Should I declare that I am Bipolar?  


N. Luis
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September 26, 2016 12:07 am  


I am 37 years old but only now I am finishing my PhD. I was always a very good student. In my conjoint under graduation and master degree I graduated with a GPA of 3.5, but it took me 7 years to finish because of a handful of Bipolar crisis. My PhD wasn't less eventful, having to abandon two researches, one of which I had published two papers and a conference poster. Since the beginning of 2013 I am stable, and I believe I will be for long time to come. In this time I started a new research and finished it, I am waiting for the response of scientific journals on the publishing of two articles and I already published a paper. Also I finished the curricular part of the PhD with a GPA of 4.0. But I've spent 8 years on the entire PhD.

I really want to work on academia and do a PostDoc but I don't know what to say about the long time that take me to finish each degree.

Also, I don't know if I should add my previous advisor as reference, and with whom I authored the first papers and poster I've done. This because, we departed in not so friendly ways because of my manic crisis.

Thank you in advance for your expertise.

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September 26, 2016 2:10 am  

Congratulations on finishing despite the challenges you have faced! That takes a special brand of perseverance, which will probably be a great asset to you in the future!

Regarding using a former advisor who you parted with on bad terms as a reference - is there any chance of patching things up with this person? Especially if they were unaware that your behavior was due to a manic episode, inviting them out for coffee to apologize and explain might allow you to repair the relationship, especially if you previously had a good relationship before things happened. (That said, if you can't patch up the relationship, do NOT use them as a reference.)

Regarding disclosing your bipolar disorder in applications as a way to explain why it took you longer to finish -- unfortunately, there is still quite a bit of stigma attached to mental health problems, and by disclosing your condition in an application you may be hurting your chances. You might mention that you took longer to finish due to "medical problems" which are now under control, but I wouldn't recommend telling them what those medical problems are. It sucks that that kind of stigma is still out there, and it absolutely shouldn't be that way, but since it is, I'd recommend not disclosing to someone until they've gotten to know you.

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September 26, 2016 10:25 am  

HI - I am going to give the non politically correct but ethical and perhpas medical appropriate answer.

I think it is your ethical and medical responsiblity to disclose your disease Status as it is linked possiblity to Performance issues. Whereas some PhD studies can take a prolonged period of time, in your case you are self declaring that this was linked to your underlying disease. The trend already noted on undergraduate and graduate Performance.

I have a colleague with Bipolarism and that person's history and I go back many years beyond my employement (i knew him previously). Our Company has done an amzazing Job accomodating him and when he did perform under the stresses that corporate can bring he did amazingly and on paper has an awesome track record! Alot of this acheived duruing a quasi manic Phase that manifested in an over-Performance state.

How ever, usually linked to those Peaks of high worked and then the inevitable downward Slope of moving to the next Project, the depressive Phase would set in and each time the sickness-time over the past 7 years I've known this Person has increased time in the depressive Phase and each time more and more severe. The manic Phase despite perfromance can be equally as threathing. This Person for 1.5 years served as my right Hand and I did alot of things to protect him (it is why I became his left Hand at work), as did many others but the severity of those depressive states just became very bad where at Points we became very concerned (we have our legal Limits on out of Office Access was formal work colleagues) which is a good Thing actually). During this time there is no work activity, the Business/work on his end completely stopped and well eventualy this Person's Job is parked in another spot - we have to be very careful as to not to harm where we fear we may have an unitended consequence (you know what I'm refering too so no Need to spell it out).

So from a Business, un-human perspective we have non-Performance. And from my personal perspective, as much as I like this Person, I am happy to wash my Hands off in recent times - it became a burden to me that I no longer wanted to carry - and to be honest as much trust I can have with this Person and this Person with me, I will make it an HR issue - i dont want to carry that stress and burden anymore I had enough(o walking on eggs (so you have a personal view from my end). So yes, be Aware some of us will have our Limits and will take Action to remove ourselves from These Folks in the interest of our own self-preservation (I'm being very honest here).

From a human perspective, the company is trying to do no harm and that's why I advocate and recommend - take the ethical and medical route - disclose it. By not disclosing you probably risk harm to yourself at first. Yes,Kathlee is right there is a Stigma. But I recommend you trade a loss opportunity to find a Team/Job where work colleagues and Boss will Support you. You will Need it in the short to longer term as you very well know the cycles can be unpredictable despite medicated control.

You may find yourself in a Situation where you Company/employer may not tolerate your absenses (which you will have) and trust me, on the coproate side (maybe academia) there are way to dismiss you without an Alligation of discrimination.

Also, I highly doubt anyways you'll get a refernece who won't disclose this and at some Point it will come up. It is a small world.

But anyway, for ethical reasons and for your medical health, do no harm to yourself and disclose.

I thought you can benefit from my Personal experience and I'm being as true as possible with my Feelings on this despite the n of 1.

Good luck with whatever your choice is - and Overall..wishing you the best.


Dave Walker
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September 26, 2016 9:00 pm  

Hi N. Luis,

First of all, it took you 8 years to graduate -- which is a long time, but you have publications to show for it. I don't believe a hiring PI would care all that much about this fact, and you can simply call it difficulty with your project.

Second of all, chances are good that a future hire will contact your previous advisor, so be prepared for this. We have previous articles and forum posts about dealing with a negative reference.

I know someone personally who is on the bipolar spectrum. I recommend not disclosing anything while searching for a job, and even after accepting the job offer. I'll explain.

In the US it is illegal to discriminate against people with mental health disabilities. As of 2008, bipolar disorder is considered a "protected class" of disability and falls into this category. By law, you are not required to disclose your illness to your employer unless you need an accommodation; any kind of fallout from disclosure would also be discrimination and is illegal. (If you accommodation causes undue burden on your employer there may be issues, but you have said you are stable so I assume this won't be the case.)

Further, mental health issues are complicated and difficult to explain effectively. I believe the vast majority of people do not know the details of bipolar (starting with its name being confused for schizophrenia). With the law on your side, I see no reason to bring it up in the future.

Finally, the person I know with bipolar had great success talking about career issues with their doctor and therapist, who had practical suggestions for dealing with the job hunt. I was initially surprised that a psychiatrist would be so able to help, but I shouldn't have been: the doctor has seen hundreds of patients and had a lifetime of advice to give.

Best of luck, and please let me know if I can help further.

"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder

Renee L.
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September 27, 2016 4:37 am  

I have bipolar disorder Type II, the type where depressions are worse than the hypomanias. I was stable for 3 years when I applied for my present job, and I didn't tell them about my condition when interviewing. I wasn't going to need any accomodations for the work that I do, so I didn't see any reason to discuss my medical history with my employer at that time. Till this day, they don't know that I'm bipolar. Luckily, the medication I'm on keeps me really stable, so they don't see any ups or downs, either.
Since you've been stable for 3 years, and have been able to complete your Ph.D. in a reasonable time since you switched advisors, I don't believe you need to declare your medical history to a new boss. If he/she asks why your Ph.D. took so long, you can just say that you switched advisors in the middle, and that caused the delay, but that it was not a move that you have any regrets about.
Also, I think that these sorts of situations are somewhat different depending on the laws of the country one is in. It is true that discrimination here in the US based on a person's medical history is against the law; consequently, you are not legally required to divulge your medical history when interviewing.

N. Luis
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September 27, 2016 10:21 am  

Thank you all for replying. That was really valuable advices. I have an ideia of what I should now do. I will contact my previous advisor and talk to her, and I will not disclose my Bipolar situation.

Thank you all very much.

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September 29, 2016 9:21 pm  

I would find out your countries MEDIAN time to complete a PhD in your field. Not the average, but MEDIAN.

In the USA, there are people who are worried they finished in 7-8 yrs. BUT in the USA, the median time to completion is typically 7.1-7.2 yrs for a PhD in the biological sciences. Armed w/that knowledge, 7 yrs is fine, and 8 yrs isn't a large deviation from the norm.

"Some men see things as they are and say why, I dream things that never were and say why not"
"If you think research is expensive, try disease." - Mary Lasker