Doing a PhD in half the time

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.
** Literally

28 thoughts on “Doing a PhD in half the time

  1. This is a very brave expose. I have seen both sides of this.

    The short version is this advice from the other side – if you have a problem, discuss it with your advisers. The only thing that is certain is that they can’t help you if they don’t know what to do. The best scenario is that there will be some way around the problem, even though it won’t be perfect it can be made to work.

    Now, the long version if you are interested.

    As an academic, I have been always willing to find ways around, through or past regulations and deadlines to help people with difficulties (whatever they are, doesn’t matter, only the outcome matters). I have worked closely with the disability advisers on campus many times, and have learnt heaps and heaps of useful teaching strategies from them. For example, they taught me about ‘inclusive teaching strategies’ such as ALWAYS using the microphone and NEVER facing the board or screen while talking, even if I don’t know if someone in the class has a hearing problem, because that way ALL the students will hear better). This does not directly apply to graduate advising, but the principles are the same – if we use the best available practices or admin procedures, then, as Sarcozona has mentioned, EVERYONE benefits.

    I have always been able to help students IF they told me they needed help (I always told my classes at the first meeting that they did not have to divulge the nature of their problem, only tell me what I could do to help. It was up to them to decide how much to tell me). On the other hand, I have rarely been able to help if they didn’t say anything until 2 weeks before the exam, or a presentation or some such important event. The earlier I knew, the better we could come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement, and the more time I had to argue the case with Student Admin or the Head of Dept or whomever

    From, the other side, I was on a half-time appointment while raising kids, and I also have (and had then) a chronic condition that means I have to pace myself. It usually doesn’t mean I have to have days off, but I just have to be careful not to do too much at any one time. I rarely told people about it. I didn’t want them to see me as deficient. Maybe I should have been kinder on myself. However, because I was part-time, I did successfully argue on several occasions for having extensions of time, or being considered comparable to others at half the rate of production. I also argued that pedagogical research (that took up more and more of my time during my working life) was ‘real’ research and should be included within one’s science research portfolio instead of being considered as an added extra. Those things were ‘wins’ in themselves, and have benefitted others who followed on after me. Exactly the same arguments apply to someone who is not well or who has other responsibilities that preclude 80-hr weeks. I was probably more sensitive to making sure my (limited) contribution was acknowledged because I knew I never could work at the same capacity as others, even if i had been employed for more hours.

    (As confirmation that I argued successfully, I was once told by one of my supervisors that – although i was half time – I was more productive than some of his full-time staff members, but that is another issue about those who learn to work efficiently with the resources they have…..).

    • Thanks for reinforcing advice about talking to people about problems (and possible problems!) early, and for talking about your own reticence with your own health issues. Asking for help is hard! Most people are willing to help, but there’s always a niggling worry that you’ll be seen as weak or it could be used against you – or just shame that you couldn’t “push through.”

    • Thanks for talking about your experience, I picked some good tips.

      I currently have an issue in relation to this topic of doing a phd and a chronic illness.

      I’m from the UK and I have CFS but I am very interested in doing a PhD.

      However, given I have CFS, my main problem is that I can only study part-time at most. Also, I understanding it is difficult to find part time PhDs that are still funded. Finally, the specific area in which I want to do research will not be offered at many universities so the chances of me doing a part-time, funded PhD in the specific university I want seem very unlikely.

      I’m wondering what your views are and what you would recommend for someone to do who was in my position.


      • I don’t know much about the system in the UK, but I’d get in touch with disability services at universities you’re interested in as well as the particular department or school. Perhaps the disability office can help find a way to reconcile departmental requirements and your particular needs.

        The time thing is something I also struggle with. I may need to drop to part time at some point, but don’t know how I’d manage to live on half a stipend.

        I know that’s not very encouraging, but it’s worth looking into and chatting with a few people about,

        • Trevor: In my experience (in Canada), schools have different requirements of what constitutes full time for students with disabilities vs the “temporarily abled bodied”. Even though I took fewer courses per semester in both my undergrad and MA, I was still considered full time. I would suggest looking into this– let us know how it goes!

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  3. I have a chronic illness, and unfortunately for me, it tends to flareup when workloads are heaviest, just because URTIs are my biggest trigger, and URTI season is also start-of-year and write-up-proposals season. This year has been pretty good (yay for new medication leading to better control), but there have been years when I get so bad I can’t walk up a flight of stairs. This is a problem, since I my work is split between two labs on two floors and my work building was built in the 1940s and as such has no elevator. They say they’re going to build one next summer, but they’ve been saying that for about the past 15 years, or so I’m told. I’ll believe the talk of an elevator if construction on one ever starts.

    I think the single most troubling part of being an academic with a chronic illness for my work is the unpredictability. Unless I’m having a good week, I have to be careful over whether or not I start any multi-day experiments – and in my field, there’s only so many single-day things I can do.

    • I’ve heard a lot of snide and dismissive comments about making buildings more accessible, often citing the lack of people in wheelchairs working there. Aside from the nasty attitude towards people in wheelchairs, I don’t think most people realize that many accessibility changes benefit many people who don’t “look” disabled.

      And you’re absolutely right about the unpredictability. If I could count on being sick every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, life would be much easier. Instead, I’m always scrambling and rescheduling – I might be fine one week and sick every day the next, or fine when I leave my house and sick 5 minutes before my committee meeting starts. It’s exasperating!

      • The invisible need for accessibility accomodations is a tricky one to negotiate. I am overweight, partly at least due to medications and movement restrictions from my health conditions, and I also find stairs tricky when my lower back muscles are in spasm. People regularly make snide remarks about me to my face or where I can hear them about me being very slow on stairs or taking the lift between only one or two floors – mostly of the ‘well that’s why you’re fat’ or ‘she’s so lazy’ type. Getting ergonomic furniture and an ergonomic computer keyboard took nearly a year of negotiation (now I would just go straight to the disability office, but as a new faculty member I was terrified of looking like I wasn’t up to the job). Oh well! At least the internet is letting more and more of us invisibles make contact and get support…

      • Accesible buildings are also important for people carrying babies with strollers, for example. And if anybody asks you what you’re doing taking a baby in a university, well, refer to the usual line that a career in science demands many hours of work and some of that work can not be done from home, even if you are a pure mathematician…

      • “… benefit people who don’t look disabled” – this would be another case of ‘inclusive design’ – even perfectly well people benefit from good design!

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  5. Thanks, for sharing this, Sarcozona! My strategies for grad school and now academic research with a chronic illness are to maximize efficiency when I feel good so that I can afford to slack off a bit when I feel awful. That being said, the predictability thing that ischemgeek mentions is killer. I had been in remission for almost a year and had ignored some subtle signs that a flare was coming. All of a sudden, right before a trip to do field work in a remote part of the country, I was too sick to leave my house much less get on a plane. This left my poor collaborators less than a week to find a replacement, which they did, sort of. Although they were understanding of my situation, I still felt terribly about not being able to help them.

    In terms of telling others and asking for help, I did share the fact of my illness from my graduate adviser, largely b/c I developed my illness towards the end of my PhD and had no choice. He was incredibly supportive, as were the close collaborators I chose to tell about my condition. Its hard to know, though, who to tell and who not to tell. Who would be supportive if I asked for help and who would view me as less valuable of a colleague b/c of my limitations?

    I was also concerned about searching for an academic job knowing that what I label as “epic body fails” could happen at any time and significantly limit my productivity for periods of time. How could I compete with others in a new department who have the luxury of being able to work as many hours as they choose? I have opted to take a more “40 hr a week” type research biologist position in the department where I did my PhD and postdoc as my colleagues know about the quality of my work (no need to prove myself) and I don’t have to deal with transitioning to a new position with so many uncertainties about my health. I don’t know what I’ll do when we eventually have to move closer to my husband’s family and I have to take a new job.

    Good luck and thanks for posting! These are very important issues to discuss and consider!

    • I think some of us are not built to ‘compete’, for some reason be it emotional, physical or practical (bcs of other responsibilities perhaps). I just worked this out early, partly because of family circumstances and then because I knew I would never be fully strong and energetic ever again. Like A.S., I just sighed and decided to ease back and just concentrate on the things I could do well, and managed to get a few grants and awards in those areas, and not even think of ‘competing’ in other areas. In the end, I have felt privileged to just be part of the scientific community, and do enough research to be able to competently teach senior students. It has had to be enough for me, and I have no regrets – now – although I agonised over it at various times when i was younger. Not worth the agony. All of us can only do what we can do, and if it is different from others – well, so be it. Please don’t feel guilty about not ‘competing’. And well done for finding something where you are respected. The next step will happen, when it is ready to happen.

    • I agree that these issues are important to discuss. Thanks for bringing in the topic of life after PhD. I stopped calling myself a postdoc or even an academic when I realised that, without a full-time postdoc job, those words don’t apply to me in many people’s minds. I’ll never have a full-time job and probably never a postdoc job because I’m permanently disabled. Instead I’m finding ways to do science on a freelance basis.

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  7. I have an invisible chronic illness and just completed my MA degree (in humanities). It took me 3 years to complete a 2 year program, but I did manage to research/write/defend a thesis. It took a lot of prioritizing on my part; fortunately, I had a great supervisor who was understanding and gave me a lot of leeway when it came to all the ‘optional’ events/talks (that, of course, are never optional). However, my health issues has been a significant factor in my decision not to go on to a PhD, and that makes me a little sad. I find the whole grad school system is geared for the fully healthy, though, and I think it’s important for us to speak up about our experiences and be heard. Thanks so much for writing this. Even though I’m not from the sciences, what you say rings true for other disciplines as well.

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  10. Thank you so much for posting this. I have made arrangements with DSS for exams and such, but as a grad student with only a small desk, I’m also contemplating requesting some more accommodations regarding my RA and then eventually my dissertation. There are days when the flare-ups (I’ve got PCOS, SLE, and RA) are so unbearable. I have regular consults with my PCP, OB/GYN, and my rheumatologist. I haven’t found a dissertation advisor yet, but when the time comes, I hope to have this discussion without shame or ridicule.

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