Today is the 255th day of the year and I have been sick for 110 of them. When I am well, I do work so cool, funding agencies throw money at me.* When I am sick, I am lucky if I am able to brush my teeth.** Being sick so often can be a wee bit depressing. Of course, Darwin was ill most of his life, but still managed to do some pretty important work. That’s inspiring – and comforting!
Less comforting is the overwhelming importance of “productivity” in academic science.
I love doing science and I’m good at it. But my illness takes away about 3 days every week, and I get less done than many of my peers because of it. I don’t know if my illness will improve, and I worry that I won’t be able to compete for a job.
I am afraid that because I lose some days to illness, the things I do on days that I’m well won’t matter. My situation is an extreme of a situation many women face in almost all professions because of the time it takes to bear and care for children. Responding to an NYT oped that suggested doctors who take time off to have or care for children are bad for patients and maybe med schools shouldn’t admit so many pesky babymakers, PalMD said
Well, this is the real world, and in the real world, half of us are women, and women are the ones who bear children. Also, the prime years for physician training are prime child-bearing years. Get used to it. If we think women have at least as much to offer as physicians as men, we better get used to the fact that they have “lady parts” and that this has real effects. Are we to limit the contributions women are allowed to make because a short period of their lives may or may not involve child-bearing?
I’d like to extend this question to include people who struggle with chronic illness and other long-term health problems, like terrible menstrual cycles, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, and depression. Many chronic illnesses that affect working age people affect women disproportionately, but most of this post will apply to men, too – much like childcare discussions (should). Heck, I’d like to extend this question to include people who just don’t want to work all the time. Some people have the time, health, support, and interest to devote an incredible proportion of their lives to a career in science. Some are too sick, do their fair share around the house, have additional responsibilities. Some just feel like their life isn’t complete if they can’t have long weekly dinner parties with friends, time to read three fantasy novels a week, and a youtube channel devoted to ukulele covers of Metallica.
Do we really want to prevent people from contributing to our fields because they can’t (or won’t) work incredibly long hours?
Last month, Sciwo made the perhaps radical suggestion that a career in science shouldn’t demand more than a 40 hour work week, arguing that the very long hours required to compete in an academic science career put people in caregiving roles at a disadvantage:
no one should be expected to work more than 40ish hours per week in order to maintain a career in science. That way the playing field comes closer to evening out for parents/caregivers with time limitations and everyone gets to enjoy their life-outside-work-hours. ….
Honestly, if we could just start by acknowledging that most academic science jobs are really 2-3 people worth of workload, that would be a huge step.
I find this idea pretty appealing, though not ideal. If I were well, it would leave lots of hours every day to do non-work things and a vast expanse of the weekend to spend with loved ones. At my current level of illness, it might be physically possible to work that many hours (though I don’t – how many 10 hour days can you work before needing a day off?)
What I like about sciwo’s idea isn’t so much the precise number of hours, but the cultural shift that would be required for it to occur. Yes, you need to get things done, but it wouldn’t be a seemingly endlessly accelerating race to get the most done. In my fantasy world, everybody gets some basic stipend to cover the necessities and then works for more based on their interests or desire for more compensation. In that world, I wouldn’t worry about my ability to support myself or whether I’m productive enough to justify my salary; I’d worry about the cool science problems I was working on.
But I’m no economist, so instead of fantasizing I’m going to look at some things that could make a difference for sick (and maybe some “lazy“) folks who want to be scientists. Many of the suggestions below are from comments over on my personal blog.
Talk to your advisor
I told my advisor about my illness when I was applying to grad school. So when my illness flared up after my first year, she wasn’t surprised or angry. This has made conversations about funding, deadlines, and how my physical limitations would affect my project much easier. I can ask her how to approach my committee members when I’m nervous about pushing back my proposal defence or to have meetings via Skype when I’m well enough to get out of bed and tinker with my project, but not well enough to go to campus. Many advisors are willing to be quite flexible about meeting times, too.
Use disability services
I think universities should advertise their disability offices better. Many people with chronic illnesses don’t realize that disability offices on campus can help them. As an undergraduate, I had note takers to help offset missed classes and got to take many tests in a quiet, dim room by myself to deal with symptoms and triggers for my illness. As a PhD student without many courses, I’m not entirely sure what they can do for me, but I’ve got an appointment soon to find out.
Illness usually isn’t just limiting in terms of time; there are usually physical limitations that can make parts of a typical project very difficult. Collaboration can be a way to overcome your own weaknesses or limitations. Fieldwork is next to impossible for me, so I’m using data collected by a certain agency. I get to use their decades of data to do my PhD, and they get their data back in a form they can actually use. Karina Anirak recommended collaboration as a way to keep things moving in the field when you can’t get there – such as after the birth of a child or if you have mobility issues.
Collaboration isn’t a magic bullet. I’ve actually really struggled with it. I signed on to a few projects I was very interested in, but that weren’t directly related to my thesis project. I was excited about a way to explore some side interests, gain experience collaborating, and get included on a few publications without making an enormous commitment. But it turns out I was sick enough that I couldn’t really afford the time away from my own work. My illness also meant that my contributions were late or I missed meetings where I would have pushed the project in very different directions. This meant that I put in a great deal of time on things that got sidelined, my contributions weren’t enough to actually make me an author, and I was a bad collaborator.
In the future, I’ll try to choose my collaborations more carefully. Like Dave Harris says, I should focus on projects where I
have complementary skills & can have a big impact quickly.
Some skills are great multipliers of effort. You may have the ability to do some tasks 50 times faster than others, especially if you have experience with the right computational tools. If you can find these niches, you can make a big contribution (and get your name on a paper) between bouts of illness.
Ask for help
While not all advisors and committees are supportive, I am fortunate that mine are. But I didn’t find that out until I mustered the courage (with my advisor’s encouragement) to tell my committee what was going on. I was nervous about telling my committee that I was sick and this was slowing my progress. Instead of disappointment or criticism, they all offered help. I wasn’t sure what to ask for at first, but because of this comment, I’m planning on asking them what they think the most difficult and time consuming parts of my planned project will be and what their recommendations are for those pieces. I also plan to start keeping track of how much time I spend on different parts of my project so I can notice faster when I’m stuck on something – and ask for help.
Have a partner
About an hour each week, I meet with a grad student I befriended at a conference several years ago. We make goals, talk about our progress, and try to keep each other accountable. We edit each other’s work, practice presentations, and talk through ideas and problems in our work. We both have health issues that can impact our ability to work, and it’s wonderful to have someone who sympathizes but is objective enough to give me a kick in the pants if I’m wallowing in self-pity. Different health problems give us helpful perspectives when we’re brainstorming workarounds for our health.
Break it down with your advisor
Break projects down into small chunks with your advisor and report on those chunks regularly. I already break my projects down, but I don’t share that process with my advisor – or tell her when I’m switching chunks. Dave recommended getting help chunking my work from my advisor, but I was hesitant to do that. I thought it might be a waste of her time or too needy, but then mcshanahan chimed in with this tidbit
I worked in the past with a terrific PhD student with chronic illness. From my side of things, I found strategies like David’s suggestion of delineating small tasks really helpful. When we laid out larger goals into very defined small pieces I really felt like I could see her progress and support her better. Even if it was taking longer than it might have for another student, I could still really get a handle on her hard work and identify problems earlier.
One of my worries is how slow my progress on big pieces of my project (write the proposal for chapter 3, build big model of X) appears to my advisor. Mcshanahan’s comment made me realize that it’s silly to worry that my advisor won’t want to talk about this sort of thing at our meetings – she’ll probably appreciate it.
Control your environment
Many illnesses have environmental triggers that make them worse. Things that healthy people don’t notice or that just cause mild discomfort can confine a sick person to bed. Find these things, plan to avoid them, and be very careful about compromising on them. I once minimized the effect an environmental trigger could have on me in a conversation with my advisor. The worst case happened and I spent the better part of three weeks in bed. I’ve written a lot more about this here and here.
Most of this boils down to talking to people about your problems, accepting help from others, and working as efficiently as you can. I don’t know if it’s enough to get me through my PhD, but I’m going to try!
I’m looking forward to hearing your advice, strategies, and stories – or your ideas for restructuring science so that being sick just doesn’t matter.
* Slight hyperbole.