Bio: Gemma is currently working as a postdoc within the Land Environment Economics & Policy Institute at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses upon the interactions between energy systems and the natural environment. You can follow her on twitter @G_Delafield.
Trigger warning- please note that this blog post may contain topics which some people may find sensitive.
In November I successfully defended my PhD. I am now officially Dr Delafield. However, if we rewind to December 2019, I was sat on a bench on campus crying on the phone to my partner discussing whether or not I should leave my program.
I have suffered from anxiety and depression for over 10 years and knew the potential threat a PhD might pose to my mental health before I had even started. It’s no secret that the culture of overwork in academia, alongside experiences of bullying and discrimination, contributes to 86% of PhD students reporting marked levels of anxiety.
I am telling you my story to help tackle the stigma around mental health. If you are struggling, I want you to know that you are not alone. Seeking help is a strength, not a weakness and you should never feel shame in doing so.
Since starting my PhD I have actively tried to protect my mental health. I disclosed my history of anxiety and depression to the university and my supervisor. I took the annual leave I was entitled to. I avoided working on the evenings or weekends. When problems arose I would approach my supervisor to try to work through them.
Despite my efforts, by late 2018 I found myself struggling. I was living apart from my partner and had taken on teaching work which I didn’t yet feel particularly confident in doing. I often felt a strong sense of imposter syndrome. I did not feel like I belonged and I started having difficult discussions with my supervisor regarding the direction I wanted to take my research in. I spent weeks at my desk getting very little done as most of my energy was going into trying not to cry.
I tried to access counselling through the university and my GP but had no success. The university’s counselling service was so oversubscribed at the time they had closed the waiting list and the NHS could not offer me the type of therapy I needed. I ended up using the money I was making through my teaching work to pay for private therapy (the irony of this situation did not escape me…).
With the help of therapy, I started to prioritise what I wanted to get from my PhD experience and took the pressure off of myself to achieve the ‘perfect’ piece of research. I started to reap the benefits of disclosing my disability to the university by attending Health, Wellbeing and Support for Study (HWSS) meetings and asking to be assigned a wellbeing mentor. Most importantly I learnt the power of saying no and setting clear boundaries in an environment which (sadly) encourages overworking.
All of these measures helped me considerably. However due to a lack of sick pay, I never actually took time off to fully recharge. By December 2019, a series of events culminated in me sitting on that bench, in tears, deciding whether I should leave my PhD program. I took Christmas to gather myself and be with my family. A stroke of good fortune occurred in January 2020 when I saw a tweet highlighting that UKRI had updated their sick pay policy which meant I was now entitled to 13 weeks paid sick leave per year. By February, I had made the decision to interrupt my studies.
In total, I took 15 weeks off from my PhD. For many weeks, my to do list consisted simply of: eat, shower, take my antidepressants and do some mindfulness or yoga. Some days I felt fairly content, other days I was plagued by feelings of guilt and shame. I was lucky enough to have a strong support network around me who reminded me that taking an interruption from (or even quitting) your PhD is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of great strength. At the end of the day looking after your mind and body is much more important than work. I started doing some volunteering which reminded me of the transferable skills I’d developed throughout my PhD.
Time away from the PhD allowed me to spend time looking after myself and put measures in place to ensure when I returned to my research I’d be better supported. I set out a clear plan for my remaining chapters, I brought onboard a new second supervisor, and arranged several HWSS meetings to check in on how I was doing. I started attending Shut Up & Write sessions with fellow PhD students to provide structure to my days. I felt empowered by my decision to put my health first and started campaigning to raise awareness of inclusivity issues within the university.
The final stages of my PhD were difficult, I cannot lie. I requested a 3 month COVID extension as lockdowns had heightened my sense of anxiety. In the last few months leading up to my deadline, I worked longer hours to ensure I finished on time. The physical symptoms of stress took their toll on me. Checking in with my wellbeing mentor every week however allowed me to note when I wasn’t taking good enough care of myself and put in place measures to manage my health. With the support of friends and family, I finally submitted my thesis. I celebrated by sleeping, sunbathing and listening to audiobooks for a solid 2 weeks.
I am proud of myself, not only for finishing my PhD, but for doing so whilst championing myself and my rights as a disabled individual.
I live in hope that the culture in academia will change. That more and more individuals will reject the expectation to overwork and fight for systematic change. That universities will work with the community to create an environment where everyone, no matter their disability, gender, race or sexuality, is supported to achieve what they are capable of.
Written by: Gemma Delafield (former PhD student in the Business School)
This blog post was written in affiliation with the Universities Disability and Chronically Ill network. The network is open to all and aims to provide a space for staff and students to connect, share experiences and information as well as provide support. Further details about the network can be found on their webpage.
We realise that through reading this article you may find some of the information distressing and/or may identify with some of the issues and therefore may need some support. Below is a list of support available to all PGR students at Exeter:
- Exeter based students- Speak to the University of Exeter’s Wellbeing team (available to all students on the Streatham and St Lukes campuses)
- Cornwall based students- Speak to Fxplus wellbeing services (available to all students based on the Penryn or Truro campuses)
- Speak to the PGR Education Welfare Advisor-
- University Networks
- Call Spectrum Life (available to PGRs and staff)
- Speak to your GP
- Call the Samaritans on 116 123
- Details of all the support available to PGRs can be found on the Doctoral College website
- If there is an immediate emergency please call 999. Further details about urgent support available please see the Wellbeing website.
Policies to support PGRs
- UKRI’s sick pay policy
- The University of Exeter’s sick pay policy
- The University of Exeter’s Health Wellbeing and Support for study procedures (HWSSP)
- Doctoral College Parent and Carer webpage
 You can read my previous blog about work life balance here.
 You can find out more about HWSS meetings and Disability Support Allowance funded wellbeing mentors here and here.