Disclosure: Work and Life in a PhD Program

on February 8, 2017
Disclosure: Work and Life in a PhD Program

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the very end of my Master’s degree, the day before my final project was due; I was coming off a near-perfect GPA and a series of burnt bridges with my supervisor and faculty, both fueled by the magic of hypomania. The decision of whether or not to pursue a PhD with this new diagnosis was not one I ever questioned; I had always planned to do a PhD. I couldn’t imagine what else I might do with my life. But as I adjusted to my diagnosis and started to learn how to manage my moods (or not), it became clear to me that I couldn’t treat the situation lightly. I was going to have to do some careful engineering to be sure I had the chance to succeed.

Disclosure has been, and continues to be, a difficult decision. In the end I chose a campaign that felt reckless. I disclosed to each person I was seriously considering as a supervisor while interviewing them. When I formed my committee, I told each member of my committee. While I’ve chosen to write about this experience under a pen name, I continue a policy of openness with friends, colleagues, research team members, and co-authors.

I’ve found this open disclosure policy crucial to explaining, and gaining both leniency and legitimacy, for the varied levels of productivity I can manifest depending on my mental state. I am grateful for an informal relationship with my supervisor that allows me to duck my head into her office with a quick update on my changing health status. I never stop there, though. I’ve adopted the biomedical model of the good, self-managing patient. I never discuss a problem with my mood or my mental status without adding what I’m doing to get healthy again. “Hi,” I’ll say, “I just wanted to let you know that I think my mood is crashing again. I have an appointment with my psychiatrist next week and we’re going to be making some medication changes that I think will help. I’ll know more in 3-4 weeks and update you then.” In this way I control the narrative of my illness and its effects on my life.

My relationship with my work has become a diagnostic tool for me. My memory, sluggish when depressed, or my thinking, accelerated and frantic when I’m creeping towards mania, are sometimes the first indicators to me that I’m becoming unwell. And sometimes, as my friends lovingly remind me, I have good and bad weeks like everybody else. This hypersensitivity to changes comes from fear of my mood shifts, my changing functioning, of having my work derailed. I live with that fear, and I’m not sure it’s always healthy. Giving myself some benefit of the doubt is something I continue to work on.

Something I have had to come to grips with is a realistic sense of what I’ll be able to accomplish in my career. For me, maintaining work life balance can be a matter of life and death. While all of my mentors are highly-functioning researchers who put in long hours each day and most weekends, I know I won’t be able to sustain that kind of life and I’ve had to modify my future plans accordingly. I no longer aspire to a tenure track position at one of the big research universities, but rather I have my eye on small universities and colleges where I can maintain some research involvement in the form of small grants or teams.

I’d like to say that I don’t have doubts. I don’t doubt that I can do it or doubt that I should even be trying in the first place. But when doubts come to me I remember Carrie Fisher’s response when asked, “What is it like to plan you life, and career, around mental illness?” She answered, “I don’t. You cross your fingers and hope you don’t get gobsmacked by it in the middle of something.”

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