PhD students: how to support them through illness and stress

Supervisors explain how to help students keep their research on track

August 18, 2016
Female nurse comforts young woman in hospital corridor
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Staying on track with a PhD is tough at the best of times, so what happens when a student also has to cope with severe illness?

With many doctoral students already finding it hard to juggle work, study and family commitments, it is not surprising that a bolt-from-the-blue diagnosis can cause some PhD candidates to pause their studies or give up altogether.

So what can doctoral supervisors do to support those affected? Should they let candidates take time away to recover from the physical and emotional toll of illness? Or might too much time away from research risk losing that student for good?

“My personal choice is always to urge a PhD student to carry on, while saying ‘we will do everything we can to support you’,” says Gina Wisker, professor of higher education and contemporary literature at the University of Brighton.

"But some students will want to take a step back and deal with illness, only coming back when they are 100 per cent ready to resume their studies,” adds Wisker, who has supported several students diagnosed with severe illnesses, including cancer and mental health issues.

Some PhD students have insisted that focusing on their doctoral studies has actually helped them get through difficult times, says Wisker, whose research has centred on the causes behind PhD dropout. “It can be something that gives them a feeling of control in a very uncontrollable situation,” she continues.

In a time of extreme emotional turbulence, continuing research and their intellectual lives can also help some candidates to stay positive, adds Wisker, who advises supervisors to call upon the full range of university services, such as counselling and disability support, to help those in difficult periods. “You can lose a student for good if you don’t put everything in place to support them,” she says.

Arranging practical help for those affected by illness can be just as important as providing emotional support, says Mathis Riehle, reader at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Molecular Cell and System Biology, who had a student who was diagnosed with cancer in 2014.

“It really came to me as a shock to discover that, at the time, there was no policy whatsoever covering what happens to any student who falls long-term ill,” says Riehle.

Discussions with the university and the student’s funding council led to an “ad hoc interim solution” in which a stipend was created to cover the student’s living costs before his return to the laboratory this year, he says.

That episode has now led to the creation of firmer policies around supporting those with a long-term illness, says Riehle, who believes that other universities and funding bodies are now examining their support for PhD students, whose entitlements are often unclear because of their uncertain status somewhere between students and university employees.

“I think the requirements on all institutions to introduce the Athena SWAN agenda has made them think more about these issues and show they are engaged and listening [to equality concerns],” he adds.

Riehle is one of almost 200 academics nominated by students or colleagues for the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year category in this year’s Times Higher Education Awards, whose shortlist will be announced on 1 September.

Numerous PhD students highlighted their supervisor’s invaluable support during periods of illness, high stress and personal tragedy, such as a death in the family, in submissions to the new award category.

Dina Matar, senior lecturer in Arab media and communication at Soas, University of London, was one of the nominees praised by students for supporting them in difficult circumstances.

“When I did my PhD I had a child and a family, so I am aware of the stress that doctoral study can put on an individual and the people around them,” says Matar.

“I will quite often give 15 minutes of a supervision to talking about issues outside the PhD – it breaks the ice with a student and sometimes makes their problems seem less daunting,” she adds. “It can give comfort to students as they can understand there are people there to help them.”


Print headline: Supporting PhD candidates through illness and stress

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