Lessons from a chronically ill PhD student

By Flossie Kingsbury


I’ve had a chronic illness for just about as long as I can remember. But as I’ve progressed from studying for my BA, to my MA, to my PhD, my health has got worse. This means the ways I studied as an undergrad stopped working as I got older. I’ve had to find new ways of studying, living, and dealing with illness. The lessons I’ve learnt have a much broader relevance that just to those of us who are chronically ill – taking care of your health is important for everyone. This is what I’ve learnt.


Breaks are not optional


I used to take breaks when things were going well, but if I was struggling with an essay or approaching a deadline I’d just keep working, and working, and working. Since my health deteriorated, I’ve found out the hard way that I can’t do this anymore. I need my breaks, regardless of how the work is going. Nobody can keep ploughing on without burning out, so don’t even let yourself reach that point. Take a break.


Time off is not a treat


As with breaks, I only took time off if I had achieved something and could justify not working. But once I had a million and one things that needed doing, I never felt like I’d achieved anything and could never justify not working. So I just kept going. I went a whole year with no time off. Then I ended up in therapy. Now I know that time off is a necessity, not a treat.


Health takes priority


It’s so tempting to feel like your thesis has to take priority, there’s usually so much riding on it. But this isn’t true. It’s really, really not. Prioritising anything over your health just risks damaging it. Trust me, once you experience the loss of productivity that ill health can lead to, you’ll wish you’d just taken care of yourself in the first place.


Remember that we’re all in the same place


Sure, some of us have more health-based challenges than others, but we all need to remember to take care of ourselves. So don’t be judgmental when your friends need breaks or nap or time off. And just as importantly, don’t be jealous. There’s nothing worse than feeling guilty about prioritising one’s health. Instead, why not join in? Let’s not leave prioritising rest and recuperation to only those of us who literally can’t live without it. Let’s make it a normalise and accepted part of academia. We can all benefit from it after all 🙂