A PhD takes a physical toll on you, but we don't talk about it much
I have been umming and aahing about writing this post because it may come across as a whinge of some kind but it really isn’t meant to be. I think it’s about an issue that needs to be talked about; one related to the kinds of physical stress that come with working for several years on a PhD. We talk a great deal about mental stress, and even the emotional toll that a PhD process can take on students, but I have not yet seen very much written about the physical toll except in a couple of main areas. Perhaps I am not reading widely enough, but most of what seems to be written about in this regard is by and about people working on their PhDs while managing a mental or chronic illness that already demands a lot of their physical, mental and emotional energy. I would imagine that this must be incredibly difficult. But I want to add to these conversations here by reflecting on the more run-of-the-mill physical illnesses like flu, colds and similar that may become more common for you during your PhD and may not immediately be associated with the stress of undertaking PhD research.
I have been ill quite a bit more than usual for the past two years, and I am not a person who gets colds and flu much at all. I tend to use my sick days for my kids’ illnesses rather than my own. But in the last two years I have had to take sick leave and actually stay at home, on the couch, and not just go to work and solider on. I have felt physically run down – just generally tired and worn out, and I have to say it has taken me a long time to associate much of this with the stress attached to my PhD. I am not offering empirical proof here, but I think many PhD students could probably understand this. I have had several sinus infections. I have allergies, but I have hardly ever had these turn into actual sinus and chest infections that have really had me down and out. I have been thinking it’s just because I’m really bad at remembering to take my vitamins, or because I eat the wrong things, or because of changes in the weather. But since the beginning of this year, and last year finishing my thesis, I have felt really worn out most of the time, and today I went to the doctor for the 6th time since January. This is not normal, and definitely not for me. At the moment I have no voice at all, mild vertigo and sinusitis and I finished my corrections on my thesis the day before yesterday.
I’m starting to think there’s a real connection here. I have been very anxious waiting for my reports from my examiners. It has weighed on me, the waiting and wondering. After the high of getting my reports back I felt really down again, and found doing the corrections mentally tough (more on this next week). I had a couple of really bad sinus days trying to work on them. I handed in my thesis at the end of last year but really battled to unwind and relax for the three and half weeks I had between handing in and starting work again because I was wondering about the examination process and how it would go. It was handed in, but the thesis was not finished and so I could not just shake it off and forget about it. I worried and wondered and the stress stayed with me. And so, it seems, did the fatigue and the illness. I don’t think I am alone in finding myself more physically run down during and just after a PhD, but struggling to make obvious connections between the PhD process and my feelings of fatigue, and not really feeling completely well (and sometimes being quite sick too).
Apart from multivitamins and having people around who are instructed to force you to take mini-breaks, and even take you away when it all gets too much, I think it is important for PhD students to try and get enough rest and eat well, although this can be hard on the bad days when you want to mainline sugar and chocolate, and on the many nights when you lie awake between 3 and 5 am rewriting your theory chapter in your head, eventually getting up to write down your ideas because you know you won’t remember them in the morning. It’s especially hard if you are a student and working and a parent, and you cannot remember the last time you were at the top of your own list of priorities. As a mum, having an inability to put myself and my needs first feels like something that comes with the job.
But I think what I have learned, am still learning, is that you have to say NO to the things that really don’t matter so much, and say YES to focusing on what you need to do your best work in every area of your life, like what you need to get through your PhD in as healthy and sane a state as possible. I am not fully sure that this is possible, though. When I told my supervisor, coming off 6 months of suspended studies to finally work on my proposal, that I wanted to try and be a mum and do well at work and write a great PhD and stay sane, her response was that I could certainly do that but that I might have to let go of the sanity. I think, if you also include great physical well-being, that she was probably spot-on. But as always, I (we) can solider on and get better all the time, hopefully, at focusing more on what matters to me (us), and not always so much on what matters to everyone else.
Dr. Sherran Clarence (@PhDgirlSA) is an Honorary Research Associate at Rhodes University; and Managing Editor of Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning, and Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory. This story was published on June 24, 2014, on Dr. Clarence's blog, 'How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)' (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.