Researching with Challenges: Illness & Disability

This week at Thesislink we are talking about some of the non-academic challenges that postgrad students can face during their degrees. Check back here each day for discussions on dealing with parenting responsibilities, financial stress, illness & disability, and disruptions at home.

If you are suffering from physical or mental illness or disability, you are the expert on your situation. No university service, support mechanism, or indeed blog post can tell you how to heal your body or mind. This post is about making connections: to others suffering from the same problems, and to whatever university support might help.

If you have your own story to share, or you know of any resources that might help your fellow postgrads, please tell us in the comments.

Mental health

Mental health problems are known to be very common among postgraduate students. After all, a higher degree represents the zenith of life’s educational pressure. No high school exam or undergraduate assignment has ever demanded as much from us as research does. We work at a job that is not salaried, we feel horribly guilty taking any time off, and we keep this pattern up for years at a time. It’s no wonder we end up stressed.

In fact, a recent study found that over three-quarters of postgraduate students reported feeling overwhelmed in the past year, and over a quarter had felt depressed in the past year (Wyatt & Oswalt, p.101). The Guardian has slated the “culture of acceptance” that often surrounds mental health problems in postgraduate programmes, pointing out that the demands of postgraduate research are very high, and the support for researchers – depending on who they have as supervisors – can be lacking.

What all this means is, if you are suffering from mental health problems, you are – quite literally – not alone.

First things first: it’s not OK for anyone to tell you that you have to work such crazy hours on your research that your mental health is compromised. That kind of pressure – from others or from ourselves – isn’t healthy.

If you feel your mental health is compromised, please don’t suffer in silence. There are trained counsellors at the Health, Counselling & Wellbeing Centres on the City, North Shore, and South campuses who are available when you need them. Counselling services are free to AUT students. If you don’t want to talk to someone at the university, you can call Lifeline on 0800 543 354, or (09) 5222 999. There is someone there to talk and listen 24/7.

You can also connect online with others in the same position; there’s a great site called The Professor Is In which provides a list of online resources and information sources around academia and mental health. If you are depressed, the community at the Depressed Academics blog provides a forum for discussions. You can also check out a blog called The New Academic, which has an entire category dedicated to posts from (often anonymous) student and professional academics detailing their mental health struggles; they have written about their depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and addictions – as well as their experiences of bullying.

Physical illness & disability

Whether it’s a bout of illness, a chronic disease, or a disability, physical health problems can make research near-impossible – especially if you only have small windows of wellness in which to work.

There is a huge online community of postgraduate researchers out there who struggle with health issues. Check out the Disabled Philosophers and PhDisabled blogs, where postgrad students and academics with disabilities and chronic illnesses share their stories. The stories are often about the types of struggles involved with researching through poor health, but there are also success stories. Leslie Rott got her PhD while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Elita Baldridge was diagnosed with fibromyalgia during her PhD, but is still working when she feels well. This anonymous blogger got her PhD in Mathematics with a chronic illness that left her often housebound or hospitalised. (Even Charles Darwin, father of modern biology, spent his entire working life suffering from an undiagnosed chronic illness that left him vomiting, dizzy, and bloated.)

If you’re an AUT postgrad and you have medical concerns, you can register with the Health, Counselling and Wellbeing Centres. There’s a health centre on each of the City, North Shore, and South campuses. If you’re a domestic student and you set your campus health centre as your primary health provider, appointments with doctors and nurses are free. If you’re an international student, appointments may be covered by your AUT Studentsafe University insurance or Unicare insurance.

If you have an impairment (including physical impairments, difficulty seeing or hearing, mobility issues, and learning disabilities) you can contact the team at Disability Student Support. They will assess your individual needs and help you to navigate the physical environment at AUT. For academic support, contact Sue Beechley of the Student Learning Centre. She supports students with disabilities to achieve their learning goals. Find her at the City campus Mon-Wed in WB245, or on the North Shore campus Thurs-Fri in AL114A. You can also email her at

If your illness is such that you need some time off, you can apply for it. Students working on a thesis or dissertation can apply for a leave of absence of up to a year in case of “illness or unforeseen circumstances.” This essentially stops the clock on your research and allows you to resume later without being penalised for the time that has passed. Details are in the Postgraduate Handbook here (p.48-9). [Editor’s note: the edition of the handbook cited here is now out of date. The most recent edition can be downloaded here (student login required).] If you think a leave of absence might be right for you, talk with your supervisor and complete a PGR6 “Variation of Record” form (available here). The University Postgraduate Board will consider your application and let you know the outcome.

Source cited:

Wyatt, T., & Oswalt, S. B. (2013). Comparing mental health issues among undergraduate and graduate students. American Journal of Health Education, 44(2), 96-107. DOI: 10.1080/19325037.2013.764248

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

2 thoughts on “Researching with Challenges: Illness & Disability

  1. What an excellent post, and extremely important. Thanks for giving us this detailed and helpful advice! Cheers, Emma

  2. I have heard that meditation is great for decreasing anxiety, alleviating stress, and improving focus/productivity. If you google “meditation,” there should be a lot of resources available.

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