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How to Get Through Grad School with a Chronic Illness

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An upfront disclaimer: You don't have to get through graduate school.

There are many ways to add value to this world and make meaningful contributions. For some, grad school helps with that path but for many others, it is often a hindrance. If you fall into the former category (or suspect you might), read on dear friend.

Graduate school was a somewhat 'legitimate' way for me to escape the 9 to 5 grind, which was making me sicker than I already was. Of course, I wanted to hone my skills and be more employable but if those were the only reasons, there are other ways to do just that. I also enjoyed reading academic articles and at some point, I remember thinking that I too could do that.

I have a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. And I am currently a doctoral student. I have also navigated a fair share of chronic illnesses. During my Master's program, I was on medication for depression. I was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Other diagnoses and health issues include but are not limited to: a concussion, migraines, fibromyalgia, another concussion, PCOS, and chronic fatigue.

I did say it was a lot.

But everyone's experience in academia varies greatly, and this is just one perspective that may or may not be helpful. Take what is and leave what isn't.

Unfortunately, academia like many other systems and institutions are inherently ableist and not set up to understand or really accommodate people living with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and/or invisible illnesses. So I have to preface this post by saying that what is actually needed is systemic change and this work absolutely should not have to fall on the individual. While many keep pushing for this change, I have also had conversations with individuals who have wanted to know about my experience. Here are a few thoughts that I think might just be worth sharing more broadly.

Your health comes first, always. 

When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer during my Master’s degree, I had to take medical leave. I know people who have pushed through school while getting surgery and treatment but that didn't seem like an option at the time. I'm glad I prioritized my health at that acute stage. I felt and still feel pressure to push through but it can be more harmful. It may not always feel like it with all the pressure and expectations, but you are more valuable than any degree.

Find the people within the institution who can help. Keep them close.

Start by reaching out to your own department as well as the graduate studies department or faculty. If you come across someone who is unhelpful, try to get in touch with a different person. Don’t worry about feeling whiny or needy (although these feelings might come up), you have a right to the information and support you need. Once I found people within the system who were willing to go above and beyond (and didn't just say I should search the website or go to another department), I kept their names, phone numbers and emails close. These people do exist.

Are there people in your networks who can support you with getting information and advocate on your behalf? Someone you trust who can follow-up as needed about all the admin stuff?

The other people who will help you get through are your peers - yes, your classmates. It isn't possible to get through graduate school (or life for that matter) completely on your own. It's a fallacy. Mutual aid and collaboration are the pillars that will help you get that degree.

Apply for funding - both within and outside academia

I've had to take on student loans and lines of credit and you may have to as well, but, don't forget about scholarships, bursaries, and grants - all of which are sums of money that you don't have to pay back. I learned the hard way is that you can apply for these pots of money BEFORE you get accepted into a graduate program. In Canada for instance, the Ontario Graduate Scholarship, Canada Graduate Scholarships, and some from the Tri-Council are just some funding opportunities where you can apply before you get into a program. These require a little bit of extra legwork to coordinate with the program you are applying to but can be worth the effort.

If you aren't accepted the first time around, you already have a strong application to build on for next time. This is an iterative process and from personal experience, I can say that your applications become that much stronger with each iteration.

I've heard several times that there are often scholarships, bursaries, and grants that go unused because people don't apply for them. Make your search broader. There are often amounts available for students living with disabilities or with specific lived experiences. The aim of these is to try to address the inequities in the system so go ahead and apply if you are eligible.

Having to navigate chronic issues on top of studying and trying to work is challenging. Applying for funding is like another job but can take the pressure off financially. One of the main things keeping me going at a time when I'm recovering from a concussion and can't work and in a time of COVID-19 is my Vanier Scholarship.

Look into emergency funding options

Many people living with chronic illnesses and disabilities have additional expenses when it comes to health, prescriptions, allied health, etc. and these can add up quickly. In that first year after my diagnosis, I spent upwards of $8000 - and that's while having access to insurance.

I applied for an emergency grant from the University to help with expenses. Most universities and programs have emergency funding and funds specifically for people living with disabilities. There was a moment where I had to swallow my pride and acknowledge that I needed emergency support. I had nothing to be ashamed of.

Pick your supervisor oh-so-carefully. 

This wasn’t applicable during my Master’s degree as it was a professional one but it mattered a lot when it came to my Ph.D. Having had less-than-stellar experiences in the workforce and having to advocate for myself, I knew this would be a key factor in determining my success and also how stressful my Ph.D. degree would be. During my doctoral degree, I have already had to contend with news of recurrence and a concussion. It has made all the difference having a supportive and understanding supervisor.

Support your body and mind as well as you possibly can

You know your body best and chances are, you have now realized that there are some activities and habits that help you feel better and others that make you want to spend all day in bed. Minimize the latter, maximize the former. Any routines that you can cultivate to support your body and mind will assist with focusing on your schoolwork. These routines will also help limit decision fatigue.

If you haven't been able to hone in on what these activities are, carve out some intentional time to sit down and write out what you think these might be. Make two lists. Examples of activities that might be supportive of your physical and mental health could include: 7 - 8 hours of sleep every night, walks in nature or a favourite podcast. The other list might include mindless scrolling through social media, constantly checking my email, eating junk food every day. Don't overwhelm yourself by trying to do everything at once. The point is to slowly create an intentional routine and days that prioritize your health and well-being as much as possible.

Don't be tempted to do it all

Trust that being selective will enable you to do the few essential things that matter rather than the non-essential many (a point made by Greg McKeown in Essentialism).

There are always lots of seminars, events, courses, clubs, and opportunities to get involved in grad school. We're often told to say "yes" to whatever comes our way. I know that I tried to do this for many years and burnt out hard. Know what your priorities are and what will bring the most value to your life, and be selective. Resist imposter syndrome. Know what your boundaries are for this season in your life. I've recently realised that if I attend more than two events in a week, I'm exhausted. While this isn't ideal given how the events I want to attend somehow always seem to be scheduled within days of each other, it's a boundary that I'm learning to honour.

It may not always feel like it but remember, you're already successful. Getting to this point already means you've already had to deal with so much and that in and of itself, is enough.

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