PhD Vs illness

17 Jan 2019

PhD Vs illness

Everything’s in place for a new year of lab work. I’ve got my new diary and cleaned the coffee mugs. 2019 is here and I’m feeling good!


Four hours later, the plans I’d put in the diary have  been scribbled out, a new post-it note has been made, and I’ve made my way home, crumpled up in bed hoping this particular bout of stomach cramps and fainting spells is just for the afternoon and not for three weeks, like last time.


Sick of it


Since I was diagnosed with a long-term illness, this has become a regular occurrence, and several times has ended up in a catch-22 of being too ill to go into the lab, getting stressed about not being in the lab, and the stress then making me more ill.


I’ve been dealing with this for over 3 years now and the amount of people I’ve met in a similar position who thought they were the only ones is staggering. I wanted to share what I’ve learned, and reach out to anyone else who’s struggling. This is a cocktail of tips, mixed with a personal story.


Tip 1: Don’t share unless you have to


10 days before I was due to start my PhD, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome - commonly known as IBS. I bet you’re glad you asked now. I experience a huge range of symptoms – fainting, dizziness, lack of energy, painful cramps, and of course, having to go to the toilet all the time.


The medication and careful dieting I’ve tried has had little effect. My IBS is mostly brought on by stress. It sometimes interacts with other mental health issues that have also manifested as a heart condition. Neither of these conditions are life threatening or dangerous, they are just really inconvenient.


I made the mistake of feeling pressured into talking in detail about the fairly personal aspects of my illness, which left me feeling awful for some time. This is probably the hardest piece of advice on the list: you are under no obligation to tell anyone anything unless your university specifically requires it.

Tip 2: don’t compare yourself to others

I’ve met some truly amazing people who‘ve conquered their degree in the face of life-threatening conditions and long-term disabilities. Just because others are worse off, doesn’t mean you can’t have difficulties of your own.


This tip comes in two flavours: firstly, don’t compare yourself to everyone else in your lab, and secondly, don’t compare yourself to other people who you perceive to ‘have it worse’.


Not only does this devalue your own hardships, it diminishes all the work that others have put in to get to that ‘managing’ stage. Just because someone appears to have it all together, doesn’t meant they haven’t had to work to get that point.


For a while I was fairly browbeaten by the amount of time I’d take off work “just to be ill”. I was constantly looking at the other PhD students around me and measuring my output against theirs – and you can imagine how deflating that can be.


It took me a long time be accept that I wasn’t going to get quite as much done in the average week. Harder still was accepting the notion that I wouldn’t be able to ‘just work twice as hard’ when feeling well


I realised that it was all in the pacing. Finding what works for you is the essence of this tip.

Tip 3: everyone has the cure!


Be patient with those trying to help. You’re going to come across many people who have ideas of what might help you. I’m aware of the slight hypocrisy of this, in a blog post where I’m offering advice, but I’m guessing you clicked on this because you wanted to hear it – that won’t always be the case.


There are broadly two kinds of people who offer suggestions to help: those who know what they’re talking about, and those who don’t.


“Have you thought about Faecal Microbiota Transplant?”


The first time I was asked this, I‘d not thought about FMT. For those of you wondering, a Faecal Microbiota Transplant is where a small amount of faecal matter from a healthy person is transferred into the digestive tract of someone suffering from IBS (or another deficiency) in their digestive microbiome.


There’s at least a couple of news articles every month on the subject. It’s probably the closest thing to a cure for IBS, if it works. This is an example of someone who knows what they’re talking about trying to offer some help. I greatly appreciated it, and briefly discussed it with my doctor, at one of my many check-ups.


Countless suggestions and little bits of advice are going to come flying at you (bonus points if they’re littered with pseudoscience) but patience is pretty much your only defence.


Tip 4: not all diseases are visible


Just because what ails you isn’t physical – whether it be a mental illness, a difficult home life, extra responsibilities to live up to, etc. – doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count. Someone once described me as lucky that my mental illness has very physical symptoms. I


It took a long time to digest that. I realised what they were saying was essentially “you’re lucky that when you’re having a hard time, you can point to your symptoms and show others what you’re going through.”


It’s estimated that almost 40% of graduate students experience some kind of mental illness (general population approx. 6%). In March 2018, this was described as a ‘crisis’. That’s why it’s important we recognise that mental illness requires self-care. Sometimes it’s better to take some personal time to come back better able to deal with the workload in front of you than to wear yourself down trying to force yourself to keep going.


Pretty much everyone I know who is doing a PhD has struggled with at least one of the things I’ve mentioned above. The most important piece of advice I have to offer is to try and accept the hand you’ve been dealt. This was probably the single biggest obstacle for me, but getting past it was hugely helpful. When mum said, ’just be yourself’ I guess this is what she was actually talking about.


Robert G. Millar

University of Warwick