By Ian MacNeill |

One aspect of pursuing a PhD that is rarely mentioned are the drop-out rates. An unscientific bout of Googlewhacking tells me that up to 50 percent of doctoral candidates will choose to discontinue (a more agreeable term than ‘drop-out’). However, instead of making a very definite decision to not complete your studies, what if you are forced to take an extended period of leave from your PhD? Such a scenario is, again, not something that tends to come up unless you actually have to deal with it. For some students, taking a sabbatical might because of an internship, maternity leave, or to visit another institution. These decisions are, normally, planned. However, there are some circumstances where a sabbatical is very much not planned. This is what happened to me in January of this year.

I’ve spent countless hours playing and watching football ever since I was a small child. I feel very fortunate that football is part of my PhD topic, what could be better than studying and working within an industry that you love? However, football was also the reason why, at the beginning of this year, I found myself in hospital, peeing into a bag, and facing several long months of painful rehab. The first thing that went through my head while lying on a sodden AstroTurf clutching my ruined knees (ask nicely and I’ll show you the scars) wasn’t ‘oh God, my PhD!’. Rather, it was ‘f…! I’ve got tickets to The Book of Mormon next weekend!’. Unfortunately, the day after being admitted to hospital it became apparent that I was not going to be going back to my PhD anytime soon.

Not what my PhD kneeded.

I was in contact with my supervisors right from the start. Arranging to have my studies suspended for 6 months was a straightforward process and it was all in place before I left hospital. However, this is when the difficulties started.

When I was in hospital – this may have been the opiates talking – I had grand plans to make fantastic use of my 6 months off and come back to my PhD well ahead of schedule. Frankly, this didn’t happen, and I still struggle with feeling guilty about it now. Once I was out of hospital I started off quite well but I found it difficult to concentrate because of the pain meds I was taking. You might think that spending several weeks stuck in bed would be a great opportunity to get on with reviewing literature, working on coding frameworks and so on, but as time went by I found myself caring less and less about my PhD.

For at least 3 months I barely thought about my PhD. As I recovered and moved into the rehabilitation phase, when I could actually do something to help the healing process rather than just sitting about watching Dawson’s Creek (#teampacey), I found myself drawn back to my PhD. However, I started to question many of the decisions that I made prior to my accident, about the future direction of my project, and whether or not it was worth continuing. Thankfully, I manged to arrange a Skype session with my supervisors (after unloading my concerns in a very long email) who reassured me that my project was sound and not to worry, they could see my path to submission, even if I couldn’t.

I went back to work after 6 months at home and getting back into the swing of things took time. Some of my issues ranged from the mundane (What’s the password to my desktop? How does the photocopier work?) to the more complex – I had to rearrange a whole batch of fieldwork and rebuild relationships with gatekeepers at research sites. Even sitting in an office for 9 hours a day took some getting used to.

Having been through this process, and recognising that there might be other students out there who may have to take time away from their PhD, I would offer 5 bits of advice:

  1. Try and not feel guilty. Most PhDs take 3 years to complete, there’s a lot of life that can happen to a person over the course of 36 months. Sometimes things just happen.
  2. You might not be able to stay engaged with your doctorate while you are off but do make the effort to stay in touch with your supervisors – don’t just vanish. These guys are there to help you get to the finish line, don’t let that relationship drift.
  3. Going back to work will be likely be a bit daunting and it will likely take you some time to get back into a working pattern. Rather than getting frustrated with yourself, try and timetable your first few weeks back with some goals that you know you can meet. Setting tight deadlines or expecting too much of yourself could hamper your progress.
  4. Try and take something positive from being away. When I went back to work, I reflected on how I was working before my accident and I realised that I needed to become more efficient if I was going to be able to allocate time to my on-going rehab.
  5. Sick leave. If your PhD is funded, try and establish what you are entitled to. PhDs are a bit of a grey area when it comes to employment law. You will likely not be eligible for sick pay from your institution but your funding council may have something in place. My university did not have a policy in place for students having to take sick leave during their PhD. I’m glad to say that, thanks to my accident, we now have one.

Ian is a PhD student at Glasgow University. His research is examining the potential for sporting charities to support young people when they leave custody. Before embarking on my PhD, he has variously been a youth worker, wine merchant, and an outdoor education coordinator for an international school in China. When not glued to his desk, he has a fondness for lifting heavy things, red trousers, the demon drink and following the ups and (mainly) downs of Heart of Midlothian Football Club. Should you feel so inclined, you can tweet him @ianalexandermac

Cover image (CC)