Developing a Mystery Illness in Grad School

Nested - three eggs, two white, one blue and speckled, in a nest. Sketch by Elita Baldridge.I’m a 4th year PhD candidate, working on a degree in Ecology. My dissertation proposal is a thrilling work in three parts, full of enthusiasm and ideas involving a Darwin quote, a lot of data on multiple taxa, and a lot of coding. But, for me, it’s not really work, it’s play. I am a scientist. Unfortunately, during the course of my PhD, I also seem to have acquired a Mystery Illness, which is making it difficult to actually complete my dissertation.

Dealing with the initiation of a Mystery Illness in graduate school is difficult, particularly when you have also grown up in the Midwest, where the universal answer to “how are you doing?” is always something on a variant of “fine”. This would be true even were you to be standing before someone with blood squirting from your severed arm.

Added to that the natural tendency of a single minded PhD student to subscribe to the theory of mind over matter and ignore any problems not related to research, and you have a perfect recipe for a long road to a diagnosis. This is of course, not to mention that many nasty chronic illnesses, either physical or mental, start between 20 and 30- prime time for many to be in graduate school, and many of them are diagnosed by a process of elimination anyway.

Your body starts to fail. At first it is vague symptoms that can all be attributed to doing a PhD. Start to get double vision? Clearly you must have been doing data entry for too long. Fatigue? Not sleeping well? Weight loss? It’s just stress. Joint pain in the hands and wrists? Must be sore from all that coding. So, maybe you go to the doctor when you are running a fever, but you don’t mention the other symptoms, either because you have had experiences in the past of doctors being dismissive of these symptoms, or the thought that you, yourself need to toughen up, after all, everyone knows the PhD is stressful, and maybe with a little dash of “I’m in grad school, I’m young, surely nothing can be seriously wrong with me”.

I actually hadn’t noticed how bad things had gotten until I got to the Big National Meeting this summer, and ran into my master’s advisor, who was shocked at how shaky and run down I looked, and then proceeded to keep an eye out for me the rest of the meeting to make sure I didn’t end up passed out on the floor in a corner somewhere.

After that, I started dealing with my Mystery Illness like a scientist. I realized that I hadn’t been providing my doctors with complete data- because I had assumed that it wasn’t relevant data. Once I gave my doctor all the data for him to decide what was a wasn’t relevant, we finally started getting somewhere.

Although I still don’t have a diagnosis, my advisor has been very supportive. The type of advisor who is good at dealing with a student with a chronic illness is, not coincidentally, the same type of advisor who is wonderful to work with without a chronic illness.

These are the sort of advisors that treat their students like people, who want their students to develop their own projects, and enjoy their work, not to act as cogs in a publication producing machine for the P.I. The ones who do science because they enjoy chasing questions, not for prestige. The ones who play science, who have fun tossing ideas around with anyone who wants to play science too.

There are some helpful things that an advisor can do for a graduate student who has become sick while in graduate school.

Remind your graduate student periodically that you are there to help, and you want to help, but don’t push them to open up about specifics. (We graduate students are an independent bunch, and sometimes we need to be reminded that we don’t have to carry the load alone.)

Remind your graduate student that you picked them as a student because you see the potential for them to do good science, even if they aren’t performing as well right now as they would like. (This meant a lot to me).

If/when your graduate student finally asks for help, do what you can to make accommodations for them, whether that is working with the university to find some way to lighten the teaching or other load, or brainstorming a line of research that might be less taxing. (Me: I didn’t want to make a fuss. Advisor: Tough. If you didn’t want help, you should have picked another lab for your PhD. )

And one other thing that I have really appreciated, because I have a dark sense of humor anyway, but not all might: Let your graduate student make light of their situation and laugh at their amusing quips. Humor helps. Things are serious enough without having to take it seriously.

Although I have been keeping my advisor pretty well informed, I have been trying to hide the seriousness of the Mystery Illness from my labmates, and have been trying to hide any weakness at all from my fellow TA’s. This is, of course, stemming from the desire to be tough, not whine, not cause a fuss, and not worry anyone. I was finally forced to confess to having a Mystery Illness because the earliest neurologist’s appointment is the same time as I teach, and I needed help covering my labs.

And everyone’s been great. Although we are all under a heavy teaching load this semester, I am getting fantastic support from my fellow TA’s and my lab, which was a welcome surprise. It shouldn’t have been, because I am in the best lab ever and am in a department full of graduate students who not only are good scientists, but are also wonderful human beings. So, thanks all, for taking some of the weight off. It is appreciated more than you know.

I had planned to finish my Ph.D., go on for a post-doc, and shoot for a faculty position at a PhD granting institution. I know that the direction Mystery Illness seems to be heading, that this may not be possible, either because I am not capable of performing at that level anymore, or because I was not able to perform at the level I needed to as a PhD student to compete.

But, I am fortunate. I have a husband who has been very supportive, taking over my share of the day-to-day household responsibility, and who will support me in being a stay-at-home scientist if that is the way that the dice fall. I have health insurance, both through the university and through my husband’s work. We are frugal, so we have money saved for emergencies. Social media lets me stay abreast of current issues in science, and affords me a way to contribute to science in that way. I have colleagues that will let me play science with them as I am able. And I’m really lucky that the questions I am interested in are best handled with publicly available data.

At the very least, I have the possibility to be data for someone else’s research. And as a scientist, I really, really love data.

Article kindly submitted by Elita Baldridge, PhD Candidate at Utah State University. Contact her via twitter at @elitabaldridge. 

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9 responses to “Developing a Mystery Illness in Grad School

  1. Hi I would like to share some of these blogs…appropriately credited with my campus community. Our campus is under the impression only the undergraduates need help. How can I get permission as each author is different and I don’t do twitter…my brain can’t take it.

    • Hi Krystal, we’d be delighted for you to circulate our posts but you’re right, we need to seek permission from each author. Could you email us a request with the list of articles you’d like to use and we can then forward this to each writer? Alternatively do feel free to just insist people come take a look at our articles in situ.

    • Krystal, I would love for you to use my post to spread awareness. Anyone who wants to use my post may use it with my blessing. This is a link to PLOS’s take on the subject

    • Thank you very much Elita. I have forwarded the article to my school for reprint (Claremont Graduate University) and of course it will be properly cited :-). I don’t know if they will reprint it but I am clearly of the opinion they should …for the benefit of their students. I will let you know how it pans out.

  2. Pingback: I am a graduate student. I have fibromyalgia. | Jabberwocky Ecology | The Weecology Blog·

  3. Thanks for this post. I’m currently in grad school and have had GI issues for the past 3 years, and many of my classmates have also developed their own share of health problems. I think you’re right that it’s the perfect storm – age group, stress and long hours. It’s good to hear that I am not alone!

  4. Pingback: How technology can help scientists with chronic illnesses (or Technology FTW!) | Jabberwocky Ecology | The Weecology Blog·

  5. This is really interesting, after nearly a year of odd symptoms – fatigue, muscle pains, joint pains, etc etc I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I was in my second year of a full-time Phd and had to take a few months off as I felt so exhausted and ill, I’ve now returned part-time and yet feel I’m barely keeping up. I agree with the above, although my supervisors have been very good and supportive, I’ve felt the University’s focuses on undergraduates and help for them. I’ve accessed the welfare unit at my uni and they look at me as if I’ve landed from Mars – a postgrad with ‘issues’ and have no idea what to suggest – for instance when I went off sick it was rigidly set around semesters. Very odd for a PhD student who works year round!


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