Studying a PhD offers many fantastic opportunities for research and networking. But it’s a long journey and life beyond research can require one to take a break from study, whether for work or health reasons. In this blog post, Giles Penman talks about his recent experience of temporary withdrawal.
Life as a PhD student is very rewarding, from breaking new ground as researchers, networking at conferences, and gaining numerous and immeasurable skills. But the PhD is not a straightforward path from A to B, but a long winding, squiggly journey, full of ups and downs. And life doesn’t stop because of the PhD. Depending on personal circumstances, we may have to manage personal relationships, children, health conditions, work opportunities in all manner of orders and combinations. And my PhD journey has been no exception.
After a decade of daily Dissociative Non-Epileptic Seizures, finally in September, I was one year seizure-free for the first time. I had never reached such a milestone before. I felt elated and was excited and confident about the future and the personal and academic opportunities it would bring. I signed up to attend conferences and give presentations in person both locally and further afield in England. I began to work and study far more than previously. And I even applied for my Provisional Driving Licence and began planning how and where I would learn to drive and ultimately gain independence as a driver. The future looked so bright.
As the weeks went by, I was fulfilling my commitments, my research was moving forward, and I even took on extra work for colleagues when they needed support. Everything seemed alright. But I began to feel increasingly tired due to the pressure of constant work and study commitments. I tried to put this tiredness to the back of my mind and tried to press on with my daily tasks. I was one year seizure-free, after all. I had got this far, I could keep going, surely?
But the tiredness didn’t abate and just became worse, even with seemingly adequate sleep and rest. I also began to feel despondent and disengaged from my work and my studies, particularly when my research hit a few roadblocks. And to make matters worse, I was experiencing interpersonal issues in my work and personal life. Even then, I didn’t think I should slow down. I just tried to fight fires, so to speak, and keep going.
Finally, everything unravelled spectacularly and dramatically. At the end of a long day at a conference, I had a sustained episode of seizures. I was taken to hospital and had to spend the next week recovering from the seizures and the after-effects of the medication I had been given. I had hit rock-bottom. I felt inconsolable that my path towards independence had been so suddenly curtailed. And I was dejected that I had lost valuable research time. I felt lost and didn’t know what to do.
It was then that my supervisors suggested I take a period of Temporary Withdrawal. I was saddened that it had come to this. I have already had two periods of Temporary Withdrawal due to ill-health but contemplating this third period was very challenging. I began to ask myself would I ever finish my PhD and I felt like I had failed myself and the academics supervising my work. I fell into a deep depression and what not myself for a while. But I thought more about this and realised that this was not true at all. My research had been progressing well and my supervisors have always and would continue to support me, regarding my health as paramount over my degree. I now feel better, knowing that I will return to my research, fit and healthy, in the Spring Term. I will be much more wary from now on about taking on too many things.
The PhD does not exist in a vacuum. Life, including health and relationships, does not remain static until it’s over and one has safely passed the Viva. Life provides all sorts of challenges and opportunities even during the PhD. For me this has been period of deterioration in my health, but for others it’s work placements, family circumstances, marriage, or children. All of these require time away from academic study, possibly in the form of temporary withdrawal. Therefore, temporary withdrawal is not an embarrassment or sign of failure but a perfectly normal way to manage life events, so they don’t have a detrimental effect on your research.
My research had been progressing well and my supervisors have always and would continue to support me, regarding my health as paramount over my degree.
If you are considering Temporary Withdrawal, then the best thing to do first would be to speak to your supervisors, Director of Postgraduate Studies, and your personal tutor, if you have one. They will be able to talk through Temporary Withdrawal with you and advise you about how much leave to take. You will need to apply for Temporary Withdrawal yourself through Student Records (Temporary Withdrawal (warwick.ac.uk)) and have the support of your departmental Director of Postgraduate Studies. The link above is a useful place to start if you’re considering Temporary Withdrawal. The normal minimum Temporary Withdrawal is 3 months, but you can have more leave if you need. After this time away, when you’re ready, you can return to university, refreshed and able to concentrate on your research again.
If you found this article useful, you may want to read the post How I did a PhD with a Broken Brain or Managing Health Conditions During a PhD. For all of the other posts on the blog, take a look at our Contents page.
Have you taken temporary withdrawal during your studies? What have your experiences been? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Giles Penman is a PhD researcher supervised by the Classics and History Departments at the University of Warwick. His research concerns the roles and audiences of ancient imagery on British civic cultural artefacts of the Great War. He has a background in Classics, Archaeology and Numismatics