PhD funding during illness: cancer, consequences & suggestions for change

The last thing I wanted this blog post to become is some whining account of my personal experiences, but if you sense any of that while reading it, I sincerely apologise and greatly admire your perseverance if you make it to the end. At the same time, I really hope you do (make it to the end, that is), as it’s not about my experiences (which solely function as an example), but about changes that should be made to a system where PhD students who fall ill are currently being punished for doing so.

Brace yourself (admittedly, it’s rather long, too).

The message that you have cancer is never easy to digest, and the timing is never right. I received mine on an evening in February 2015, while pressing my phone against my ear to identify the words my oncologist was uttering (‘I’m very sorry to bring the bad news’, ‘what stage is it?’, ‘we can’t tell, you will have an MRI to determine that’, ‘can it be terminal?’, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t know at this point’, and so on), as I was standing in a busy London street. Just a couple of weeks into my second lab rotation (part of the PhD programme I am currently enrolled in), I realised that the next months would require all my energy and organisational skills. Several doctor appointments, an MRI scan, discussions, decisions about my exact treatment and sketching a general action plan for the next weeks followed.

On the bright side, it turned out my cancer was an early stage, and I was able to receive a specific type of surgery (most likely not readily available to me back home). What’s more, I was positively shocked by all the support I was given from friends and those that didn’t even know me that well – Cambridge felt like the best place to get cancer (or, more accurately, the least bad one). Largely because of this I managed to finish my rotation successfully, and arranged a period of medical intermission, starting on the day of my surgery (planning an intermission requires some effort, including the needed paperwork, medical letters and meetings with several people – while it’s no fun to do these things, most people were very supportive throughout this process).

In the chaos of arranging things and coping with the situation, I didn’t quite check the regulations of my funding bodies in too much detail (not that I had much choice anyway; the treatment plan was set up in Cambridge and I needed to get time out for treatment and recovery). Little did I know that, after politely informing them about my medical intermission, one* would reply by stating that this would affect my maintenance payment, and that any maintenance paid during this period was officially to be refunded. This was followed by some options, which effectively included multiple scenarios of the same one (pay back now, pay back later, pay half of it now, half of it later, don’t receive funding during a subsequent term, etc.), ending with the wonderfully paradoxical comment ‘the choice is yours’.

After more e-mail conversations (during which I explained my situation, stressing that my treatment had to be completed in Cambridge and I was fully dependent on my scholarships, in reply hearing that unfortunately no hardship or extension funding was available either), we eventually came to an ‘agreement’: instead of paying back my maintenance stipend during my intermission (which I couldn’t afford to do), I will be left without funding for the last term of my PhD (I still need to find a suitable solution). Of all my ‘choices’, this seemed to be the least bad one. As you can imagine, discussions like these are the last kind you want to engage in while being stressed about your health, work, finances and future, but unfortunately they seem to be more common than we would want them to be.

During the intermission period, I couldn’t wait to start my planned PhD experiments as soon as I was fully recovered. Although I knew that something wasn’t quite right about the way my funding was arranged, I didn’t really know anyone in a similar position and felt slightly powerless as an individual. Yet here comes the beauty of our digital era: one day my friend Edwin (a PhD student at the University of Oxford) wrote this blog post about his experiences, and I messaged him immediately. It turned out that he was in touch with Stella, who is doing a PhD at University College London and has just been through treatment herself. It made us realise that we’re not the only ones going through this, and what’s more, we’ve either experienced issues with funding bodies ourselves, or heard stories of others going through something similar. That’s when we decided to write a correspondence letter to Nature, published just over two weeks ago.

The question arises about what would be a reasonable solution. There is wide heterogeneity amongst funding bodies when it comes to medical leave; some fund part of it, some none. In our correspondence we suggest that PhD students should have the same rights as academic staff when it comes to medical leave (e.g. six months of paid sick leave) – in the end they essentially work like full time employees, so why shouldn’t they be treated as such? Alternatives already exist, one example being the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programmes for PhD students. The European Commission requires that grantees are offered a staff contract, thereby protecting their rights to sick leave. We propose that other UK funding bodies should also provide such basic rights with their grants, at the very least including a decent sick leave arrangement.

One final thing – if you are one of the unlucky ones going through something similar right now: don’t despair. Ask everyone for support; your supervisor, boss, tutor, mentor, College, friends – there might be help available that you are not aware of until you ask. Each problem has a solution, and chances are you will find it when you keep searching. In the same way, we hope that by raising awareness, changes will be made to the current situation, where PhD students who fall ill are receiving a double whammy. (Now, dear reader, you truly deserve my endless admiration by making it to the end of this blog post: thank you!).

*I won’t mention the exact funding bodies involved, and I am grateful for receiving funding from all my sources in order to complete a PhD degree. However, it’s essential to give specific examples like this one to raise awareness of the issue.

About the Autor

Claudia Pama

Claudia Pama is a second year PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

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