What's intermitting about?

Exams have started for most of you now (and ended already for a lucky few!). Several of my friends have been calling me, often around the 1am mark, to ask me about the option of intermitting. In my first year, I intermitted approx a week before my exams, but my DoS had been expecting it since 3rd week of Michaelmas term so it wasn’t that big a deal (it probably was, but he looked after me very well!). I did not want to intermit and the whole process SUCKED, partly because of my stubbornness, and partly because (despite the best intentions of my tutors) I felt the pastoral system really didn’t engage with me. So, I’m writing this to give some info about what to do when you feel overwhelmed with exam stress//an underlying issue gets exacerbated//something new crops up, letting you know what your options are, and what you can and SHOULD expect from your college. I’m also going to write about what I wish someone had told me so I could have made the best from the system – hopefully someone might learn from my mistakes!


Your first port of call is someone in the pastoral side of your college – your tutor, college nurse, chaplain, etc… your tutor is the one who will co-ordinate everything and should be you number 1 supporter! Some of you might be closer to another member of staff e.g. your DoS – to be honest just speak to whoever you feel most comfortable with and take it from there. The most important thing is that a college authority knows what is going on with you. Even if it is just a one-off wobble that goes on for a bit and worries you – reach out and have that support system in place. It is the single most invaluable thing if there is a real problem and you need any help. Having a relationship set up with someone in your college who can handle supervisors and examiners for you, even at the last minute, is priceless. If you are unlucky and don’t get on with your tutor – don’t worry!! Speak to your senior tutor or someone else in college and you can actually change tutors! They won’t take it personally – some tutors have more experience than others, and at the end of the day you are both individuals –you should be as open about your private issues as possible with your tutor but not everyone gets on with or feels best supported by their tutor, so either find someone else (for me it was my DoS, s/o to Stu Eves, what a hero) or switch tutor.


Whether you are physically or mentally struggling, your next point of contact is your GP. Your college nurse can come with you to give support, and they’ll probably want to know what’s going on with your GP so that college can help you better (you’ve got to help them to help you). I used to get the GP to write a letter to my college at least once a term to keep them updated, and also so that I didn’t have to have those conversations as I conducted them by passing on the letters. It is also very useful to have evidence for some illnesses e.g. I had a horrible run of bad luck with getting concussed, which is obviously hard to prove despite the constant cuts/bruises I had on my face, so going straight to A&E whenever I fell over and getting checked out asap was so important! Last term I missed a bunch of supervisions when I got concussed twice in 2 weeks, and my new, very unsympathetic DoS actually questioned whether or not I was faking it (despite the fact I was bleeding at the time, solid effort pal), so doctors notes helped a lot! That’s probably not representative of most DoSs though – mine is well known for being a total dick and after I spent a week in hospital before Christmas for falling off my bike and breaking my hip, he even questioned that… Anyway, having medical evidence is so important if you do need any special considerations e.g. for exams or intermitting. Having a bunch of receipts nicely stacked up to back any case you put forward makes the whole process quicker and less stressful, as you don’t have to go around making last minute appointments and trying to explain your whole history to the doctor you haven’t seen since freshers’ week!


If you are having a mental health issue, it’s definitely a good idea to find someone to speak to in a professional capacity. Going for a regular cup of tea with your tutor or chaplain is a great start, but there are professionals there to offer proper support. The University Counselling Service (UCS) is the quickest and easiest way to get support, and offers confidential and free help. It’s pretty basic, but often just the act of going to someone once a week for an hour to chat specifically about you, can really help, as a) you feel proactive as you are doing something concrete to manage your mental health, and b) you have a set time to --feel-- which can sometimes help you manage a mental health crisis because in the moment you can think –oh wait it’s okay, im going to see my counsellor in a couple of days, I can hang on until then! Going to speak to someone about coping mechanisms is the best coping mechanism to have. Speak to your GP to get counselling on the NHS as that is usually better, especially for a more specific issue e.g. PTSD or OCD, although the waiting list can be pretty long. Some colleges have therapists affiliated to them, so you can get private counselling, and other colleges offer funding for therapy so you can go private as well. Speak to your tutor about this, and don’t be afraid to push for it – they can afford it! Some colleges are just a bit stingy with offering it.


The DRC (Disability Resources Centre) is super helpful during term time, from writing a Student Support Document for things like allowing deadline extensions with no questions asked from supervisors, to matching you with a mentor to help you physically get to your timetabled activities. Your tutor can put you in contact with them via email, you can call them on 01223 332301, and you can even make an appointment via Moodle.


If you are at risk of underperforming or failing your exams because of a mental health problem, illness, bereavement, etc your tutor can put in an exam warning and apply to the examiners for an allowance in your exams under extenuating circumstances. This can range from adding a few extra marks on to get you over a grade boundary, to giving you extra time (up to 25%)//rest breaks//exams in college, to even withdrawing from your exams all the way up to your last exam – they can take a grade from your submitted work over the previous year and say you were at the standard to pass but mediacally unable, or in some cases they can even grade you as DDH (deemed deserving honours) to allow you to pass Tripos and pass into the next year. Of course in some subjects e.g. medicine this is not possible, as there are government exams that must be passed, but if you can pass those parts (MCQs and practicals in the case of medicine) but fail Tripos (the essays) then in that case they can allow you to pass through.


If you do decide to intermit for whatever reason (seriously, everyone is so different and has individual pressures, even missing a week of work can snowball into an insurmountable load that can get you down to such a degree you just need a break to get back on your feet. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else and never beat yourself up – Cambridge is tough. You are tougher. Just do what’s right for you and you will always come up on top in the end!) then make sure you have a clear understanding of the conditions of your intermission. If you intermit before the end of week 4 then you technically haven’t done that term and you don’t have to pay for it, but if you intermit in the second half of a term then it counts. Each college treats their intermitted students differently (the uni rules for intermission seem to just be a guideline smh) and then treats each student differently on top of that, so it’s impossible to tell you exactly what to epect. Generally, if you intermit in Easter term, they won’t let you back until Lent term of the next academic year. This can be a really bad thing though, for example if you had an ongoing issue that meant you didn’t fully take part in Michaelmas term and need to re-do it, or if you feel anxious about being thrust into a new cohort who you don’t know yet halfway through the year when friendships etc have already been consolidated. This was the case for me the first time I intermitted – I came back into a year where I had my old friends but they were now all the year above, and I didn’t know anyone in my new year, so was making attempts to socialise whilst feeling horrifically anxious and out of my depth trying to keep up with Lent term plus catching up from pretty much the whole Michaelmas term plus trying to stay physically+mentally healthy so I didn’t fall even more behind. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work, and by the end of Lent term I had intermitted for a second time due to severe anxiety and panic disorder lol – the lesson to learn from this is you can ask for more time!!! You do NOT have to come back at the first opportunity they present to you. Take a whole year off if you want to! I wish I had.


In the intermission guidelines, you’re not supposed to be in college/Cambridge for risk of not being allowed to return…but you can also ask your Senior Tutor for permission to use the UL; these things can be flexible. There is never any harm in asking. And if they don’t grant it, the likelihood is your tutor or DoS (and definitely your friends) will help you out, as long as you keep quiet and under the radar. Unfortunately, intermitting for whatever reason can be really tough on your mental health because the idea is “if you’re not well enough to study then you’re not well enough to socialise at uni”, which is a RIDICULOUS concept, but one which you can get around by being a bit sneaky. There’s also a few intermission solidarity support groups around which are really great. Also, some colleges can help students if they have a reason why it’s not helpful/practical for them to go home, e.g. allowing them to stay in accommodation during their intermission or supporting them to find a job and a place to rent.


Whatever reason you intermitted for, I would strongly suggest getting as much support upon your return as possible – not just academic from supervisors and your DoS, but emotional – it is hard. It is scary. You might feel disconnected from academic work after time off, or simply too old to integrate with your new year (trust me, this will be all in your head and if anything you now have more life experience and will simply be a better friend to everyone around you). Whilst you’ve been intermitted, you might have had a job, or travelled, or studied, or just been focusing on recovering – whatever you’ve been doing, it probably won’t have been anything like the intensity of Cambridge studying, so go easy on yourself and make sure your supervisors do too. This is where your previous support system of tutor etc comes into play again, even if you feel fully confident in yourself. 


I hope that knowing a bit more about intermitting helps calm you down a bit, as I know right now everything can seem so scary and overwhelming. Intermitting is not scary or overwhelming, although it can be hard work to get the best out of it. Never be afraid to ask about it or even start the process with your tutor, whilst continuing with your exams – you have nothing to lose even if you decide it was just a wobble and you’re happy to complete the year. Always ask for help. You’re here for a reason, but remember that it’s your degree to do what you want with <3