It is the Christmas holiday and, despite being very busy working on an R package for survival analysis, I have also found the time to be reflect on the first few months of my PhD.

In particular, I have been considering my experience thus far as a PhD student with a chronic condition and how I can best balance my health and my work. I have decided to share my experience with the wider academic community but it should be taken as precisely that: my experience. There are undoubtedly people who have had very different experiences than me due to many different factors including different health condition(s), a different university, or different supervisors.

I have ulcerative colitis, one of two inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) which are the focus of my research (as a biomedical data scientist). Diagnosed 5 years ago, I underwent all of the non-experimental medical interventions available to me before electing to have a partial colectomy (large intestine removal) which was subsequently followed up with additional surgery to remove the rest of my large intestine and around two thirds of my rectum.

I have still been left with a small section of diseased rectum, however, which causes fatigue, discomfort and pain. I am currently awaiting further surgery to have the rest of my rectum removed, which will hopefully happen soon, but I need to balance my PhD work and health in the meantime.

I greatly enjoy working on my PhD, but I have to be smart with how I work as the energy and focus I have will fluctuate considerably between days. PhDs are generally much more flexible than undergraduate degrees which has proven to be a great boon. I can typically choose to read literature when my concentration levels are good and I need to make sure that I fully understand what I am reading, but I can typically choose to work on coding or other tasks when my focus is much lower. I also find it very important to continue to keep busy by taking on work rather than rest for a particularly long period of time as I very quickly find myself shutting down which then makes it almost impossible to return to work again. Determination has become an increasingly precious character trait which I heavily rely on to get me through my PhD, but I do regularly have to assess the workload I have taken on and accept that it is simply not possible for me to work on as many projects as I would wish to at the moment without compromising all of the projects collectively or my health.

I have been open with my supervisors about my health situation and my experience from doing so has been overwhelmingly positive. Both of my supervisors, Dr Catalina Vallejos and Dr Charlie Lees, have been incredible in their support of me and have always been very understanding: working with me to find the best ways of working around my health problems. This has included supporting flexible working arrangements for me for when my energy levels are particularly bad. I also reached out to the administrative officers for my PhD programme, Susan Mitchell & Kate Hardman, both of whom have also been a great help and have offered advice with how to manage my course: such as postponing any taught courses until after my surgery.

Managing a social life has become a delicate balancing act. I am fortunate to be studying at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine where there is a lively community of lovely PhD students who often invite me to social events. Unfortunately, I frequently find myself having to pass on such events as the additional fatigue resulting from going on a night out will often still be felt weeks later.

Unfortunately, my two preferred methods of self-care, exercise and reading novels, are currently unavailable to me. The former I no longer have the necessary energy for, and the latter I no longer have the focus for (or when I have it, I need it for reading academic literature). I really need to find alternatives until I have my surgery. My third hobby, creating CGI art, helps me to switch off but involves me sitting at a computer which, as a data scientist, I already spend most of my day doing. I think I will spend at least some of 2020 trying out new ways to switch off from work and look after myself!

And that is the end of this post! This blog is intended to be a research blog and most of my posts will be updates on my research instead of my personal life, but please feel free to follow me on Twitter for updates on any future blog posts or occasional updates on my PhD journey!