How to Be Sick in Grad School

Last week we re-ran our article on how to do conferences as a grad student for two reasons: the CAMWS annual meeting is approaching and we want to help you prepare, but also because I was too sick to draft any new content.

I’ve been trying to catch up on the work and classes that I missed and am only starting to get back on my feet now. All of which got me thinking about the plight of being sick while being a grad student. Getting sick is a wonderfully universal human experience — we have billion dollar industries dependent on this fact — yet getting sick as a grad student comes with a special set of repercussions.

Just Don’t Get Sick

It should go without saying that obviously it would be best to avoid getting sick. But we’re humans, living and working in close proximity and under no small amount of stress, so it’s unrealistic to think we can avoid it entirely. Many of us bring pre-existing conditions to the table as well, so full avoidance is unrealistic at best.

Still, we can take some small actions to help prevent the spread of disease on campus. Handwashing is great, especially if you know that you’ve been exposed to disease. Popped by Health Services for a prescription or a check-up? Use the hand sanitizer to make sure you’re not leaving with more than you intended.

A more powerful preventative measure? Get your flu shot. These little vaccines are quick with minimal side effects, and many campuses provide them for free. The recipe changes yearly to combat the most prevalent strains, but some strains may slip by. Despite the fact that it cannot cover every type of the flu, the vaccine still helps protect you from some of the most common and preventable illnesses that can pull you out of class.

How to Miss Class

But as of now, not every instance of every disease is preventable. So what should we do if we can’t prevent sickness? The answer to this is difficult because it is at once entirely obvious and almost completely unacceptable: Stay home and recover.

Don’t take your sickness to class and pass it on to other students. Help stop the spread of disease by refusing to pass on any sickness to your unsuspecting classmates. Do take the time you need to recover, or else you’ll spend weeks at sub-optimal health.

This is where the expectations of grad school get most in the way. It’s one thing to skip a lecture as an undergrad in a 200 person, twice-a-week seminar, but it’s something else entirely to have to miss your once-a-week three hour discussion course where you’re one of only three students. And what if you’re TAing or teaching? What happens to your own research, your side-hustles, your hobbies, or your self-care?

PhD Comic addressing some of the pitfalls of being sick and a grad student.

Communication Is Key

Get in contact with your advisor and your professors. Be accurate and realistic when you describe your condition — your teachers are fellow humans who both know how debilitating a cold can be AND also don’t want you to spread it. The more they know about your condition, the better they are able to help you.

When communicating with you professors, let them know if you intend to miss class and if you will need extensions on assignments. Remember, if you’re sick and unable to function in class you’re probably also unable to read critically or write well. So do not be ashamed to ask for extensions.

Another group to communicate with is campus Health Services, or whatever your local clinic or doctor’s office is called. Often this group is well aware of the sicknesses that are travelling around campus and they can help you prepare to fight. They’ll know what medicines to take or to avoid, tell you when to come in for observation, and can even provide you with official notes suggesting that you stay home and rest. While a doctor’s note should not be strictly necessary for graduate students and real-world adults, and your professors often won’t need one, providing an official note can be a wonderful relief by making your absences feel more official.

Room to Recover

The important thing here is that your recovery is what’s important — deadlines are often flexible and the people in charge will often understand. It can be hard for us to fully internalize this, however, and often when we miss class for the sake of our health we end up feeling guilty.

Grad programs can be tough to navigate when in peak health. Trying to manage workloads while sick often increases stress and can further increase chances of burnout. Until the format of graduate school and expectations on graduate students change, there’s probably no way to completely avoid the guilt of missing things while sick.

So take what comfort you can in the fact that we’ve all been there and we’ll all be there again. And in the meantime, communicate, hydrate, and do your best to recover.


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