Advice For Graduate Students With Chronic Health Conditions

ZarrowSarah Zarrow is a PhD student in Hebrew & Judaic Studies and History (full biography at the end).  In this post, Sarah concludes her two-part series on barriers to health care for graduate students by offering tips for students (and their professors) who suffer from chronic health conditions.  These tips may prove useful to any graduate student who gets sick at any point during their graduate training.  If you haven’t already, check out the first part of this series.

A Tip Sheet For Helping Students With Chronic Health Conditions

My experiences detailed in the last post have led me to think about what could have been done differently in my situation. I have compiled a list of tips that I think might help everyone in the academy think through issues of graduate student health and well-being. It is by no means exhaustive, and I would appreciate feedback and/or additions in the comments section below.

A caveat—this is not a tip sheet for recognizing students’ ailments or problems. There are other resources for that, and likely campus-wide policies, as well.

For Professors

  • This should be obvious, but graduate students are adults. Beyond our health concerns, we may be raising families, caring for parents, and financially supporting others. Often these needs are in conflict with each other; be aware of this.
  • -t is very likely (though not guaranteed) that a graduate student who comes to you in distress knows about campus resources, especially health services, and may have already used them. Health services may be part of the problem (as it was in my case).
  • Asking “how are you” in academia has two expected responses: “fine,” and “busy.” If a student seems not okay, ask, “are you okay?” as long as you’re in a situation where you are willing to hear the answer, and speaking honestly won’t embarrass or further distress the student.
  • A student’s confiding in you is not an opportunity to compare that student to others. It doesn’t matter if you have had other depressed/pregnant/anxious students—listen to the student in front of you.
  • Illness makes financial woes compound, even with health insurance. This, in turn, may force the student to take on more work, either TA-ships or freelance work. In turn, this may delay the time to degree. Again, simple belief is necessary. We know our financial needs, and we may not want to share all of them with you. If you have, or come across, paid opportunities that might help a student, pass them on.
  • There is no “life getting in the way” of work. Work is a part of life. The more we recognize that no person leads (or should lead) a fully compartmentalized life, the healthier we will all be.
  • Believe your students. Not all health issues are visible, and a person who seems well may not be. Resist the urge to tell anyone that they see too many doctors, or might be hysterical. Recognize the gendered implications behind accusing someone of weakness or hysteria. Instead, try praising someone for looking after their health.
  • Dealing with chronic health issues takes an enormous amount of time—not only time spent not feeling well, but also time in the doctor’s office, on the phone with insurance companies, and making alternative arrangements. The exhaustion that results from this compounds the problems, so try to be aware and kind.

For Students Dealing With Health Difficulties

  • If you aren’t finding the resources that you need at school or at home, seek out online communities. I have been helped enormously by (aimed at women, but I think many elements are useful to everyone).
  • It’s a pain, but you’ll have to educate your peers, professors, and often, doctors. Raise your voice when your “free” healthcare is praised. As much as you can, seek information about costs of procedures and tests in advance, and tell your doctors why you are asking. If you feel comfortable doing so, let your professors know when you’re not available due to medical reasons.
  • Remember that there is someone out there who faces similar issues to you, who may be able to offer guidance. This person is probably not your advisor, and probably does not sit on your committee. S/he might be a more advanced student, a staff member, or a faculty member. If you don’t feel comfortable filing complaints or asking for accommodations alone, enlist one of these people to help you. Solidarity is key.



Sarah Zarrow will receive her Ph.D this spring from the joint program of the Skirball Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies and the History Department. She concentrates on modern European Jewish history, with a particular focus on Jews in Eastern and Central Europe and on cultural and linguistic practices. She also holds an MA in education. Sarah has taught at NYU and Eugene Lang College/The New School, and is at work on many digital projects. She can be found online at

7 thoughts on “Advice For Graduate Students With Chronic Health Conditions

  1. Pingback: Lest you think I’m all gloom and doom… | Sarah w Polsce

  2. These two posts are great. Thanks for writing them!!

    One major problem I see is that the very people who need to read and listen to what is said here (to the Professors) are going the be the same people who won’t listen. In my experience the reasons are because Academia is not diverse, and the people who get hired are the very ones without empathy, and who are full of biases (e.g. you are just a hysterical woman, you shouldn’t have a life outside work, etc.). And they continue to hire people similar to them so that nothing changes.

    BUT… some of us will read this, and even if we are alone, lost in a sea of jerks, we must just keep fighting and hopefully some change will happen.


  3. I think you’re absolutely right! I noticed this when trying to form my dissertation committee–my advisor wanted to pack it with his friends, who were all his age and also male. We have to fight tooth and nail to get any type of diversity, really. But I do hope these posts affirm that we’re not alone, even if we’re not yet heard. Thanks for your comments.


  4. Your last point about not being alone is why I started the Sick and Disabled Scholars group on Facebook (it’s open to people who aren’t students or faculty as well). Solidarity helps so much!

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  5. Thanks Sarah for sharing your experiences, and congratulations on managing to get as far as you have. I particularly agree with your thoughts on the impossibility of ‘compartmentalisation’ of our lives – and the most common ‘gendered’ responses and expectations of us as burdened humans. It is my belief that generally, (many not all!) men are more able to achieve this compartmenalisation, but also it has been a cultural survival instinct that some manage far better than others. I can’t, and I won’t.

    From someone who has suffered a chronic illness since the age of 11, being an older single mother, a student for many years and now a lecturer/academic, it can seem at times as if the invisible weight you carry adds to the challenge of every small achievement – that in having achieved or completed something, only you really know how great this is, and how much it took to get there. Perhaps life is like that, because I look around and have to remind myself that my own travails should never be compared to others’, and that an empathetic ear and demonstrated recognition of the smallest of achievements should be my ongoing contribution.

    But I also recognise the challenge of these ‘hidden’ burdens that can never be explained in all their complexities – that as I’ve got older, I will apologise for being late, but will not make excuses for this, even if I have had an unavoidable personal emergency. This translates to my actions with students at times, I am not interested in their excuses (I am talking about large groups, not supervisors – that is different) – and true, I generally imagine these young healthy, still living with parents students as expecting so much more than they are entitled to. Does that mean that I, as an older health challenged woman/mother somehow imagine myself as more entitled to empathy and special consideration? Because I was a young and apparently healthy middle class student myself, and I did carry additional burdens even then, as I’m sure numbers of my students do. These thoughts contribute to ongoing dilemmas for me.


  6. Thanks, Annabelle. You’re right–many of our students also carry invisible burdens, and it’s worth keeping this in mind as we teach. My experiences might be an oddity, but they’re by no means exceptional, and as I talk about them more, I hear more and more from others dealing with loss, pain, and illness that they feel they have to “work through.”

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  7. I’m really happy to see this piece. I just had a student tell me she had to drop all her other classes because the professors wouldn’t work with her health issues this semester. I felt so disappointed.


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