Challenges of doing a PhD with a chronic disease

Posted by Carolina Lara @carislaris

 About 15% of the world´s population have some form of disability and this rate has been increasing (due to a multitude of factors), particularly for chronic health problems. Even though chronic conditions are more common than suspected, most people are not aware of what it is like undertaking a PhD while having one. And of course openly talking about it is not easy, because who likes to be seen as vulnerable and weak? So, it is likely that one of your colleagues might be experiencing this struggle but keeping it quiet.



An autoimmune disorder (most of them chronic) occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake.

I am now writing about my own Little Beast (as I have named my condition) as a way to raise social awareness about living with a chronic disease and studying for a PhD. I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disorder called Ulcerative Colitis six years ago; eventually, this diagnosis changed to Crohn´s disease. There are all sort of personal challenges to face, especially because each individual and each chronic condition is different. The only similarities shared among chronic conditions are that despite treatment, they will not go away, and they will change our lives. And knowing that makes us experience anger, anxiety and depression. I am finally under remission thanks to a new medication but I am still battling fatigue caused by anaemia (because, well, medication has side effects). I am aware that this state will not last forever, unfortunately. And it has nothing to do with being pessimistic, it just the nature of chronic diseases.


Fatigue is a common symptom of autoimmune disorders & often becomes a limitation while doing a PhD.

No one warns us about how difficult doing a PhD can be, not only from an academic point of view, but from the personal pressure it conveys. Add this to a variable dose of daily physical discomfort and fatigue and it becomes unbearable at some point. There are good days, bad days and not-so-bad days. Getting up from bed can become such a challenge but also a great achievement. And yet, we will say we feel alright… but do we? Why can´t we just be honest and say “I feel terrible today, but despite that fact I am working”? Maybe because we only want to become, and be seen as, good scientists rather than “good scientists overcoming health struggles”.

Although this journey might seem lonely, support from family, friends, colleagues and supervisors play a big role. Against all odds, me and my Little Beast made it to New Zealand thanks to Margaret, my supervisor, who was happy to work with me even after warning her about my medical condition. I might talk more in detail about the personal and external challenges of living with a chronic disease in another post, but for now I might just take a nap.

Carolina2Carolina Lara M. is a PhD Candidate within the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her research interests focus on seed dispersal networks within fragmented landscapes. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jason Tylianakis, Karine David, and Anna Santure.