Your academic career is not necessarily over

A few days ago, I saw a particular phrase on my Twitter feed.

It was the name of a neurological disorder that I was once misdiagnosed with.

My Twitter feed is about 80% science, 10% politics, and 10% pretty pictures — I tweet under my real name, so I keep generally keep disability / chronic illness stuff off of there. It turns out, though, that someone I follow on Twitter has just been certified to return full-time to her PhD, after taking significant time off to recover from this neurological disorder. As you can imagine, she was expressing a range of emotions about this development.

I know how isolating it is to have a chronic illness during one’s PhD, and most of us aren’t brave enough to talk about it under our real names. This Twitter-er and I haven’t met in real life, but we do follow each other, and we’re in broadly the same field. I sent her an email to say “hey, you’re not alone.”

Since the second year of my PhD, I’ve gotten daily migraines. Yes, migraines. Yes, daily. For about six months during my fourth year, I was hitting 9/10 or 10/10 on the pain scale at least once a week. (For comparison, appendicitis was about a 6/10 at its very worst, and breaking my toe was maybe a 4/10.) (Also, I’m allergic to opiates.) For about half of my PhD, I could only guarantee about 4 hours per day of functionality, in which I had to fit in every single thing that had to be done. Not just research and teaching and supervising and job applications, but also endless doctors appointments and trips to the pharmacy and seeing my therapist and going to the grocery store and exercising and cooking and seeing friends and dealing with my incredibly complicated family. All this nonsense on Twitter at the moment about 40 hrs/week versus 60 hrs/week versus 80 hrs/week? That conversation’s so far removed from my reality, it might as well be about Mars.

And yet, I finished my PhD. I had guaranteed funding for N years and partial funding for the N+1th year, and I finished in N years + 9 months. (Note that I didn’t officially take any time off during my PhD, as that would have lost me my visa, and thus my access to any sort of health care.) And I got a postdoc. A postdoc that was perfect in nearly every imaginable way. (Part-time, awesome research, amazing boss, within weekend traveling distance of my partner.) It is possible.

The PhD student with this neurological disorder told me that she thinks her career in academia is over. And, well, it might be — I don’t actually know anything about her. But the club of successful academics with chronic illnesses is bigger that you’d think. It is possible to finish your PhD. It is possible to get a job afterwards.

If you’re a member of our club, I’m sorry, but also, welcome. Take heart in our success stories. Whatever your goal is, even if it’s just getting out of bed today, I believe in you.


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