When life intervenes… the value of suspending studies

So… despite my good intentions to keep up a steady stream of weekly posts for this blog, life has intervened.  A close family member has been seriously ill, and suddenly I was pitched back into the intensively stressful and time-consuming role of carer.  The whole business has been quite traumatic for me, and it has made it difficult for me to concentrate on my work as well as meaning I had to take some time out.

For doctoral researchers, many of whom will be doing their research over 5, 6 or even 7 years (sometimes more!), it is almost inevitable that life will intervene.  In just the last few years, my PhD and EdD students have been through experiences such as:

  • being left homeless for several months when a house purchase fell through
  • suffering a serious illness themselves
  • dealing with a diagnosis of dyslexia for a child
  • having parents seriously ill and in need of family care
  • coping with a bereavement
  • and, of course, having babies.

Generally, the imminent arrival of new offspring is something I get to hear about well in advance.  But in my experience, all too often students keep quiet about what is going on in some of these other circumstances.  One notices that promised written work is not coming in – or is so ‘skimpy’ that, clearly, little work has been done.  When I ask if there is a problem, the reply often comes back that ‘x is going on, but it will be over soon’, or that ‘things are difficult but I want to soldier on’.  Also in my experience, this approach to such problems is generally unhelpful, especially for part-time students with big day-jobs taking up much of the rest of their lives.One of the pastoral responsibilities of the supervisor is to notice when work-rates drop, ask what is going on, and offer realistic solutions to the student.  Often this will be to take a suspension – even it is only for a month to get over a particular crisis or bottle-neck, perhaps sometimes for longer.  Students are often fearful of taking this break – but not only does it stop the ‘clock ticking’ in terms of their registration, it also gives them permission to give themselves a break from the feelings of guilt and failure that can quickly build up when ‘soldiering on’ isn’t actually realistic.I also think it’s important to keep in touch with students while they are on a break.  I occasionally send a short, friendly email to see how they are doing – and this is particularly important around the time that they have planned to come back.  Then there is the question of getting them back in the swing of things when they do return – it’s helpful to negotiate through with them what some of the early tasks will be on their return, so they can try to build their confidence up quickly rather than feeling they have now lost the plot.  So… life sometimes intervenes, as it has done for me recently.  What are your experiences, as a supervisor, of dealing with these situations?  Or as a research student, of encountering them?  How can supervisors be most helpful?

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4 Responses to When life intervenes… the value of suspending studies

  1. lizit13 says:

    I have just completed my PhD. A couple of times I ran into real problems with things happening on the home front. The first time I coped somehow. The second time, I admitted I couldn’t deal with sick husband and depressed teenager and finish writing up my thesis. It was a huge relief to be given permission to intermit for a term. This gave me the space I needed to give time to my family members, but as importantly, the unexpected benefit was having time to read more widely without the pressure of writing. I came back to my final term motivated to finish writing my thesis and with fresh ideas on how to configure parts of it and strengthen my argument. Taking that break was probably the best thing I could have done – and probably enabled me to complete writing and present a thesis which just needed a few ‘minor corrections’ following my viva.

    My supervisors played a huge role in how I responded to both stress episodes. During the first, I was encouraged to keep going. When I explained what was happening the second time, I was immediately told to apply for intermission, no questions asked, and one of my supervisors kept in regular contact with me throughout the time I was away, encouraging me in my thinking, but discouraging me from getting back into work too soon.

    • Helen Colley says:

      Thanks for your comment Liz – Sounds like your supervisors took a wise approach to the difficulties you faced – and it is so important to realise that a suspension/intermission can have a silver lining too…

  2. doro says:

    Thanks for highlighting this. I feel I have very supportive supervisors, but felt very lost when I became seriously ill whilst doing my PhD.
    Unfortunately, I did not stop the clock. At the time I felt overwhelmed by the diagnosis and all the medical treatment I had to go through. I very much lived day to day; a medical diagnosis can be an evolving story, and as a patient I had to take each day as it came.
    I think especially part- time students who are not at the University very often, and I live quite a way from the University, can feel forgotten when life becomes difficult. I kept in touch with one of my supervisors, but nobody from the University advised me to have time out. I told one of my supervisors about my impending treatments, but there is also the question, how much information is appropriate to share. I don’t know the answer.
    After I decided to return to my studies, I struggled to articulate the experience of being ill. To be honest it can be difficult to talk with your best friend or family about the experience of illness and the associated emotions, never mind with your supervisors. For me there was also the issue of identity. I now had become a patient, but I did not want to identify myself exclusively as a patient. Returning to my PhD helped me to focus on other important aspects of my life. But moving from being a patient to being PhD students is not always that straightforward.

    I found it quite difficult to predict how much work I would be able to cope with, I myself had to learn and adjust every day to my changed life. I think the stage of the PhD also matters. Interruptions can be more disruptive at certain phases, and it took me a long time to pick up the threads and gain confidence in my abilities again. Recovery from illness is not necessarily a straight road, and can include setbacks, and ups and downs. I’m still working towards the completion of my PhD, and I’m hopeful that with the support of my supervisors, I will be able to complete.

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