Managing Chronic Illness as a Ph.D. Student

By Fariha Ahmad. Maintaining your health during your graduate career can be difficult; here are my tips for how to do both.

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When beginning to embark on the journey to a Ph.D., most people aren’t thinking about being ill, especially for extended periods of time. However, for those of us dealing with chronic illnesses (or have yet to be diagnosed with one), figuring out how to juggle your health with your academic goals can be tricky. As someone with a chronic disease, I’ve compiled a few tips that have helped me set expectations for myself and my superiors while maintaining my physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. 

Tip #1: Acknowledging your illness

My chronic illness journey has been a rollercoaster, to say the least, with a tumultuous diagnosis process, an un-diagnosis 3 years later, and pain without a name that has yet to be re-diagnosed. Regardless of what it's being called by my doctors, physical pain is a regular part of my life. It was a shock for me to discover that my chronic pain, which I’d always accepted as a piece of my life, qualified as an “invisible” disability. Coming to terms with this label has been quite the challenge, and one I’m still not sure I’ve succeeded in adopting. However, 3 years after this pain has settled in, it’s become easier for me to acknowledge it, allowing me to work around it and accomplish my goals.  

Tip #2: Opening up to your superiors

When it comes to succeeding in graduate school while balancing life with a chronic illness, one big step I took was to tell my PI (principal investigator) what I was going through. I was very hesitant to tell her, for fear that I would be considered less “available” for different activities, but besides expressing her sympathy over the hardships my condition brought me, she also helped me rework my research activities so that I could work from the comfort of my home while my doctors and I worked to address my physical health. Letting a superior know what you’re going through is critical to maintaining expectations while ensuring that neither your well-being nor your ambitions will be compromised.

Tip #3: Talking to someone

Besides communicating with your PI/superiors, there are other resources on campus that may be useful in managing your chronic illness and its effects on you. The primary resource I suggest taking advantage of is to talk to someone at the Counseling and Wellness Center. Taking the step to talk to someone about your mental and emotional well-being can take a lot of courage. However, talking to someone at the Wellness Center can provide new tools for overcoming the mental and emotional challenges associated with chronic illnesses, and is a free service for all graduate students at Rice. Moreover, setting up a time to manage both of these aspects of your well-being can be instrumental to helping manage the stresses associated with juggling graduate school and a chronic disease. 

Tip #4: Being kind to yourself

The last bit of advice I have for anyone balancing graduate school with a chronic disease (or really any illness) is to be kind to yourself. Imposter syndrome and constant comparing of your progress to that of your peers are fairly constant mental struggles people deal with throughout graduate school. Rather than unhealthily pushing yourself, which can result in long-lasting physical, mental, and emotional wear, be kind to yourself. In the months leading up to their defense, a colleague pushing themselves to complete all of their work became ill, necessitating a week-long vacation. They later said, “You have to take a break, or the break takes you.” Setting boundaries with yourself, your friends, and your coworkers is key to ensuring you don’t overburden yourself to the point of harm, but listening to your body, and resting/caring for yourself as needed is even more important: if you’re not taking care of yourself, any boundaries you may set lose their value.

To summarize, managing a chronic disease while aspiring to accomplish all your goals during graduate school can sound challenging, but can be accomplished using various tools. These include acknowledging your illness, working with your superiors, seeking counseling, and employing the mindset of self-kindness. All of these things – but especially the last – are keys to maintaining your well-being. By working to maintain your physical, mental, and emotional well-being in the context of your illness, you can accomplish all that you set out to.

Read more:

Staying physically active in graduate school

Keep a running list of your accomplishments

Grad School: Expectations vs. Reality