This is a guest post by Sally Weston, a PhD Researcher in Civil and Structural Engineering, and a member of the Disabled & Ill Researchers’ Network.
A week before I started my PhD, I started to develop a chronic condition. This condition has been a massive pain, both literally and figuratively. I’ve had three abdominal surgeries in as many years but this remains an ongoing condition that affects me on a regular basis. I experience moderate to severe pain approximately 3-5 days per month, which can take up to one working week off my schedule every month.
My strong pain killers mean that when I’m ill, it can take me over an hour to understand one sentence of literature, if at all. I’ve also had to deal with the impact on my mental health and I’ve developed a pain syndrome where my body feels pain when I’m stressed. Unfortunately, these things have made a PhD quite a bumpy ride.
I’m coming toward the end of my PhD time limit now and, despite my best efforts, my thesis is not ready for submission. I have applied for an extension on medical grounds, as I was previously advised that this would be more useful to me than going part-time while writing my thesis. However, the message I’ve now been given from my supervisor and PGR Tutor (designated department support person for PhD researchers) is that if you need an unpaid medical ‘Leave of Absence’ you need to (1) apply straight away, and (2) include a date for when you’ll be ‘better’.
I was able to estimate this for my three surgeries, even though the application process was intrusive and uncompassionate*, but this system doesn’t work for chronic conditions.
If this is the process, can I apply for medical leave every month? This would be around 50 applications for the whole PhD. I would barely be back at work from one month, before I would have to start applying for the next one. Clearly this would be ridiculous, yet it might demonstrate how disruptive a chronic condition can be. A conservative estimate of 3 days lost per month is equivalent to 144 days since the start of my PhD. This is almost 29 working weeks (over 7 months) and does not include the other lost days due to worse months, hospital appointments, rearrangement of lost meetings etc. The total figure is likely to be around a year that I have not been well enough to work on my PhD.
So why am I telling you all this?
My advice for anyone with a chronic condition is to document it.Make some kind of itemised medical receipt. It might feel like you are exposed but it will be worth it. I wish I had kept a record of how many days I’ve lost, beyond this quick calculation above, and a stack of hospital letters. This would make any application for a medical extension that much stronger. I also want to highlight that when I have submitted personal confidential medical records, I have not been provided with any information about who will see them, how they will be kept secure, how long they’ll be kept, how they will be destroyed. I think you are well within your rights to request information about how your confidential data will be handled, essentially in the era of data protection. You are a person with your own private life, and deserve for your situation to be handled sensitively and confidentially.
So please keep your fingers crossed the University can grace me with one extra month to compensate for my lost year.
* When I applied for my first medical leave for surgery, my doctor, supervisor and I agreed that 3 months would be necessary to properly recover from the surgery, focus on a treatment plan and try to recover from some of the side effects I had developed from my medication. I filled in all the paperwork, my supervisor signed it, I included a letter from my surgeon… everything that was asked of me. However, I received an email from a colleague who managed the Leave of Absence process, effectively saying “tell me exactly what surgery you are having, and I’ll tell you how much time off you need”. I was furious and had to write an additional statement to justify why I needed the time off, referring to my doctor’s medical experience. Additional stress and lost time that didn’t help my thesis or my recovery.