On dealing with (short-term) illness as a PhD student

This week’s thoughts are about getting ill as a PhD student. Not a day had gone by after posting my last blog when I found myself struck down with flu, rendering me all-but-useless for the rest of the week. Perhaps it serves me right for opening on such an optimistic note! I had planned my next post to be equally cheery, reflecting on my experiences of academic conferences so far. Then it occurred to me that this presented a good opportunity to discuss the PhD experience of Getting Sick.

I will begin with two disclaimers – firstly, I want to make it clear that I’m not writing about coping with a serious or long-term illness during a PhD. I know this affects many more people than is commonly recognised, and although it is in some ways related to what I’ll discuss here, it’s a topic worth an article (or 5!) of its own. It would be great to spark an open discussion on this topic – so if you’d like to write a post about your experience of working on a PhD whilst dealing with a long-term or serious illness, please do get in touch.

Secondly, as was apparent from my introductory post, this blog is not an attempt to speak for ‘the’ PhD experience. As will also become clear, my PhD journey and that of many around me belies the idea that there is any one ‘PhD Experience’. My intention is to write about my own experiences and observations of those around me, and to encourage as many other voices as possible to add their views. Hopefully this will represent a range of the many possible trajectories towards doctoral completion in Scotland.

View from house

Although I didn’t leave the house all week, at least the view from my bedroom isn’t too bad

So – I’m writing this with the week lying fruitlessly behind me – a missed supervisory meeting, much-needed social time with my other PhD colleague cancelled, a long to-do list from Tuesday sitting untouched on my desk (no satisfying lines through completed tasks here!).

It got me thinking about how difficult it can be just to take some time off when I get ill. I’ve always been terrible at taking time off, even in a structured work environment where I could phone my manager and then relinquish all responsibility until I recovered. Yet there do seem to be some aspects of PhD life which (for me) make it more difficult to just stop, even when my head is throbbing and nose is streaming. Here are some reasons why this might be:

Intangibility of much PhD work

As I’m still in my first year, I’m not at the serious writing stage yet. I’m (slowly) writing my literature review, but much of my time is also spent reading, sourcing new material, transcribing and planning the next stages of my project. Much of this work is intangible at this stage. I don’t have a word count to pat myself on the back about at the end of the day (although I do make a point of keeping a research diary). It’s tough to judge how much of the day’s work will be relevant to the project – much of my time so far has been spent exploring different avenues and possibilities. It’s a cumulative process rather than a series of discrete tasks, which I find makes it more difficult to pick back up again after any time away.

The work is never done

Not (always) having a tangible output at the end of a day’s work can also create a sense of anxiety about the amount of progress I am making. There is always more to read, more to write, another person you could interview, another avenue or methodology I could explore. Personally, my way of combating imposter syndrome/anxiety over my project is to work a few extra hours, an evening here and there … A dangerous habit to fall into, I know, but I’m sure I’m not alone! When you typically work longer than 9-5, taking a whole day off because of illness acquires greater significance.

I’ll just do …

There are such a range of tasks which need done at any one time, from routine administrative tasks, to reading, to writing. When I’m not feeling up to the more mentally taxing of these options, I’ll try to concentrate on the tasks that require least thought. This week, it was transcribing and some reading. I got through transcribing one and a half interviews and read one book. I had a meeting with my supervisor planned for Friday, and instead of cancelling it I moved it to Skype, optimistically thinking I’d manage this more easily. I woke up on Friday barely able to talk, so ended up cancelling at the last minute anyway.

A quick search on this topic on Twitter found post after post about how one of the ’perks’ of PhD life was being able to work from bed when sick. Reading them, I thought – ‘that’s crazy’, but of course this is exactly what I did too.

So, what’s the remedy? In my case I found it really helpful to be reminded that this isn’t something that only I struggle with. Thanks to everyone who replied to my tweet with supportive advice and encouragement to take a break.


They were right: the work I did this week really wasn’t worth it. Forcing myself to get up early, work from bed and continue transcribing simply made me feel much worse and prolonged my illness. I should have emailed my supervisors to say I wasn’t well and wouldn’t be working until I felt better – then slept in, watched terrible TV and tried not to think about the work I was missing. More easily said than done, but as many of us are given flexibility in our PhD routines it’s ultimately up to us to change (where it exists) the culture of ‘working from home’ when sick. It’s also part of my own first-year learning curve.

riley1 final.jpg

Poor Riley had to make do with me throwing a ball for her from my front door!

Next week I promise there will be more pictures of Riley the PhD dog, beaches and mountains … all the way from a lovely Scottish island.

For regular news, updates and opportunities follow SGSAH on both Twitter and Facebook.

Contact Joanna via email at joanna.rodgers@uhi.ac.uk, or find her on Twitter


3 thoughts on “On dealing with (short-term) illness as a PhD student

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