Dealing with Your PhD When Life Happens by Jelena O’Reilly

It took me personally 6 years to finish my PhD because during that period several major life events happened in my life (probably more than during any previous period of my life) which resulted in me taking three leaves of absence from my studies and one extension. I am living proof that you can still get your PhD despite many hurdles.  In this blog I will talk briefly about  my PhD journey, followed by some of the things that helped me deal with the surprising life events that came my way, and ultimately go on to finish my PhD. 

My PhD Journey

I came to York to do my (self-funded) PhD in second language acquisition in 2013 at the age of 28, having left behind a good job, great friends and family. I was ready for more knowledge and new challenges. I definitely got both. 

I’ve suffered with Bipolar disorder since my late teens which had been under control for several years until moving to a new country, lack of appropriate support and the stresses of PhD life triggered my first episode in 2015 and I was put on antipsychotic medication. In addition the stress of moving to another country, I also did not adjust well to the isolation that is common during a PhD. Prior to starting my PhD I worked as a foreign language teacher and was used to being connected and in regular contact with people. Also, because I was self-funded I had financial worries and had to work as a supply teacher in secondary schools alongside my studies which eventually took its toll on me. It took me months to recover from this first episode, but I eventually went back to my PhD and was stable for a while. However, following further stresses of PhD life, such as constant imposter syndrome and procrastination, as well as somewhat inappropriate medical care, I had two further Bipolar episodes which left me completely exhausted. The timing of my last episode was particularly unfortunate, as I ended up in hospital about a month after I passed my viva with minor corrections meaning that there was yet another delay in finishing the PhD. 

In addition to my own difficulties with a chronic mental illness, my now-husband whom I met on the first day of our PhD programme was diagnosed with lymphoma (type of blood cancer) in the second year of our PhDs. He had to undergo many months of chemotherapy and we both took a leave of absence from our studies to deal with all of this. This was obviously an incredibly stressful period for both of us, and in my case eventually contributed to the worsening of my mental health. For both of us, his and my respective illnesses put into perspective the insignificance of a PhD in the grand scheme of things. 

On the one hand that was good, because some of the pressures of the PhD, such as imposter syndrome and perfectionism, eased off. I also discovered that I was a fighter and I finally finished my PhD in December 2019 which I am very proud of (because that was the right decision for me). On the other hand, realising that a PhD is just a small and rather insignificant part of my life made it harder to get back into it and be excited about my research. I also had to grieve that my PhD journey ended up being so difficult and nothing like I had imagined it would be. Most importantly, the consequences of the stuff that happened in the last 6 years on my mental well-being are life-long. 

Lessons learned

So how do you deal with life and the PhD at the same time? Here are some things that helped me. 

  1. Acceptance
    I’m starting with the most crucial one. I know it sounds rather silly to tell someone that they need to accept their situation, but it really is necessary. By acceptance, I don’t mean just being ok with everything, as that is unrealistic and can even be damaging.  For me, acceptance meant a number of things. At times it meant that I was very angry and frustrated about my situation and that was ok. Sometimes I was jealous of my colleagues who were progressing faster than me. It also meant accepting that it would take me longer to finish the PhD. Finally, it meant accepting that none of this was my fault. Acceptance will mean different things to different people, but it is so important whatever it means to you.
  1. Listening to what you need
    Once you have accepted your situation (or certain aspects of it) you open up more space to listen to yourself and what you need to get through this period of your life and the PhD. For me this meant that I needed to take leave from my PhD several times, and if I hadn’t I don’t think I would have finished my PhD in the end. 

    I also learned to listen to my body (and mind) and work when I felt I could. The medication affected my ability to work on my PhD quite a bit, and at first I found this frustrating. With time, I noticed that I tend to feel foggy in the morning and more awake in the afternoon, so I started working on my PhD when I could rather than when I thought I should. Similarly, I was not able to work 5 days in a row, so I started taking a day off mid-week on Wednesdays and doing some work on the weekends if I needed to. The beauty of most PhD programmes is that they are quite flexible in terms of where and when you work, so take advantage of this if you need to. It’s important to develop a work schedule that suits you. 
  1. Asking for help
    Once you have a better understanding of what you need in order to deal with the situation, getting what you need may involve asking for help from other people. For me, first of all, this meant getting the right help from mental health services. This wasn’t easy due to the rather poor and patchy state of mental health services in the UK, but I eventually got there and having the right team and medication has made a world of difference. 

    I also found it important to be honest with my supervisor and let her know what I was dealing with. I was lucky that she was compassionate and did not put any pressure on me to do work when I wasn’t able to. I also appreciated that she was able to have honest conversations with me about quitting my PhD on several occasions and made it clear that she would support any decision I made. That being said, I got lucky but overall supervisors need more training on how to support their supervisees, especially those that present with more challenging life circumstances and/or chronic conditions. 

    Finally, for me it was also crucial to have the support of my family and friends, both practical and emotional. 
  1. Figuring out whether you want to/can finish your PhD
    For some people, changes in life circumstances mean that they no longer can or want to pursue their PhD. I spent too much time feeling miserable during my PhD and seriously thinking whether I should quit it. The problem was that I was stuck between not wanting to finish but also not quitting, and this was very difficult and counterproductive. So, I had a big long chat with myself and my loved ones and decided that I did want to finish it. Once I decided that, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders because I was no longer burdened with having to make this decision.

    Every time after that when the PhD journey got difficult I reminded myself that this was my choice and I had to find a way to get to the end of this journey as best as I could. This also meant that I had to abandon the idea that my PhD had to be perfect and world-changing and accept that it only had to be good enough to pass my viva.
  2. Grieving
    Finally, as I mentioned at the start, once I finished my PhD there was a big part of me that was sad about the whole experience – that is wasn’t the one I had wanted or expected. I went through a period of grieving for the difficult PhD journey but also for all the things that happened in my life during that period that made it so difficult. I also grieved for the person that I was before I started the PhD, as she was now long gone. You have to allow yourself to grieve if you need to because that’s the only way to move forward. Now that the grieving is done, I can look back on my PhD journey with all the good and bad that it brought and be happy about where I am at now. 

What I have learned from my experiences is that your well-being should be a priority in your life and during your PhD journey, which is only a relatively small portion of life.

Don’t try to fit your well-being in with your PhD if you have time or are forced to, but rather fit in the PhD in with your well-being and your life.

We are so much more than our PhDs and we need to think about the life we want to have for ourselves after our degrees is finished. That’s why I would encourage you to cultivate other aspects of yourself during your PhD, along with your research and academic skills. Hobbies, family, friends and whatever else makes you happy and gives you a sense of purpose will be the building blocks of the foundation that you need to ride out the difficult times during your PhD.

Very often when we are doing a PhD our whole identity begins to be based on our research and value as an academic, but we are so much more than that.

All the trials that I went through during my PhD, both academic and personal, made me a better researcher and academic, because I learned a lot about myself during the process and because I was able to build a foundation in my life outside of academia. It is with my husband, my family, friends and within myself that my true worth and purpose lie. Being a researcher/academic is just one part of me—and it is only one part of you too.

Jelena O’Reilly

Jelena O’Reilly is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of York, where she also did her PhD focusing on how second language users of English process grammar. She is interested in all aspects of language and recently has also started investigating child language development in addition to second language acquisition. In her spare time, Jelena tries to promote better mental health among PhD researchers and other academics. She also enjoys travelling and has a small rescue dog that she loves very much (possibly too much, if there is such a thing!).