Monday 23 April 2018

ED and PhD

Paula discusses the impact of studying towards a PhD on ED recovery and how it can be possible to work towards both.

You struggle every single day, you might feel constantly overwhelmed, confused and lost. It can seem that nobody around you understands what you’re going through. You have some smaller and bigger successes, but more often you fail. These are the signs of recovering from an eating disorder. Or doing a PhD. And even though their consequential issues seem so similar, they often don’t go together too well.

You might have successfully gotten through high school and college while battling an eating disorder. You’re still recovering and you think that you can keep working on your health while doing a PhD. Should you? Or rather, why should you NOT?

You might be surprised how big a role food plays in academia. Seminars often mean wine and cheese receptions or at least coffee and pastries. Your collaborator invites you for a lunch to discuss a new idea. Finally, you attend a conference and you eat weird food in weird times and places. No “safe” options- nobody cares that pizza freaks you out or that you don’t eat after 8pm.

In principle, there’s always an option of avoiding it, such as going to a seminar and skipping the pastry or travelling to a conference with a bag of your favourite “safe” food. This worked in college, didn’t it? Trust me, it would be definitely noticed in academia. Food is a social activity and its quality or nutritional values really don’t matter.

Let’s say you somehow overcome the difficulties connected to the frequent presence of food in academia. The problem is, you’ll still be constantly thinking about it. Analysing how much you’ve eaten and if you can allow yourself one more sandwich. Coming up with a sneaky plan to skip a conference session and go for a run. See what’s happening here? You’re supposed to be thinking about Maths/Biology/History/whatever your PhD is in. And yet, instead of listening to the keynote speaker, you’re analysing and reanalysing the nutritional value of your past and future meals.

If you did your undergraduate degree in the UK, you’re probably used to constant support: personal tutors, hall wardens etc. You knew that if you struggled, they’d be there for you. That someone will get concerned if you lose too much weight. That they’ll make sure you’re ok.

PhD is a different story. If you’re lucky (like I am), you may have a supervisor who notices warning signs and asks how you’re doing. However, in many cases advisers treat their students as paper-producing machines. They discuss with them only academic issues, the personal life doesn’t matter as long as they provide results. I’m not claiming that academics are heartless creatures, but in reality all researchers are extremely busy and most of them simply don’t have time to babysit their students.

Am I saying that if you have an eating disorder you should forget about your PhD dreams? Absolutely not! My only advice is to time it carefully. If you’re currently interested in doing a PhD, I strongly advise you to discuss it with your treatment team. Maybe in your particular case entering grad school would be actually a good idea, who knows. The abovementioned difficulties in juggling research with eating problems could even motivate you to recover for good.

If you do decide to start a PhD while recovering from an ED, ensure that:

• You get regular meetings with your treatment team, which means that if you’re moving miles away, you may need to schedule regular trips home, arrange Skype meetings or even consider a new team, if all other options aren’t possible.

• Someone (not yourself!) is checking your weight.

• You have social life, so you need to plan to meet new friends in grad school. This could be through societies, student accommodation or a research group.

• You are familiar with the support system of your university. This may include counselling services, departmental welfare officers or a caring supervisor.

• You and your team are SURE you’re ready.

PhD and ED recovery can go together. However, they both require time and determination- the more you focus on your own health now, the faster the recovery process will be. That’s why I recommend that you think about your options carefully, because entering grad school healthy ultimately increases the likelihood that you will have a better experience.

No matter if you choose to do your PhD now or wait until you’re healthier, be sure to make the most of it. Good luck!

Hi! I'm Paula, a PhD Maths student. I'd like to share my thoughts about mental health in graduate school.

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