What would you ask for?

Halving something doesn't always make it easier | Photo credit: Flickr user Fazia_

Halving something doesn’t always make it easier | Photo credit: Flickr user Fazia_

My migraines have been slowing my PhD progress way down. At my current level of migraine, I’m going to have half the time of a normal student to do my PhD. I’m fortunate to be in a really supportive environment, but I need to do a better job using that support. My advisor and committee have all asked me what they can do to help, but I’m not sure what to ask them for. I asked for some advice on twitter, but thought I’d widen my net and try here, too.

If you’ve had a chronic illness during a PhD and needed accommodations, what have you asked for?

For those of you who were well during your PhD, I could still use your advice! If you’ve had to finish your PhD in a hurry, what strategies helped you? What did your advisor and committee do (or you wish they’d done) to help you finish quickly?

If you’re an advisor or committee member, what do you wish your sick or slow students would ask you for?


  1. I’m not sure of the nature of your planned dissertation work, but I think effective and synergistic collaborations could be important. Last year I took a women in science course and we interviewed successful female scientists and asked them for advice. Many were married to other scientists, which is one way to get close collaborators, but one who wasn’t still said that her collaborations were the key to her research continuity even when she couldn’t do the field work (or whatever). I’ve been thinking about this advice a lot.

    The end of my PhD felt like running a marathon every day. I prioritized self-care and neglected many other things, so I don’t recommend my strategy as any kind of long-term solution. But it did really help when my advisor (knowing exactly what I was up against) told me he thought I could do it. In the weeks after my daughter was born (when I was very weak from complications), it was great that he told me to focus on getting well and not worry about the science. He knew and trusted I’d get back to it when I could, and I have.

    I hope that you are able to find ways to work smarter instead of harder! I know it’s easier said than done.

  2. Here are a few suggestions I tweeted a couple of weeks ago, that might contribute to the discussion. I’ve also expanded on them a bit now that I have more space. These fit very much with Karina’s suggestions about “working smarter not harder.”

    1) help coming up with small goals (one or a few days’ work)

    Small goals are much easier to manage and it’s easier to keep up momentum (and see progress) when you can check things off as successes.

    2) help finding projects where you 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.

    3) help identifying biggest roadblocks and/or extra help with them (eg writing introduction in my case)

    Conversely, some things might take you much longer than they should. [Insert some statistic about 20% of the work taking 80% of the time investment]. If your advisor can help you identify the tasks that are slowing down your productivity on the days when you *are* able to work, that might be a big help in speeding up or eliminating those tasks so you can make a bigger impact.

  3. mcshanahan says:

    It’s a great question! From a supervisor’s view, 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. So it could be helpful to ask for that kind of support, meeting with supervisors to explicitly break tasks into many small steps that you report back to them on, more than they might have otherwise. It might help them see and appreciate your good work more easily and give you a way to show them continual progress. Maybe that won’t work for the type of research you do, but it seemed like it was really helpful for me and my former student.

  1. […] But I’m no economist, so instead I’m going to look at some things that could make a difference for sick and “lazy” folks who want to be scientists. Many of the suggestions below are from comments over on my personal blog. […]

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