Sign our letter: Sick leave for PhD students

TL;DR

If you feel PhD students should have a right to sick leave, please consider reading and signing our letter.

Letter

This is the letter as we plan to submit it. Please consider signing it. (See below for instructions.)

PhD students are an important part of academia, as they form a large part of the work force. Just like their post-doctoral colleagues, they collect and analyse data, and disseminate their findings in scientific journals and books. However, PhD students’ contracts are radically different: Most receive a stipend instead of a salary, and have very little rights to sick leave.

There are upsides to the current situation: It is cheaper than employing PhD candidates with a staff contract, and thus allows for more people to be trained. One major downside is highlighted in a recent issue of Nature, by three students who were diagnosed with cancer during their doctoral training (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/539495e). In the UK, a PhD student’s funding tends to be suspended when they fall ill, resulting in a double whammy of serious illness and loss of income.

We, the undersigned, believe that PhD students should be better protected against loss of income and employment due to illness. Even within the UK grant system for doctoral training, there should be room to include sick leave arrangements in student contracts. We feel that 6 months of paid leave in case of serious illness should be offered with every funded PhD position.

Sign the letter

If you wish to sign the letter, please fill out the form below and click the Submit button. Alternatively, you can email your details to edwin.dalmaijer@psy.ox.ac.uk, or leave a comment below. The preferred format is: Firstname Lastname, MD, PhD; Professor of Examples, Department of Examples, University of Example, Example Country.

Background

In a recent Correspondence to an academic journal, we pointed out that PhD students in the UK are likely to have their funding suspended when they fall ill. This means they lose their income, and are thus forced to continue working while ill, to depend on friends and family, or to quit their doctoral training. The situation is bad for all involved: PhD candidates are effectively punished for having a serious illness, supervisors’ projects are jeopardised, and science as a whole risks losing talented individuals. To increase the impact of our message, we plan to submit the above letter to a major UK newspaper.

29 Comments:

  1. Might be worth starting a crowdsourced petition? Good luck!

  2. Lorenza Colzato, PhD, PI, Leiden University, Psychology Department

    very important initiative

  3. Laura Mitchell, BSc, MRes, PhD candidate, Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge

  4. Narges Ansari, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, UCL

    I am a funded PhD candidate and currently face a similar problem with maternity pay. I was lucky enough that my supervisor was generous enough to offer to take the money from the overall budget but I’m sure not everyone is as lucky.
    I really welcome the above and hope that a similar move will be initiated for maternity rights in academia.

    • Your supervisor sounds amazing! :)

      You’re absolutely right, the problem is mainly that there is no regulation, and students are often dependent on their supervisors and universities to step in when funding bodies don’t. In many cases, this simply means the student will not receive any financial help.

      I’m all for maternity and paternity rights too! The current letter has a narrow focus, though, to increase the chance that it might have an impact.

  5. Chongli Qin, BA, MPhil, PhD candidate, Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge

  6. Richard Bethlehem

    Richard A.I. Bethlehem, BA, MA, MSc, PhD candidate, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge

  7. Marco Pitteri, PhD, Post-doc Research Fellow, Department of Neurosciences, Biomedicine and Movement Sciences, University of Verona, Verona, Italy

    You have all my support, guys! Universities and Countries have no future without PhD students!

    • Thanks, Marco, your support is much appreciated!

    • Alla Yankouskaya, PhD, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow, Deparment of Psychology, Liverpool Hope University, UK

      I am totally agreed with Marco! Edwin, best of luck for you. You are brave and honest to say the truth. I do understand every single word you said about coping, scaring, doubting, sometimes hopelessness and WAITING. I was lucky to be in writing up status when similar happened to me, and my absence was not much noticed ( or I just had amazing supervisors who helped me in a salient, but effective way). Again, all the best for you!

  8. Kalina L. Tosheva, MSc, PhD student at MRC-Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, UCL, London, UK.

    I am very intrigued by this letter, since I (like possibly many other people my age) never really considered falling seriously ill as a real threat before and therefore hadn’t informed myself of what would happen then. Naturally, once I read the letter, I did think about it and it is actually horrible that there is no support on this level when there is so much support (at least in UCL) for other problems like mental issues and stress. Therefore, thank you for your involvement in the issue!

  9. Signed! As someone who’s recently completed a humanities PhD, though, I’d just like to point out that the problem equally applies to PhDs in all subjects, not just scientific ones…

  10. Can this be explicitly extended to humanities and social science PhDs as well? This is an important issue and affects all PhD students.

    • In my mind ‘social science’ is captured by ‘science’, no? Honest question, as I’m a bit confused about why you single it out.

      As for other fields, you’re not the first to point this out. So I’ve changed ‘science’ to ‘academia’, and added ‘books’ as a potential way of disseminating findings. Personally, I think the current version covers all disciplines, but please do let me know if you think otherwise.

      • Hi Edwin,
        Thanks for making the changes – I agree, much more inclusive now! I just want to say also that in no way did I think you intended to exclude Hums and SocSci PhDs. My concern was more for the public image of these students. We are often left off the ‘research is important’ train ride in publicly available documents and open letters. The declining public opinion on the value of the humanities is not helped by instances of non-inclusion.
        So, many thanks for opening this out.

        On the SocSci under Sci question: I rather see them s different, for some maybe the same. Always better to be safe than sorry.

        All the best,
        E.

        • Great, thanks for the feedback! Happy you feel included now! :)

          This is completely off-topic, but I did my undergrad in Psychology at Utrecht University’s social sciences faculty, and I still feel (partly) like I’m a social scientist. One of the weirdest experiences in my undergrad was during a course on literature and the social sciences, and how they can learn from each other: At some point during a discussion the lecturer plainly stated that he felt cognitive psychology wasn’t a part of social sciences. To me that was nuts, especially considering the history of the field, and the overlap we still share. ANYWAY, stupid rant, but maybe it’s a good indication of how the perception of boundaries between fields can be quite personal.

          Thanks again for signing, and for thinking along!

  11. Having had a PhD student recently suspended due to mental health issues, I agree with this proposal completely. The funding to the student was cut by AHRC (Arts & Humanities Research Council) – thereby meaning financial problems in addition to the health problems. This kind of double-whammy can only exacerbate health problems and make research and doctoral completion much much more difficult. Said student has now restarted doctoral research – but now has to work part-time in order to cover the debts accrued as a result of the period without income while ill. This clearly might lead to mental and physical health problems.

  12. I fully support your initiative, but I would like to suggest that it is not only people with sudden serious illnesses who need a more flexible approach to their needs. I suffer from non-life-threatening chronic illnesses as well as being a carer for 3 other adults with different needs. Because of the demands of completion rates, I was forced to drop out from my PhD, as I simply could not work fast enough, given the other demands on my life as well as my own illnesses.

    • Thanks for your comment! Sorry to hear you were forced to stop with your PhD!

      We’re keeping this particular letter rather narrow, because it increases the chance of it being picked up. That said, I definitely agree that there’s more groups who need more support during their PhDs! You might already be aware of them, but there is a group for academics with chronic disabilities: Chronically Academic. If you weren’t aware of them yet, it might be worth to have a look at their website. They’re campaigning for better support for people like yourself. Best of luck! :)

  13. I fully support this initiative. I fell ill during my PhD with mental health issues and was forced to take time off for a couple of months. I was paid during the time off itself but did not get my funding period extended to account for the lost time. Unsurprisingly I needed a short extension at the end of my PhD to account for the time I had taken off but had no money to support myself for this period. It was extremely tough – the stipend was already equivalent to a salary below the living wage in my area, so to finish the final few months of my PhD without any income was horrible. I spent ages applying for emergency funding and had to send doctor’s notes and bank statements for both myself and my wife as proof that a) I was genuinely ill; and b) we had not been reckless with our income. This seemed outrageously intrusive to me and was very stressful. I eventually received some hardship money but the amount was much smaller than my stipend would have been and took weeks to arrive.

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