I'm a PhD student in my late 20s, looking to start a career outside academia. My academic performance has been good but not outstanding; I have almost no work experience apart from a small amount of TAing; I have relatively few extracurricular achievements; and there have been two one-year gaps in my university career during which I didn't do very much.

This state of affairs was, I believe, caused largely by health problems. Firstly, I have had chronic depression for many years. This has improved greatly, and I no longer have severe acute episodes. Secondly, I was recently diagnosed with severe sleep apnea, a condition which caused severe daytime sleepiness. I believe I had this for many years - for as long as I can remember I had been tired all the time, but I somehow accepted this as normal. I now have a machine that eliminates the apnea by pumping air into my airway during the night; consequently, I now sleep for 6-8 hours instead of 9-11 as previously, have vastly more energy and drive during the day, have a better mood, and am able to achieve far more.

So my question is: should I tell prospective employers about these health problems to explain why I have underachieved relative to my capabilities? My instinct is that I should mention the sleep apnea, since it can be and has been "cured", but not the depression. Is this correct?

Edit: I'm in the UK, where a Bachelor's takes exactly three years and a PhD typically takes 3-4. I also have a two-year Master's.

  • What are you going to do if someone wants to see your transcripts? I would think one of your best qualifications are your degrees. – user8365 Oct 10 '14 at 18:40
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    I had to read this twice to make sure I hadn't written it; I also have chronic depression, sleep apnea, PhD training, along with narcolepsy-like symptoms. Take a look at the link Stephan Kolassa provided, and pay particular attention to the sentence "When a gap is explained as a medical issue, the only thing I and my fellow interviewers want to know is: is it over? Are you ready to work now?" in the accepted answer on that thread. In short, if it isn't likely to be a future problem, then your employer probably won't care. – DumpsterDoofus Oct 10 '14 at 21:39
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    As someone with sleep apnea I will 'comment' on just that. Whenever I have mentioned it to an employer they have received it well and been very accommodating. It's surprisingly common and turned out that the gentlemen in the 2 cubicles next to me also have sleep apnea. – RyanS Oct 10 '14 at 22:54
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    The depression/apnea is a red herring. The correct answer here is to talk about how to turn your perceived underachievement into a stellar resume. This is easy given your achievements. – user1084 Oct 11 '14 at 7:27

Should you tell them?

Well I'll take the role of the potential employer here. In my head the things I want to hear from you is what you will offer me in exchange for me paying you. Frankly, if it doesn't have an impact on that I don't care.

That said if it could potentially affect you at work you might want to say something just so I know, if not it's probably not relevant.


You sir, are NOT an underachiever. You are pursuing a PhD which implies you have at least a Bachelor's degree (or equivalent). That's better than a large portion of the population. In addition the normal time it takes to earn a "four year degree" it five to six years. (because of mistakes in scheduling, failing a class, taking time off, change in major, etc) so a kid who goes straight from high school to college and powers through should get their degree around the age 24 to 26.

A year or two older than that is not a surprise at all, it happens. So stop beating yourself up, you did better than a significant percent of the population while also suffering from a debilitating health issue.

What should I say?

As a potential employer I don't care if you got you degree in four years or ten years, if you got it, you got it. Your GPA? Don't care... Extracurricular activities? I only care if they are relevant to what I'm hiring you to do. (Say if you were active with Society of Mechanical Engineers and I'm hiring you as a Mechanical Engineer) If not, no problem that's pretty common.

On your resume just put "Earned [Name of Degree] from [Name of School] on [Year Earned]"

Lack of experience

This is the real hurdle to jump, but it's one the vast majority of fresh from school people deal with. The challenge here is people want experience in order to hire you, but you can't get experience unless they hire you.

This is where many fresh out of school kids stumble. Most of our parents engrained the idea that if you don't get a degree you're digging ditches or flipping burgers, if you get a degree you get a job easy! (which was true at one point) These days though you're competing with EVERYONE who also got their degree.

You have to be very careful to shoot for a job that both challenges you, but is not impossibly beyond your abilities. (No matter how good or bad you were at school the safe assumption is you're "entry level" your ideal company is one that will invest time and effort into helping you get better and learn more, or put you in a team where someone with more experience will guide you)

The best ways to find these jobs are local job fairs, if your school has a job placement program those are good, asking others in the industry in your area for places that people use to launch their careers, visiting whatever professional events / community is near you as often recruiters frequent these events, or if all else fails hit up places like career builder or linkedin. (For warning in person resources are reliable, you REALLY need to vet stuff from the internet, the online stuff is a mixed bag of good opportunities, scams, and places to work that will suck all motivation and desire from you leaving you an empty husk of sadness and despair.)


should I tell prospective employers about these health problems to explain why I have underachieved relative to my capabilities?

You should not bring up either of your health problems unless specifically asked.

Instead, stay positive, highlight your accomplishments and abilities. Try to show how you are great fit for the job you are seeking, and how you will be an asset to your employer.

Only if asked should you explain about any shortcomings.

And if that happens, be prepared to be honest about what happened, while emphasizing how you have overcome your obstacles and worked hard to ensure they don't happen again.


You managed to get your PhD despite your chronic depression, so you did good under the circumstances considering that I didn't get mine and I didn't have your health problems :)

Now that your health is much better, you need to do something about your self-confidence and your self-esteem, which at this point is either in the cellar or its vicinity. You just can't show up at an interview looking dejected at life - they'll eat you alive. Volunteer, if that's the only way they'll take you, on some project that builds up your resume and that you feel strongly about. Build up a track record.

Success breeds on success and self-confidence feeds on itself. Eventually, once you have the confidence in yourself and self-esteem within you and the optimistic outlook to match it, you'll be able to look back at your past, reconcile and make peace with it and move forward without looking back. What's done is done and what's gone is gone. You know you have reconciled with your past and made peace with it when you have found the words to clinically discuss it i.e. without apology for it or embarrassment about it. Which doesn't mean that you need to discuss it with a bunch of total strangers including the interviewers :)

You've taken care of your body, but your sickness left some scars in your mind and I don't believe that in terms of healing, your mind has quite caught up with your body. Once you heal your mind, you are ready to search for work :) You know your mind has healed and you are ready to search for you when you stop apologizing for your past, either explicitly or implicitly. The past is something that is meant to be left behind, not something that is meant to be carried with you.

The only thing that your employers want to hear is that you are ready, willing and able to work. If you ever need to discuss the past with prospective employers, discuss it only within the context of your willingness, readiness and ability to work. Don't discuss your past in any other context. Because that other context is none of their business.


Are you sure your depression is real? A big percentage of people is misdiagnosed and has just something like thyroid deficiency, which can be easily treated. Could also maybe improve your sleep apnea.

Back to topic, I would not tell anything about the depression, because you already performed normally with it and the sleep apnea. Now that the sleep thing is cured, you are just an average depressed person, like most of us. :) It's nothing that keeps you from doing your job. If it is, seek medical advice, but unless it affects your work, I would not tell it to your company.

If the topic of long study comes up, you can mention the sleep apnea, how it's treated and that you are back to normal now. Nobody ever asked about my two extra years at university, they didn't even care what exactly I studied, just what valuable skills I bring with me.

Only thing you should really try is to assess what your job will be about, how many people you will work with, how deadlines are set and handled, how stressful the job is, so anything that might affect your depression.


The depression and apnea are a total red herring. You are asking the very legitimate question, "I am nervous about how little experience I have for how old I am, how do I get a job in spite of this?"

That being said, to answer this question, you have two options:

  • use your depression and apnea as an excuse
  • use your time in a rigorous Ph.D. program performing quite a bit as an excuse

Your choice.

By the way, the way to get out of questions of the form "Can you explain on your resume?" the rhythm is get in, out, and close the door. I don't care how you answer, you just better answer - and answer any hypothetical follow ups - with a sentence, not a story. I'm stressing that this has nothing to do with your specific situation.

  • "The depression and apnea are a total red herring" - Please discuss – kolossus Oct 11 '14 at 8:07

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