When dreams clash with reality: Chronic illness during a PhD

By Maria Jørgensen
PhD student at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen.

Image created using Adobe Express by Adobe, 3 Dec 2023.


The frustrating reality was that I was not “sick in the right way” to warrant an extension to save my project, to save my career.

The pursuit of a PhD is the very beginning of a career in research. It is the embodiment of passion, dedication and an unyielding desire to contribute knowledge. However, in this challenging journey lies a complexity that most might not anticipate – the unpredictability of life, especially when living with a chronic illness. 

The enthusiasm with which every scientist embarks on the path of a PhD, envisioning a future of exciting discoveries and collaborations is immense. This dream, nurtured by unwavering determination and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, becomes the guiding light through the labyrinth of academia.

Yet, reality often introduces unforeseen challenges. For some, myself included, chronic illness becomes an uninvited companion, a relentless force that interrupts the trajectory of this journey. It starts as a quiet whisper, a subtle discomfort in the background, easily ignored and disregarded. But gradually, it intensifies, demanding attention, disrupting the mind and crumbling aspirations.

During my own pursuit of a PhD, I was faced with such a moment—an unforeseen flare-up in my chronic illness that shook the foundations of my academic ambitions. My symptoms crippled my ability to meet the rigorous demands of academia. Tasks that once were manageable became overwhelming, and my guiding light extinguished. My dreams seemed out of reach.

In the midst of it all, the one thing that gave me the push to fight was the compassion of my supervisor. Her willingness to help, frustration over the system and understanding of my struggle lit a fire inside me. I acknowledged that setbacks do not define one’s worth or one’s capabilities. My chronic illness may have altered the trajectory of my career, but it has not extinguished the flame of passion. 

Seeking support from the Human Resources department—an entity designed to aid employees in times of need—proved fruitless. Their protocols failed to comprehend the nuanced challenges posed by a chronic illness. To them, my struggle was not fitting into the conventional mold of sickness that their policies were designed for. The frustrating reality was that I was not “sick in the right way” to warrant an extension to save my project, to save my career.

The isolation that accompanies such a realization can be suffocating. The collision of dreams with the harshness of reality feels like navigating an endless storm with no letup in sight. The weight of unfulfilled potential and the fear of a career slipping away worsen the emotional toll of the illness itself.

To those who find themselves in similar situations, balancing between academic aspirations, chronic illness and the mental instability it can bring, know this: your worth extends far beyond societal definitions of productivity. Your resilience in the face of adversity is a testament to your strength. Your journey may take unexpected turns, but it is your determination to keep moving forward that defines your true success.

I will not be punished for getting dealt a less-than hand, so I will continue on this altered path, embracing the uncertainty, and I WILL succeed.