Why aren’t we talking about living with chronic illness during your PhD?

I have accumulated many, many notches on both the ‘diversity’ and ‘adversity’ scoreboards in my life. When a new hardship rolls around I am experienced at how to cope:

  • Step 1: Grieve. All seven stages.
  • Step 2: Find a community of people also afflicted by my hardship, whether online or off.
  • Step 3: Rebuild my life around this hardship with the support of those found at step 2.

So when I developed a chronic illness and associated disability in the second year of my PhD, one of the most comforting thoughts was ‘Well, maybe I’ll make some new (also disabled and completing a PhD) friends out of this!’

It turns out that this has been harder than expected! First, I scoured my University’s website for resources or services. A disability counselling service is available, and is helpful, but is not specific to higher degree research. The Graduate Research School makes no mention of disability on their website. Prominent PhD support blogs, such as the Thesis Whisperer, PhD Life, and Get a Life PhD, are silent on the topic. I couldn’t find much of a hashtag community on Twitter either. Broader communities do exist, such as #phdchat (for PhD students) and #spooniechat (for people with chronic illness), but very little to combine the two.

I did come across the wonderful PhD(isabled) blog, but this has been dormant for over a year and is hosted in the UK where the disabled PhD experience is very different to Australia (they have a Disabled Student Allowance!) Besides, why should a discussion of the added struggles of disability and/or chronic illness be limited to specialty blogs? Indeed, a very large proportion of people doing a PhD must surely live with chronic illness – just like the general community, right?

There is no denying the double-layered Valley of Shit that the combination of chronic illness and a PhD provides: it is undeniably awful. Whether the illness brings pain, depression, fatigue, anxiety, decreased mobility, endless appointments or some glorious combination of these, it makes an already difficult journey more difficult. It might make it hard to concentrate, to conduct field work, to go to workshops or conferences, to attempt networking, or to do any other essential requirement of a PhD. A myriad of additional support is required, most importantly a supervisor who is able (better yet: trained!) to provide at least some support for unwell students.

I recently tweeted out asking for other disabled PhDs to contact me and was overwhelmed by the response. Obviously we are out there, and probably many people have a better established support network for this than I do. But what if they don’t? What if we’re all just struggling through on a solo journey, with no acknowledgement of the extra-phenomenal nature of our achievements?

Maybe I am alone in this wish, but I would love to see a better network of disabled PhDs. I would love to see some resources about how to manage. And I would love to see PhD support services acknowledging that we exist. I think we deserve that.

6 ways training for a marathon is making my PhD thesis better

I’m nearing the year-and-a-half mark of my PhD, and in most respects am doing pretty well so far. But what I realised at the end of my first year was that I made the near-fatal mistake of the typical type-A: I went too hard, too fast. I spent my first year working way too much, and relaxing way too little. The result was a pretty spectacular burnout and some intense anxiety.

After a holiday, I came back to work and decided that enough was enough; it was time to put my mental and physical health first. I knew I would need a goal to make me commit to spending more time away from the desk. And, go big or go home right? So I decided to train for a marathon.

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I’m about three months into training with 6 months to go, and have realised that this big, non-work related goal is having a positive impact on nearly every aspect of my life (the blisters on my feet and my social life are the only exceptions).

In particular, it is making my thesis better. Here are 6 reasons why.

1. It gives me goals that aren’t work related

A PhD can be all-consuming, infecting every waking moment. We all know the feeling of guilt every time we try to do something other than work, telling us that we should be working. Training gives me goals that aren’t work related, which helps me to feel like more than just a student. And I don’t feel guilty when I take the time to train, because I’m still working towards a goal that is very important to me.

2. It makes rejection easier to handle

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Academia is all about rejection. Your papers get rejected, your grant applications get rejected, your job and committee applications get rejected, and so on and so on. But when you’ve just reached a big running milestone, the setbacks land a little more softly. It’s hard to feel like a total failure when you’re meeting targets in at least some parts of your life.

3. It gives me time to think

Training for a marathon takes time. A lot of time. I currently run for over 8 hours per week, and other people run many more. That’s a lot of time with just you, the road and your thoughts. Unsurprisingly, I come up with most of my ‘epiphanies’ when I’m on the road, when I can truly work through all my ideas and calmly piece them together. My best insights never appear when I’m staring at my computer.

4. It’s helping me develop psychological endurance

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You’ve probably heard the phrase “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” at some time in reference to your PhD. A PhD is a long slog – up to 8 years if you’re doing it part time. It’s a slog that does not give fast rewards. You will reach your goals slowly and have triumphs only every now and then to make it all worthwhile. If fast gratification is what you’re after, this isn’t the field for you. Long distance running teaches you to cope with slow rewards, and that every step forward is a step closer to your goal. It teaches you to keep pushing even if you hit the wall because there is always another wind behind it.

5. It forces me to take non-work time.

I doubt anyone could get through a marathon without a significant amount of time devoted to training (see point 3). A goal that is not related to your PhD forces you to spend time doing things that are not related to your PhD. It also helps you make friends who enjoy things that are not your PhD. Spending time away from your PhD is incredibly important to your mental health, and will actually make your thesis better. Having time dedicated to other tasks helps with focus and motivation when working, meaning that you will be less likely to procrastinate.

6. Running is good for me.

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The final point is an obvious one: physical exercise is very good for you. It’s good for your heart, your lungs, your brain. More than that, it can have a remarkably positive impact on your mental health. These things are essential for and more important than PhD success. What is the point of earning a PhD if you have to sacrifice your health to get it?

So get out there!

These points apply to any goal that grows from a hobby. Knit a rug! Write a book! Learn a language! Anything that will get your focus away from your thesis is a good thing. 

What non-thesis goals do you have? Share below!