As PhD students who were diagnosed with cancer during our training, we have first-hand experience of the financial consequences of taking time out for treatment and recovery. Cutting a student's stipend because of serious illness is standard practice in the United Kingdom, compounding the combined stresses of delays to the research project and of the condition itself.

In 3–4 years, UK doctoral students are expected to master new techniques and to generate a solid body of results for research papers and a thesis. Their university and funding contracts reflect this 'apprentice' status and come with restricted rights.

Training grants from the UK research councils typically allow 13 weeks of paid sick leave; the studentship is suspended if an illness is expected to last longer (see Other funders may not cover sick leave at all, and most universities do not step in to help.

As a result, a student who is ill can be forced to continue working, to rely on contributions from friends and relatives, or to quit their PhD — all unacceptable 'punishments' in our view. We suggest that training-grant contracts should be more similar to academic staff contracts in providing at least six months of paid sick leave.