Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Tackling illness and a PhD (Laena D'Alton)

Photo by Gaelle Marcel | unsplash.com
“A PhD is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.”

Sound familiar?

Now imagine embarking on that challenge without something most of us take for granted: good health.

Undoubtedly, anyone who suffers poor health (short-term or chronic) needs to take a different approach to research.

I’ve been tackling a chronic illness for five years, and a PhD for two. I’ve learned a bit about both.

I do things differently and remind myself that it’s OK to do so. I say ‘yes’ only to what matters most to me, I plan my days with a dose of humility (my project is not more important than my wellbeing), and I am more patient with myself in terms of health and research progress (still working on that one!). I’m learning to be a better researcher, and a better me.

Here are a few of my reflections that might help anyone suffering illness to navigate their way through their PhD candidature:

1. Perspective is key


As PhD students, we are privileged to work with knowledge and discovery. We should take it seriously. Our contribution has value.

Still, it is important to keep a healthy perspective. Solving academic problems should not take priority over your mental or physical health.

Having perspective also means you won’t miss important opportunities for growth. When we focus purely on the academic components of a PhD, we run the risk of missing all the life lessons that come with it. Discovering something significant is fantastic, and learning to be a better you is also wonderful. A PhD will one day make way for a different part of your life, so take your best self with you!

I’ve found that it’s important not to be consumed by your PhD. Take it at a pace that is good for you as a person, not just good for your career. Do your best while also maintaining balance and practising self-care. Have reasonable expectations about what’s possible in terms of your health and progress.

Keeping a life and identity outside of your PhD, and nurturing meaning in a variety of different ways (think hobbies!) helps a lot! I love art and crafts, gardening and stories (books, music, movies etc.), which not only help me rest and de-stress but also provide inspiration for tackling research challenges creatively.

2. Tailor your PhD


Illness can impose significant limitations on your progress. Each illness is unique, so establish a pace that works well for you, physically and mentally. Work smarter, not harder. I’ve learned that we can be highly productive in just a couple of hours by working efficiently. Ask friends, family and medical professionals for an honest appraisal of your limitations, and whether you have under- or over-estimated your health.

Be informed. Find out conditions of scholarships and candidature, and what support the University offers. Determine what extra resources are available, such as counselling, disability support or grants.

Be mindful of your progress but be cautious about comparing yourself to others. Every PhD journey is different.

Take things at your own pace, and according to your illness. This may lead you to non-traditional pathways like part-time candidature, frequent holidays or intermission. It may also involve smaller acts of self-care like taking naps. I’ve done all of the above, and it’s all OK. It’s OK to take a PhD a day, hour or minute at a time. It’s about taking care of yourself while you make your way to the PhD finishing line.

Sometimes, your health can deteriorate during your PhD. Don’t wait until you get really unwell to do something about it. Have a plan and enlist supervisors, family and friends to keep you accountable.

3. Establish healthy expectations


Supervisors are there to help and their support is essential. Make sure they understand your illness and limitations, and that you may need to take a different approach to your research than your peers. Work together to determine what’s possible and practical. Be aware that circumstances change so meet regularly and revise accordingly. Your immediate peers can also provide helpful insight. Alternatively, consult a Disability Adviser who can provide confidential and impartial advice.

Frequently communicate what support you need to maintain progress. If you’re struggling to meet a deadline, negotiate alternatives. Discuss meeting times, extra seminars, networking events and conferences. Don’t make a decision solely based on what is good for your career. If you’re chronically ill, you can’t afford to make that mistake.

4. Get support


Higher degree candidature can lead to stress, feelings of isolation, and fear of missing out. If you’re chronically ill, these feelings might be amplified. These common struggles on top of existing illnesses can be overwhelming.

Support is the difference between sinking and swimming, so make sure you have it. Talk to your family and friends and keep them informed. Educate your supervisor and peers about your health so that they can provide meaningful support.

In the words of Arthur Ashe, you have to “start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can”.

Tackling illness and a PhD is challenging, but it is possible with planning, enthusiasm and a good dose of realism.

La Trobe University resources I've found helpful:



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Laena D’Alton is a PhD student in chemistry within the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Sciences (LIMS).

Her project is on developing a sensor that can be used with a mobile phone for portable disease diagnosis at low cost.

She is also a communications assistant to Dr Giselle Roberts. Laena loves all things creative (and chocolate).

2 comments:

  1. Thank you. A hundred times over thank you. I've been struggling having just begun my PhD adventure, especially about when and how to explain my limitations to my supervisor. I've been struggling with the simple fact that I can't work how others work. I've been battling the subtle side eye I get when leaving the office or lab early, or coming on late. I've been struggling with the idea that maybe I am not compatible with a PhD. But this piece proved that wrong - maybe I'm just not compatible with their PhD experience. Thank you for writing this and making me feel valid.

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  2. Thank you very much for sharing with us. When I read it, I feel it is for me.I found this article is applicable not only for PhD students but for every one who is struggling to achieve targets.

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