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I am a part-time psychology PhD student. In the first 12 months of my PhD, I have fully drafted a systematic review for publication and written my confirmation document, which is approximately 14k words. My confirmation is next week.

My health is pretty terrible and I have been honest with my supervisors about my health. When I was first set to begin my PhD, I was diagnosed with stage one cancer, so I had to be treated for that before I could continue. I also have an autoimmune disorder.

In January this year, I caught COVID and developed raised intracranial pressure as a consequence. I felt OK to continue once I had taken two weeks off, but they highly recommended a two-month intermission, so that's what I did. They said that this was their recommendation because sick leave doesn't "stop the clock" in regard to when my PhD is due.

I recommenced my PhD last week and had a meeting with my secondary supervisor. She said that my primary supervisor would be unable to continue to be my primary supervisor because she's finding working with me very "stop and start", and I'm working too slowly and inefficiently. She also said that she's finding my health problems a bit much to handle.

There were many suggestions that I should withdraw from my PhD. She said that I really need to think about whether I want to do the PhD because it's a long slog, and that it may just be better to work as a psychologist (I'm a registered psychologist and work part-time in private practice). I have obviously thought about this a lot and it's what I want to do.

She also said that I'm likely to struggle to find work after my PhD, and that if I do my PhD, it should be with the knowledge that is truly for the joy of the research and not employment opportunities.

She also said that she's not convinced that I didn't need to take intermission because of PhD-related stress. I said that COVID led directly to a neurological complication, and she said, "yes, but you know how the biopsychosocial model works..."

She said that at my confirmation I would need to explain my health issues to the examiners, and we will talk through it. I brought up discrimination and she stopped talking.

My previous primary supervisor, who is now my secondary supervisor, isn't going to talk to me about her decision, which is uncomfortable. She has told me in the past that she has 12 PhD students and she dedicates an hour long meeting once a month to her PhD students and she can't provide any support beyond that. She was recently promoted to Deputy Head of School.

I'm not listed as one of the students on the research lab's website. All the other students have also been given positions as research assistants, and I haven't.

My supervisor who is no longer my primary also developed the intervention that I will be adapting for my PhD. She is being very difficult and won't share the content with me, so that's going to look strange at confirmation.

Does anyone have any suggestions? There aren't any other academics in my field at this university.

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    Could you add a region tag? This sounds like a situation where you might benefit from additional resources at your university, the names and framework of which vary a lot across countries. Commented Apr 25 at 9:09
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    "I have obviously thought about this a lot and it's what I want to do." The "it" presumably refers to continuing your PhD, didn’t it? Commented Apr 25 at 9:38
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    Can you clarify that third paragraph? I can't quite tell who was for and who was against the extended Covid-related break, and I can't tell what does and does not extend the timeline clock.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Apr 25 at 23:07
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    "yes, but you know how the biopsychosocial model works..." What did the person mean by this? Could you explain?
    – toby544
    Commented Apr 27 at 16:16
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    @Andrew If that is what the advisor meant, this is one of the worst things said by an advisor that I have ever read on this site.
    – toby544
    Commented Apr 28 at 9:26

6 Answers 6

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I did my PhD in a biology-related field, but I saw a few people have a similar situation to you where their advisor no longer wanted to be their advisor, suggested they leave, or straight up told them they would never finish their PhD in their lab. None of them ended up finishing.

So I know this seems drastic, but if your advisor no longer wants to work with you that's the end of working with them. It isn't going to be the effort and the end result will either be you burnt out or not finishing.

The best thing you can do is find a new advisor. Finding a good advisor is not just about finding one who does the same work as you, in fact, I'd say that is almost secondary, it is about finding one that will help you become the best scientist you can be and one that you get along with.

Go to your department head/student union head/any university person who is there to help you and get advice on what is possible in your university/region. But please, don't try working with people who don't want to work with you.

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    "never finish their PhD in their lab"... Do you mean that they were effectively shown the door, or that despite being given the chance they weren't up to the challenge? Commented Apr 26 at 6:27
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    @MarkMorganLloyd: It can be extremely difficult to judge the difference between these, without knowing the situation very closely. Almost always in my experience, the supervisor will claim (and usually believe) they gave the student a fair chance — and conversely, whether the student believes they were given a fair chance is usually determined more by their general personality and self-esteem rather than a considered judgement of what happened.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 26 at 15:26
  • It can, which is why I specifically asked @harper357 for clarification. Commented Apr 26 at 19:28
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    @MarkMorganLloyd I want to be careful with my wording here, a PhD advisor is supposed to be a mentor, someone who supports and helps you. They should not be an advisory. In my anecdote, the student took it as a "challenge", that they just had to prove something to this professor and they would change their mind. That was never a possibility. Their work styles were never going to fit. A PhD student has very little power in this dynamic. It is not worth the pain and headaches when the end result is already determined in their mind.
    – harper357
    Commented Apr 27 at 21:46
  • @harper357 Thanks for that, I think it's a useful clarification, as well as being a reminder that postgrads are fairly low in the pecking order. Commented Apr 28 at 7:22
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First, people with health challenges can and do complete PhDs. Many of the PhD students I knew in my program, including myself, had a variety of both acute and chronic health issues.

However, it does require some introspection and potential behavioral changes on the student's part to work through this, which I'll highlight at the end.

Advisor / Supervisor Point of View

First I'll concede a few points that have been made to you. A PhD is a long slog (especially trying to do it part-time), and post-PhD employment is difficult to find.

But those items are true for all PhD students, regardless of health issues.

From your advisor's point of view, a PhD student typically represents two things:

  • A student to train in the ways of research in their field of expertise.
  • A resource that they are paying for, which enables them to make progress in their own research.

So from your advisor's point of view, the start/stop nature caused by your health challenges is a major obstacle to what they view as the focus of a PhD student.

And frankly, this is a valid perspective, even if we might judge it to be not particularly compassionate.

Your Point of View

The biggest question you have to ask is why you would want to continue with a PhD. Regardless of the valid perspectives of your advisor, no other opinion matters but this one.

  • You can find a new advisor more accommodating to your health challenges.
  • You can find a new research project.
  • You can even find a completely new program if you have to.

But if you're not fully committed to the "why" behind your PhD journey, the struggles that you are dealing with to work towards a PhD will be too much for your lack of motivation to overcome.

And again, this is true for all PhD students, regardless of health issues.

A Moment of Introspection

Finally, as with most internet questions, we're looking at this through a relatively specific lens that is presented. Another factor that often affects situations like this is quality and frequency of communication.

Regardless of what course of action you ultimately choose, you owe it to yourself to take an honest look at the way you've communicated about your work, and how your health challenges have affected it.

This single skill will have the biggest impact on your future both during and after your PhD program. (Again, this is true for all PhD students, regardless of health challenges)

As an example, let's say you tell your advisor you will have completed a task by Saturday evening. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Knowing you have health challenges that could impact that deadline, do you consistently add that factor to your estimate of when you can have things done, or do you tend to over-promise in order to please?

  • If you were a deadline-motivated person prior to your health challenges, have you recognized the limits of that approach? Someone with no health challenges might be able to regularly put off a Saturday deadline until the end of the week and pull a couple of all nighters to get it done in time. Someone with intermittent health challenges needs to plan for the possibility that they will be incapacitated on Friday and likely start immediately and take full advantage of every moment of health.

  • If a deadline slips because of health challenges, do you communicate about this before the deadline, or do you typically communicate about it after the deadline has passed, perhaps days after it has passed, or only after your advisor has had to reach out to you about it?

I cannot stress enough the important of good, proactive communication in situations like this.

This factor alone can make the difference between an advisor who is willing to work with you despite your health challenges, and one who decides they can no longer deal with them.

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My PhD was in a STEM field, so I know little about psychology departments, but I can tell you that an advisor with 12 Phd-students who picks up additional administrative duties and who has expressed a desire not to work with you will make for a very difficult slog through the program. Add this to your health issues and other responsibilities and I would run from this program as fast as I could unless your absolute heart's desire is a PhD from this exact department.

Two suggestions: (1) Find a different faculty member in the department; one that you respect and seems like a reasonable person and with whom you have some rapport. Explain to them the situation and just hear what they have to say, whether explanatory or advisory. (2) This one is difficult and I do not mean to suggest that I can detect any such thing, but there are reasons besides health and work output that can trigger/cause/incentivize faculty members to express an unwillingness or distaste for working with a student. One group of possibilities could be personality conflicts, personal conflicts, or things like political/religious conflicts. Have the faculty members in question ever just seemed consistently short with you for no apparent reason? A second group of possibilities revolve around your work style and even their perception of your abilities and aptitudes for PhD-level work. What did the faculty member say about your systematic review? The suggestion is to simply think carefully about these possibilities and perhaps sanity-check them with a fellow student or the respected faculty member mentioned above. Don't get imposter-syndrome based on anything a SE poster says! Just be clear-eyed about these things.

Most PhD-stints are difficult, at least some of the time, and some are horror shows. Faculty members can have their own personal problems, they can be under the gun for publications or stressed for other reasons. They don't always behave consistently with their best possible selves. Good luck sorting it out and making the decisions that are right for you at this time.

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I Advise At Least Two Things

First, Talk To Someone Who Knows The Rules

I believe you.

I believe your supervisors said what you report.

But I question if what they said is accurate.

  • The part about PhD studies being a long, hard road: Yeah that's true. It's on you to make an informed decision. It's on them to give you that information. It's not on them to crush your spirit.

  • The part about the inflexibility of the schedules and the deadlines is, to me, highly suspect. I am sure this varies by country and institution, but my institution (public R1 in the United states) considered it a matter ethics and basic human decency to work with students with documented medical issues, either emergent or chronic.

  • The part where they take it upon themselves to decide whether your health conditions are real is, at least here, entirely over the line.

The real complicating factor is that the current second supervisor is also moving up to something assistant chair of the department. It's complicating because normally I would suggest you talk to the department chair about this to get clarity on how the university requires health issues to be dealt with.

If there is a separate Graduate College which administers the graduate degrees, I would start there. Or an ombudsman, which many universities have.

Second, get new advisors

Like other responders, I am not in psychology, but twelve advisee sounds (your now secondary supervisor) like way too many, and then stepping up into major administrative duties makes that even worse. It's rational, and probably even wise, to start stepping back from advising duties, but there are good ways and bad ways to do that.

Your primary supervisor, though... wow. So many red flags. A PhD supervisor-supervisee relationship should be a trusting one, and I'm just not sure how I could trust someone calling into question or outright disrespecting medical conditions. (The rest of their behavior is bad, too.)

Once you have a firm grasp of the rules, start looking for another supervisor.

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sick leave doesn't "stop the clock" in regard to when my PhD is due

Strange - this is certainly not how UK universities operate.

she's finding working with me very "stop and start", and I'm working too slowly and inefficiently. She also said that she's finding my health problems a bit much to handle.

I am sorry but that is both sickening and utterly unprofessional.

it may just be better to work as a psychologist (I'm a registered psychologist and work part-time in private practice)

I am glad you have a fall-back. Technically, this is sound advice (after all, it may be better) but it sounds a lot like pressure is being applied.

struggle to find work after my PhD, and that if I do my PhD, it should be with the knowledge that is truly for the joy of the research and not employment opportunities.

You already have a job as a psychologist! Does she mean post-doc type positions in particular? But look: you are already qualified and having the extra qualifications is not going to hurt.

"yes, but you know how the biopsychosocial model works..."

OK, I am sorry but this is hooey. She is just saying that you are being hysterical, although this is of course a word that would never pass her lips.

at my confirmation I would need to explain my health issues to the examiners

Yes, and...? Fair enough, right?

She has told me in the past that she has 12 PhD students and she dedicates an hour long meeting once a month to her PhD students and she can't provide any support beyond that. She was recently promoted to Deputy Head of School.

That is extremely minimal support for any PhD student.

I am so sorry, but you are up the plank and being prodded to jump. I honestly don't think there is any chance they are going to be decent about the whole matter.

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  • I agree with much of this. The faculty involved seem immature.
    – Wookie
    Commented Apr 28 at 8:06
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My own experience is parallel but puzzling in comparison to yours. I agree-- sick leave does not stop the clock. It is also challenging to get, because the paperwork may or may not be available, and it may or may not be possible to document if diagnoses are in flux so that no specific doctor knows what's wrong or if one is sick enough that it is impossible to do the leg-work for the paperwork one's self.

Cancer is a heck of a problem. Wow. Autoimmune with Covid doesn't sound too great either. You really have been hit with a lot. My sympathies.

In my case, I was also in a position where my advisor was kind of downgrading me. I had been offered an opportunity to go to part time because of some low-grade health problems that were bothering my advisor. I was a bit puzzled by this because I had already published four papers in the research group in my 2.5 years there. However, he was right, there were recent health problems. I accepted the half time accommodation.

What shocked absolutely everybody is that immediately after I went to half time, my health problems spiraled out of control. Essentially the same week. I began having seizures every day all day. Eventually, medication treated this, but in the mean time, I lost my advisor and my funding in my fifth year in the program. This was at University of Minnesota in Fall 2010. I eventually earned an MS in July 2013. One might think that going to part time caused the health problems to spiral out of control but that doesn't necessarily seem to correlate with how the health problems actually work as observed today. It seems to have been a giant unfortunate coincidence, or maybe my advisor and I both had a sense something bad was coming, since I also had been diving deeply into neurology literature thinking something was wrong with me.

I don't particularly have any excellent suggestions. Your backup plan of working as a psychiatrist is a good one.

I didn't have a backup career. I moved in with my family, who paid for my living expenses. At the time, COBRAing was the best solution for health insurance if no other options were available. Now the Marketplace also exists. Some people with disabilities have Medicaire or Medicaid in the USA.

But if you are still coping with cancer and an autoimmune disorder, it may in fact be challenging to work some jobs. I currently am limited in what jobs I can take as well, due to the migraines and seizures that returned in 2016. I was able to finish my 3rd masters degree but I have not been able to take a full time job since. I work part time remotely. I don't recommend "part time remote" as plan A, but if your health is very limiting, it is much better than "totally disabled". I have a lot of sympathy for the situation you are in!!!

In the USA, employers are required to accommodate you, if you can perform the job function with accommodations, but if you can't, they are not required to keep an employee who cannot perform the job function, I believe. I believe. So I'm not quite sure where you stand with regard to that. Research in academia can proceed at a slower pace, but if it is slowed down enough, then other people publish first, or studies that are time sensitive can't be finished and go to waste.

If they are able to freeze your PhD until you're past the cancer at least, that sounds like a great plan. Then you could focus on your health and recover until you're able to return to the time pressure of the PhD.

If it's fundamentally a long term disability, I have no specific suggestions...

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