PhD study while managing a disability, chronic illness or learning difficulty can be challenging. But you might be surprised how many people do so successfully. Or at how much support for disabled students is available from universities, funders and other sources.
This guide will help you if you’re considering a PhD, but worried that a pre-existing medical condition may make it more difficult.
It contains information on applying for a PhD with a disability and advice for managing the day-to-day undertaking of your research project.
Finally, we've also put together a guide to Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA) for PhD students.
The first step in completing a PhD while managing a disability or illness is the applications process. Applying for a PhD with a disability may seem a little daunting. But your experience doesn’t necessarily have to be any different to that of another student.
You won't normally have to disclose a disability when applying for a PhD. It is also illegal for your university to discriminate against you on the basis of any disability you do disclose.
Your university can be an important source of advice and assistance as you complete a PhD with a disability. Many institutions have previous experience of helping disabled students complete their degrees. Some will also have structures in place to help new applicants.
Informing your university of your condition when you apply will allow you to:
Depending on your personal feelings and individual circumstances, you may not wish to inform your university of a disability or chronic illness. This is completely understandable (particularly if your condition is unlikely to have a significant impact on your studies).
In most cases you have no obligation to inform a university about a condition. And you can still access lots of other support networks without doing so.
As the second-most important person in your PhD (after yourself!) your supervisor can be a great source of advice, understanding and support.
Of course, any successful supervisory relationship requires both parties to establish expectations and targets. This will be even more important if your disability or illness is likely to pose challenges during your research.
You don't have to inform your supervisor of a disability or illness. But doing so can help you establish a supportive working relationship. Their expectations can then take account of your condition and they can help you to progress in spite of it.
A good supervisor will do their best to support you and will be motivated to help you succeed. You can help this process by discussing the possible effects of your condition in advance.
This will allow you to establish a working relationship that takes account of any extra challenges you may face during your PhD.
It can be helpful to discuss:
A helpful and encouraging supervisor can make a significant difference to your experience. Their support could include:
As well as establishing a good relationship with your supervisor, it can be helpful to anticipate some of the challenges you yourself may face as a disabled PhD student. This way you can come up with strategies for managing them in advance.
The exact difficulties you face will depend on your circumstances. But you may wish to list likely issues and investigate possible solutions. This will allow you to go into your PhD with greater confidence and enthusiasm. You'll be ready to face the challenges it presents and come away with a qualification you can be incredibly proud of.
A disability may make it harder for you to get to and from your university, or to access certain buildings on campus. Universities have a legal obligation to make their facilities as accessible as possible. There are also other ways in which you can overcome mobility or accessibility problems:
Reading and analysing written material is a big part of PhD research in all subject areas. This can be difficult for students with disabilities such as dyslexia or visual impairment.
These are some ways in which you may be able to overcome difficulties with reading and writing as a disabled PhD student:
Once you’ve managed the challenge of reading and researching as a disabled PhD student you can move on to writing up your work. This will allow you to present your ideas to a wider audience – including academic experts in your field.
Some conditions can make organising and writing up your research more difficult. There are various ways you can anticipate and help compensate for these:
Depending on the nature of your disability or illness you may find yourself feeling self-conscious or otherwise lacking confidence in interactions with other students and academics.
Such feelings may seem natural, but it’s important that you try to find ways of overcoming them. As a PhD student your research and ideas are as valid as anyone else’s. If other students are aware of the fact that you are managing a condition alongside your PhD they will be the last to judge you for it.
PhD students of all people will respect someone for working hard to overcome challenges as part of their research.
The following approaches may help you manage personal interactions that are made more difficult by your condition or manage any social anxiety resulting from it:
All PhD programmes end with an oral examination, or ‘viva voce’. This is when a student discusses their work with an external examiner and ‘defends’ their conclusions. (For this reason, the viva voce is sometimes referred to as a ‘thesis defence’).
It goes without saying that this is a hugely important part of your PhD research experience. Any disability or illness should interfere with this process as little as possible.
Universities will understand this. They will do their best to make appropriate arrangements for your examination, allowing you to simply focus on the important thing: doing justice to your PhD thesis.
There are various ways in which you and your university can help limit the impact of a disability or illness on your viva:
One of the first things you’ll realise as a disabled PhD student is that you really aren’t alone.
Other students have faced similar challenges, associated with disability or chronic illness. Many of them have gone on to provide advice and resources drawn from their own experience. There are also lots of other postgraduate communities and forums around the web, full of helpful people able to offer advice and support to fellow students.
The following are some particularly helpful resources for PhD students with disabilities:
Finally, don’t forget to investigate resources within your department or institution. Many universities will have offices and staff dedicated to supporting students with disabilities. Your student union should also be able to advise you and help ensure your needs are met.
Last updated - 19/06/2018