Taking medical Leave: What I would tell myself now

Let me start by saying I have no professional qualifications whatsoever to give anyone advice as to making a decision about taking medical leave. So I won’t. What I will do is tell you what I would have told myself when I was faced with this very decision in my own career, not so long ago.

First, here’s the brief backstory of how I found myself at the point of medical leave.

I was in the second year of my PhD. Anyone from the outside looking in would have said things were going very well. I had completed and passed my qualifying exam (called various things in different country contexts, but essentially the big exam in which you defend your research proposal). This meant I had the green light to go ahead and actually start doing the research I planned for so long and was excited about. I had publications in the works and a slew of upcoming conferences. I was working as a teaching assistant for a course on a subject matter I loved.

But one morning a disastrous thought floated through my head and it was downhill from there. I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but later was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. You can read more about my experience here: https://thesecretillness.com/2015/09/01/stephanie-33-ontario-canada/. All this to say, I reached a point where I was pretty much debilitated, but I was actually able to keep up with work (for a while), and even still do it well. I think that’s one of our best guises in academia—we can keep up appearances and sustain unhealthy practices dressed up as success—but that’s another story. I probably could have kept plugging away like this, miserably, for some time. But I realized that if I were to actually get better, I needed to dedicate my attention and energy to treatment. Treatment alone needed to be my priority. This could not happen in the (off)balance of my PhD life. Of course, knowing what you need to do and actually doing it are two different things and I wrestled with the decision to a medical leave of absence from my PhD program. In the end I took a 4-month leave and it was the best decision of my life.

Looking back now, here are a few things I would have told myself at that difficult moment in time that might have eased my angst about taking the leap into medical leave.

If you can’t be happy and healthy enough to enjoy your professional success, it’s just not worth it.

Sure, in academia there are tough moments when we all grin and bear it and our work-life balance may get temporarily out of whack. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. When I was in the deepest, darkest grips of my OCD, I received the incredible news that I had been awarded an extremely competitive multi-year federal doctoral research award. This was something I had worked so hard for. This was an achievement that could not only step up my career trajectory, but it would make my life so much easier for the next few years. My funding was secure. No more applying for grants and the award included money for research expenses, meaning no more conferences out of my own pocket! When I got this news, I should have been jumping for joy. Instead, it was like…thud. In fact, it almost made me feel worse. I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I was so consumed by the doom of my OCD fears I could not even enjoy and savour this moment of success. And we all know that these can be few and far between in academia! That’s when I knew how far gone I was—that I couldn’t take pleasure in an accomplishment that I had worked so hard for and that was so important to me. It was at that point that I knew I could not continue to just push ahead in my PhD. I had to get well again or there was no point in continuing. If I couldn’t take pleasure in such an achievement, what was I doing in this PhD?

Things can and will wait.

Academic timelines are brutal. Often everything has a sense of urgency. We are an overworked bunch, for sure. The truth is 4 months, 1 year, whatever it is, will not make that much of a difference, if any, in the long run and the investment in your health will pay off with much greater returns. Yes, I’m scheduled now to finish my PhD 4 months later than I would have if I had been healthy. But the reality for me is that if I hadn’t taken leave for treatment I may not have finished at all and now that I am back to work, I can tell you that the leave did not have a significant impact on my trajectory. There were no critical opportunities in that time that I missed out on—even if there were, I know there would have been others in the future. All of the publications I had in the works still made their way out the door. My career went on.

Medical leave is not time off.

As academics we are notorious for not giving ourselves a break, and when we do we’re often ridden with guilt that we should be working but it is important to remember that medical leave is not time off. It is not a break. Medical leave has an objective—and that is to improve and attend to your health, whatever your needs may be. For me, it provided me the dedicated time I needed to focus on treatment. I was finally able to see a psychiatrist for assessment and diagnosis. I had the time I needed to read and educate myself about my condition. And the kind of treatment I underwent (ironically!) had plenty of homework. Whether your condition is physical or psychological, it is important to remember that the purpose of medical leave is to get better. And that is not something we should allow ourselves feel guilty about!

Don’t half-ass it.

For a time, I toyed with the idea of not taking a formal leave of absence and just sort of “taking it easy” over the summer. But thankfully a wise mentor said to me, “I know you, and you won’t stop working or feel like you should be working if you don’t take a formal leave” and she was right. I can see now that I would not have properly prioritized my treatment if I didn’t make it formal. Maybe this is also a by-product of our academic formalities and habit self-induced guilt—formalizing my leave gave it the legitimacy I needed to allow myself to prioritize it. As an academic I was so used to giving 110% to everything, but I almost thought about giving myself a half-assed leave!

Don’t let the red tape scare you.

There is paperwork but it is doable and you might have to be your own advocate to navigate some of it or perhaps you have a supervisor or partner who can help. In my case, I did have to do some manoeuvring through the bureaucracy, and this was not without some stress and uncertainty. For example, my university initially told me they would withhold my funding during my leave. But I reviewed the policies of the funding agency granting my scholarship and learned they actually had policy for paid medical leave, which superseded my university’s policy. I then had to present this information back to my university. I also had to request leave both from my university and from the granting agency. In the end, it all got sorted out and my university was actually very supportive, which I give them a lot of credit for. All this to say, don’t let any red tape deter you. It’s just part and parcel of the ridiculousness of some university bureaucracies. And as academics we’re used to that.

It’s nobody’s business if you don’t want it to be.

Yes, you need to communicate with your supervisor and the appropriate administration. But actually, very few people need to know, if at all, that you are taking medical leave. And really no one other than probably one high-level administrator who actually receives the confidential note from your doctor needs to know the reason for your leave. I was very open with some people about my leave, and didn’t even bother telling others. You should not feel pressure to disclose anything you’re not comfortable with.

I can tell you in no uncertain terms now that if I didn’t take leave and treat my OCD I may have left academia altogether. This realization helped me to cement a new-found commitment to put my wellness first. Everything else stems from that. I’m pleased to say that having returned to my PhD post-treatment, I’ve been able to more than simply re-connect with the passion for my research that brought me there in the first place—I’ve been able to experience what it’s like to be healthy AND pursue a PhD I’m passionate about. That’s a powerful combination. I have more passion to go around. I take pleasure in discovery. And I even enjoy some of my successes. I now engage with my career on my terms. And those terms prioritize my OCD recovery and living well.

About the Author


Stephanie is a PhD Candidate at a University in Ontario.

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