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True Confessions of a Chronically Ill PhD
June 3, 2014 - 10:51pm

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Leslie Rott is a guest author who received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Michigan in 2013.  She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Health Advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College.  She blogs about chronic illness and higher education at her blog, Getting Closer To Myself.  You can find her on twitter at @LeslieRott.  

Chronically ill and graduate student do not have to be mutually exclusive identities, but unfortunately, they often are.  I know this from first-hand experience.  During my first year of graduate school, as a Sociology PhD student, I was diagnosed with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

I was incredibly sick, and pretty much everyone around me told me that I should quit school, including some of my doctors.  But everyone came to see that leaving school was just not an option for me, for a variety of reasons.

Not only was there a sea change in my life, because of my diagnoses, but there was also a sea change in how I was treated by my professors and peers.  I went to the same institution for undergraduate and graduate school, so for me it was even more apparent that the reactions I was receiving were a result of my illnesses and not as much about my ability as a student.

Outside of my department, I found little help elsewhere in the academy.  The disability services office was not equipped to deal my needs, as I think many chronically ill graduate students come to discover.

So what is a person to do when the y are a chronically ill graduate student and are searching for common ground?

-          Disability Services: The disability services office is the place where you can go for accommodations, however, it is not really equipped to deal with chronically ill students, and especially graduate students, who have different kinds of work and requirements than undergraduates.  However, most departments will not provide any accommodations unless you are registered with the disability office.

-          Find Allies: There is strength in numbers and finishing graduate school with a chronic illness takes a village.  I collected about one person a year who was either a chronically ill graduate student or the rare person who was not ill, but really got it.  These people made it possible for me to solider on.  I know I could not have done it alone.

-          Finding Support: If you do not really have in-person support, or if you are looking for further support, take to the Internet.  That is initially where I found support, although sites like this one were not around.  My experience was based more on finding others my age who were also dealing with chronic illness.  And it also made me realize the experience of the chronically ill in higher education was a voice that was not being heard.

-          Believe In Your Own Potential: You were accepted into your graduate program for a reason, chronic illness not withstanding.  Whether you had already been dealing with an illness, or were diagnosed or it was made worse in graduate school, you were accepted for your academic ability, and that certainly counts for something.

-          Institutional Change Takes Times: Clearly the issues that I faced are not unique to me, but have to do with the complicated situation of being chronically ill and in graduate school.  This means that if you are a chronically ill student, the treatment you receive has less to do with you as an individual and more to do with the attitudes of the academy – if you cannot hack it for any reason, you should not be here – that is what I found to be the implicit message being thrown at me.

Time and again, I hear stories about students who do not finish undergraduate, are not able to apply to graduate school, or are unable to finish graduate school due to chronic illness.

I am living proof that it can be done.  And while my part in academia looks different than what I once imagined it would be, I made it.  I finished and received my PhD.  And I did it on my terms, chronic illness and all.

My experiences made me realize that I needed to take these issues on as my life’s work, so that’s what I have done.  It’s not a move that my dissertation committee would have approved of, and thus, I did not tell them about it.  But it is a decision that has made me very happy.  Not everyone needs to make their personal issues political, as I know how hard to can be simply to get through a day, week, or month of graduate school when you are balancing that along with illness.

[Image by Pixabay, in the public domain.]

 

 

 

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