Bouncing back stronger after a setback
Linus Rösler picked up the 2022 award for the highest Master’s grade point average, with a score of 5.94. His passion for mathematics almost consumed him. But he didn’t let that put him off.
Linus Rösler, a 25-year-old student from Bern, adores math for the same reason that many people dislike it: because it deals with abstract concepts. “Numbers aren’t a part of the ‘real world,’ which is incredibly messy and complex,” he says. “Math, on the other hand, is all about elegance and certainty. With mathematical proofs, there are no gray areas.” Linus found solace in the objectivity of math as a child – and it’s been his calling ever since. At the EPFL graduation ceremony on 1 October 2022, he was attributed the prestigious award for the highest Master’s grade point average, with a score of 5.94.
But, for Linus, following his passion hasn’t always been plain sailing – as he explained in an emotion-tinged acceptance speech: “I was actually supposed to graduate last year, but I got burned out while I was working on my Master’s thesis. It’s really important to take care of your mental health. There’s no shame in that whatsoever. On the contrary, it’s something to be proud of.” Cue thunderous applause from the 2,800-strong audience at the SwissTech Convention Center.
Now, Linus wants to speak out about his experience. He’s motivated in part by gratitude for everyone that helped him: his girlfriend, his family, his thesis supervisor, his professors and EPFL. He also wants to reassure others experiencing mental health problems that they can get through it – and that admitting you’re struggling is a show of strength, not weakness.
Linus confesses to being a perfectionist and putting enormous pressure on himself to perform. He also admits to being hooked on academic attainment and achieving good grades. He excelled at school, where his passion for math took him to new heights, including winning the Swiss Mathematical Olympiad on several occasions. In junior high, he gave up chess – a game his grandfather had taught him to play at the age of 5 – “because I simply couldn’t stand losing.” When the time came to apply to university, he couldn’t decide between EPFL and ETH Zurich. “In the end, I went with my gut, partly because I wanted to try something new and study in a different language,” he says.
"I needed to do something about it"
Despite consistently achieving good grades, Linus struggled with imposter syndrome – a persistent feeling that his success was down to external factors, and that he was inferior to others. As he faced the prospect of writing his Master’s thesis, he found it increasingly difficult to cope with the stress, pressure, and fear of failure. “There were days when I felt depressed, but also some better days that gave me a renewed sense of belief,” he says. But as the weeks wore on, the good days became fewer and farther between. “My girlfriend had already told me that something was wrong and I should get help,” he explains. “It felt like there was a wall between us, and that’s when I realized I wasn’t myself and needed to do something about it.” That was in April 2021.
Linus therefore talked to EPFL’s counsellors, who provide support to Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD students. In May, he found a psychologist in Bern who not only had the time to see him but also diagnosed his problem instantly: burnout due to exhaustion. The psychologist advised him to take a break from his studies in order to lower his stress levels. To Linus it felt like a drastic course of action. “It was incredibly difficult to accept because I felt like a failure,” he says. “And I’d already committed to completing a PhD at EPFL’s Chair of Algebraic Geometry lab. What would people think of me?” With the support of his loved ones and his EPFL supervisors, Linus agreed to take his foot off the gas with a two-month hiatus from math. “I spent time with my family and my girlfriend in Bern,” he explains. “It was what I needed. My stress levels fell.”
It was incredibly difficult to accept because I felt like a failure
He returned to the lab in July – first to reconnect with his favorite subject, and second to finish his Master’s thesis. He submitted his thesis at the end of September and started his PhD. “After a few weeks, my stress levels were back to where they’d started,” he says. “I needed a longer break. I dropped out. My professor was very understanding.”
Linus headed back to Bern where he could be with his loved ones. With time on his hands, he decided to rekindle his passion for chess, getting more involved in his club and spending hours playing online. He also took on a part-time job as a bicycle courier. “I was fitter than I’d ever been!” says Linus, who’s always been an active person. “It was a rewarding experience. I enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life. And every happy customer felt like a small win.”
In January 2023, Linus will restart his PhD at the same lab. He believes he’s now better equipped to tackle the challenge. It’s no surprise that a career in research appeals to him. “But I can also see a future outside academia, perhaps in teaching,” he adds.