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:


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).


Unknown said…
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.
Unknown said…
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.
Unknown said…
You are brave, and thank you for sharing this with us, it is definitely very informative and encouraging. Where I come from there exist a myriad of challenges, but all will be well. Thank you
Sarah Lynn said…
How did you address these needs in your PhD application? It shouldn't have an effect on admission, but it does.
Laena D'Alton said…
Hi! Thanks for your comment and encouragement. I'm sorry to hear that there is some lack of understanding. It can be difficult for others to understand what it's like to have a chronic illness, and this certainly doesn't make our lives any easier hey! But there are many who, even if they don't understand, will try and be supportive, and they are often the difference between getting through and not. I love what you've said: "maybe I'm just not compatible with their PhD experience". This is so true! Do your journey your way. And if you're at LTU, you're always welcome to get in touch if you'd like to chat.
Laena D'Alton said…
Thanks so much for your encouraging comment. I'm glad you've found this helpful, and I hope it provides some hope for you!
Laena D'Alton said…
I can't find my original form so I'm going from memory here... In the La Trobe Uni PhD application form it asks "Do you have a disability, impairment, or long-term medical condition which may affect your studies?" (Y/N), "If you answered yes, please indicate the area of impairment by ticking one of the following" (Hearing/mobility/medical/learning/vision/other), then "If yes, are you likely to require support services, special equipment or facilities to assist you in your studies?"

I answered Y, medical, and N. At the time, I did not anticipate requiring support services etc., only flexible time which I'd already discussed with my supervisor. What I did mention either in my form or at my first RPP meeting was that I may require periods of intermission when my chronic illness flares. First-years aren't eligible for intermission, so I just did the best I could and took days off as needed (which my supervisor was supportive of). There's 4 weeks annual leave and 2 weeks sick leave after all. Then in my second year I took intermission as required.

You're right that it shouldn't impact your admission. I was certainly worried about this when I applied and during my first RPP meeting. I think it may also unfortunately depend on your needs and how easy they are to meet. I 'only' need flexibility of time and time off when needed. My supervisor agreed to the former (within OH&S requirements) and the latter. If you're concerned about this, have a chat with the disability support (see the Health and Wellbeing link) or the equivalent at your university. Student Advocacy may also be able to advise (https://latrobesu.org.au/advocacy). It's certainly easier if your supervisor is pro-actively supportive from the onset.

I know that none of that is particularly comforting. There will be doubts until the moment you receive a response (whether yes or no). But don't let that doubt stop you from at least trying to apply and make it work!
Laena D'Alton said…
Hi Beatrice, thanks for your encouraging reply and positive outlook. All will be well, even when it seems unbearably tough and despite the challenges. Hang in there! :)