people won’t judge you for it.  I understand that the perfectionists and the driven people with the perfect career trajectory that’s got you to Cambridge find the break in that intimidating, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s just another part of life.

One of the positive aspect of Ellen’s story is the way that she speaks about Cambridge. Despite the difficulties she’s had to overcome, she is keen to return. She tells me that ‘Cambridge nostalgia’ is a common phenomenon among students who intermit:

‘I’m really looking forward to coming back to Cambridge, I miss it. I’ve talked about this to other people who’ve intermitted and this is a genuine thing, you will get hit by the nostalgia! Even if, for a lot of it, you had a shitty time, you’ll find yourself watching Netflix and suddenly be transported back to that time when you and your friends were drunk in Cindies; or walking along the backs; or awkwardly falling over on orgasm bridge and almost ending up in the cam; falling asleep in lectures; listening to boring speeches at the Union; remembering that one idiot you used to share a corridor with. Reality is amazing but Cambridge is insanely good. My year off has helped me learn how to balance the two, how to balance getting work done, learning all the things I want to learn, and doing more of the things that I’ve sat around for the last 6 months wishing I was doing.'

As I thank Ellen for agreeing to talk to me, she tells me that she thinks that speaking out about intermitting, about what a useful and often necessary time it can be, is very important to her.

‘It’s important that it be normalised and talked about, so that if you’re worried about it, you have examples of it being ok. You can say look, my friend did it last year, she’s fine now. Having examples of people who are willing to talk about it, which is why I’m talking about it: it’s an important thing to be de-stigmatised. Intermitting is not a bad thing, it can be an advantage. It’s not the end of the word; it’s not the end of your academic career; it’s just a pause.'

*A pseudonym has been used for anonymity