Even more Headaches & Heartbreaks

A 1-foot wide mud bubble captured in greyscale mid-burst.

This article is a follow-up to “The Headache and Heartbreak of doing Academia with Chronic Migraine” and is written by the same anonymous author.

When you last heard my story, I’d taken academic leave from my PhD due to illness after my Director of Studies (Supervisor) recommended I withdraw with an MPhil rather than continue to complete my PhD project.

A few months ago I saw an advert for an amazing funded PhD project and decided to give it a shot. The project is at a prestigious university, working in a different field to my current research but, given my research interests, it’s perfect for me.

So, I applied. I got invited to interview. I travelled across the country to attend. I was ecstatic at just getting an interview. I was extremely nervous. But I rocked the interview: I mean I killed it in that interview. And when I went home, I left safe in the knowledge that no matter what happened I had made an awesome impression on those academics who had interviewed me. I knew I had a new set of good professional connections whether I got the studentship or not.

Waiting to hear if I’d been successful took an agonising two weeks. By halfway through the second week, I thought I hadn’t got the studentship. I was coming to terms with that and thinking about my next moves. The shift in research area really appealed to me. Whatever happened with the studentship, I was beginning to wonder if it that kind of move was exactly what I needed to break the impasse of the current, problematic PhD.

Then I got the email: “Congratulations………”


I’d been offered the studentship. I was BEYOND happy, and not just because of the funded place.

Firstly, I’m a working class girl; I grew up in social housing with parents on benefits. People like me don’t go to university, let alone win funded places at top institutions.

Secondly, I’d gone in upfront about my disability. I had put on the application form that I am disabled and talked about my chronic migraine in the interview.

And I still got the studentship.

Thirdly, the project is amazing: the direction I want to take it in is really close to my heart. I’d be doing research that I’m really passionate about. Research that will have an impact outside of the ivory towers of academia. Something that could make a real difference.

So I spent a weekend being ECSTATIC. I told my my family and close friends and began to think about moving my family across country.

Then, there was a snag.

You see, my offer for the studentship was conditional on getting a Masters-level qualification out of my PhD. I didn’t think this would be a problem, since as I said in my last post my Director of Studies had already told me I should leave with it rather than stick around to complete the PhD.

As soon as I got the email of the offer from the new funded PhD place I emailed my supervisory team at my current institution to ask what I needed to do in order to arrange leaving with my Masters by September.

Here is where everything fell apart.

My current supervisory team decided that there wasn’t enough time to sort out my MPhil by September and recommended that I just withdraw from my current PhD with no award.

Considering I’ve done two and a half years of work, even without needing the Master’s for the new PhD, I would have been unhappy with this.

I replied, saying that I need a Masters-level qualification of some sort for the studentship. I asked if there was there something else I could do – perhaps an MSc by Research (which is slightly less work than an MPhil)?

Again I was told no. In fact they also told me in this email that I didn’t have enough work for the MPhil, despite the fact that I was told that I did earlier in the year.

I haven’t lost any work, so I’m not sure what the deal is here.

This exchange took over a week.

Last Monday, in desperation, I contacted the team that oversee all research students at my university to see if they could help. I was told that there is no way to achieve an MSc by Research by September, since I would need to have a Viva, an oral examination of the research with other academics from within the field.

I was told that this would mean that I would need to find two external examiners who would have to be given two months to review my thesis and then write a report. Then we would have the Viva and I would have to make any amendments to my thesis recommended within the Viva. It was agreed that this could be achieved, at a push, by January. And I was advised to go back to the new institution and ask to defer until then.

Although I was unhappy with this prospect, I figured it was the best I was going to get out of my current university.

I’d been fighting for two weeks. I’d had a horrible four day migraine because of the stress, I wasn’t sleeping or eating.

So, I emailed the new university, and asked to defer.

They said no. It’s not possible to defer, because of the nature of the project. I need to be ready to start in September with my MSc or MPhil or whatever Masters-level qualification I’ve done enough work to get else I can’t take up the place.

I was devastated. And desperate. So I forwarded this message to my contacts in my current research school and my supervisory team, asking if they would at least try to meet the deadline. Their response said:

“You need to face the reality of the situation”.

To add insult to injury, my supervisory team have now decided that I need a letter from my doctor to prove that I am mentally well enough to do the work to get the MPhil they suggested I just take and leave, since the particular person involved at the research school “didn’t realise” that my medical leave was for mental health reasons in addition to chronic migraine.

So here I am, I have won an amazing funded PhD place at a fantastic institution that I cannot accept because my current institution is not willing to allow me to submit and be examined for my MSc within timeframes that seemed palpable and possible during all those days I was told to forget the PhD and just take the MPhil on the basis of the work I’d already done.

I’ve spent the weekend alternating between wanting to hide in a corner and cry forever and being absolutely furious.

Right now, I’m back at furious. My old university have questioned my ability to write up my thesis in time, they are unwilling to let me attempt it and now are questioning my mental health because I wanted to try.

The cruel irony is that I am a million times better now than I was earlier in the year when I took medical leave. You remember, the point where my Director of Studies recommended that I submit for an MPhil, which would have meant a larger thesis to write, and a more stringent Viva process. So how could she think I was well enough then, but I’m apparently not well enough now?

In summary: THIS STINKS.

In truth I’m thinking that short of a miracle I’m done. I don’t have time to fight everybody and get my thesis sorted. I’m tired of the battles. And I’m so disheartened with the whole process. I’ve spent this weekend thinking perhaps academia is not the right place for me. Perhaps I can’t keep fighting these battles. I have enough battles to fight against my illness, against my disability. It’s a fight to stay well. I have a family, a child I want to spend time with. Do I really want to keep spending – wasting – all my energy fighting this shit?!

I’ve decided no matter what happens I’m taking my MSc and leaving my current institution. This is the last straw. I haven’t been supported and I think I’ve finally realised that support will not be forthcoming there. So I’m done.

If the miracle happens, I’ll happily, joyfully, take the funded place. But if not, I’m taking some time out of academia. I need to rest and recuperate. I need to figure out how the hell to win this war. Because I definitely feel like I’ve lost this battle.

Are you a senior academic or disability support professional who might be able to provide advice and support to the author of this post while they navigate this tricky situation? 

If you’ve any help you can offer from a position of relevant expertise, please email us urgently at team@phdisabled.org.

This post was submitted by a third-year PhD student in a UK university who wishes to remain anonymous. For now. Their previous post – The Headache & Heartbreak of Doing Academia with Chronic Migraine – was selected for wordpress’s Freshly Pressed last month.

Image: ‘The Mud Death Star’ by Daniel Peckham (flickr: davaodude) licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


3 responses to “Even more Headaches & Heartbreaks

  1. I wonder if the new place is willing to accept you to start the PhD if you’ve got a date for a viva or have at least submitted, but haven’t quite completed the Masters? I know a lot of people in my field start jobs (post-docs, lectureships, etc) when they’re still writing up or waiting for their viva, so it seems reasonable that you could do something similar here. (I’m just a PhD student, so don’t have great experience but this idea came to mind so I though I’d suggest it).

  2. I really feel for you on this. I’m not an academic so can’t offer any advice though. Will the new university accept a delay in the processing of your viva etc if you submit your thesis in time? Just wondering because i think at the next stage along people can sometimes apply for postdocs when they expect to finish their phd soon but haven’t yet.

  3. I’m only a fellow PhD student, but it strikes me that there might be a case against either institution for discrimination here. Legally, if your disability has been declared, then under the Equity Act 2010 (original Disability Discrimination Act 1995), all Higher Education institutions must provide ‘reasonable adjustment’ for to account for the individual’s disability. It is not clear how the new institution are making *any* adjustment by completely refusing deferral – I suggest you consider contacting their disability service directly to ask them to explain this behaviour? Similarly, it is unclear how the existing institution can defend their own behaviour, which appears to be more about their own fear of the inconvenience. Again, I suggest you contact the local disability service? Or – if you have the patient / money – seek advice from your union rep or a legal representative.


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