A RAND Corporation survey estimates 65 percent of Americans have a chronic illness of some sort, and 20 to 30 percent of working-age adults in many states are considered disabled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although no definitive statistics are available on the prevalence of disability and chronic illness in higher education, recent studies suggest they are more common among faculty members than previously imagined. I’m one of the many academics struggling with chronic illness.
I deal with migraine, fibromyalgia, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and more. The intensity of earning my M.F.A. in creative writing flared up my illnesses at times, making it difficult to succeed as a student. I successfully completed the three-year program last year, however, and learned a lot through the process. Here are my tips on navigating graduate school while managing a chronic illness:
Stick to your priorities. Each time my illnesses flared up, I had to remind myself that my health should take priority above graduate school. I literally wrote my health-related priorities on a piece of paper and hung it on my bedroom wall: eight hours of sleep each night, three nutritious meals a day and regular exercise and meditation all came before homework. If I had stuck to those priorities from day one, I probably could’ve avoided some flare-ups.
Create a consistent schedule. Grad school can feel chaotic. Class schedules change from day to day, and the workload varies from week to week. The temptation to fashion your life around school requirements will be there, but inconsistency is bad for most illnesses. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, regardless of your academic schedule. Try to eat and exercise at the same time, too. Whether you use a paper planner or digital calendar, map out your limited free time to create routine, and balance your workload so you do about the same amount of work each day and don’t find yourself pulling all-nighters.
Take advantage of campus resources. As a student, you probably have free access to counseling, gym equipment and fitness classes, and basic medical services. You very likely can also join student groups focused on relaxation, nature, recreation and maybe even illness management. Because I was a graduate instructor, I initially felt awkward using the campus resources I was recommending to my undergraduate students, but with time, I embraced and became grateful for them. Managing illness is difficult, and once you graduate, therapy and gym memberships will no longer be free. Take advantage of all of it!
Let go of perfectionism. A phrase I often heard from faculty members and classmates alike was “a B is a C, and a C is an F.” I thought I needed straight A’s to compete with my peers, and I overworked myself as a result. The reality is, while a C is bad news, and you should withdraw from a class if you’re headed toward one, an A-minus or B-plus won’t kill you or your future. Realistically assess how much work you can do without flaring up your illness, and then allow yourself to stop when you reach that point instead of working toward that A-plus at the sacrifice of your well-being.
Don’t try to do everything. Another phrase I often heard as a grad student was, “It’s a CV line,” which meant, “Do this free labor to look good when you apply for jobs later.” Yes, it’s necessary to have a balanced CV containing publications, work experience, volunteering, conferences and so forth, but you can gain experience at your own pace and still be competitive in the job market. Overworking yourself to the point of flare-up will backfire by slowing you down and sabotaging your goals. Slow and steady is a more sustainable approach to gathering experience.
Maintain a life outside of grad school. While spending time with a group of people who understand what your unusual work life is like can be comforting and reassuring, graduate school can also be extremely insular. The regular shop talk can also become a burden during times of stress. If grad school becomes a source of anxiety, don’t spend weekends with classmates who are going to talk more about it. Give yourself a break. Engage in friendships completely separate from your program. It’ll help you remain relaxed and keep perspective. Graduate school is only one part of your life.
Take advantage of the flexible schedule. With the right planning and perspective, being a graduate student can be favorable for those with chronic illness. Reading, writing, grading and lesson planning can be done from home -- even from a laptop in bed if necessary. Most professors are willing to share reading lists in advance, allowing you to get a head start on course work over summer and winter breaks so your upcoming semester won’t be as overwhelming.
Decide if, when and what to disclose. Sometimes I felt like I had two choices: 1) tell everyone everything about my health issues or 2) try to pass as healthy and keep my illness struggles secret. In reality, you have many options between those extremes. Choosing to disclose illness is a highly personal decision that deserves much thought. At first, I wanted to maintain privacy and appear “well,” but ultimately, I decided disclosing some of my symptoms and limitations to some people would help ensure I received the education I needed. If you know you need course accommodations, work with your university’s student disability office to obtain official paperwork and determine what you do and do not need to share.
Take a break if you need it. Your professors and advisers might strongly counsel against dropping a class or taking medical leave for a semester. They aren’t trying to make you feel bad -- their job is to help all enrolled students graduate on time. You have options beyond either straight A’s and graduating on time or dropping out entirely. There is a middle ground. Incomplete grades exist for a reason. Medical leave exists for a reason. Do not be afraid to advocate for yourself and do what you must do to complete your degree without flaring up your illness.
Graduate school is a difficult, busy time for many students -- not just those with chronic illnesses. Know you are not alone during times of stress. If you want to connect with other graduate students in similar positions, check out the communities Chronically Academic and PhDisabled. Although surviving graduate school with a chronic illness isn’t easy, it is possible.