How I Learned Graduate School is Like a Disease (or “What I Did Over Summer Vacation”)

Initially, I wanted to title this “What I Did Over Summer Vacation.” I thought that the humor would be apparent to my peers (what PhD candidate — or academic — ever gets a summer vacation?); additionally, I felt that the reference to that small patch of time that we can almost call our own might somehow ground what came next. You know, while my peers were hard at work teaching summer classes to survive, traveling to complete portions of their own research, etc., what was I up to? What did I actually accomplish, in that tiny sliver of “freedom” that bookends each of the grueling 7+ years of our graduate careers?

Well, I’m really still trying to figure that out. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this now. Otherwise, it makes no real sense why somebody as private as I am — somebody who has, before this moment, offered so little personal information to the world around her — would suddenly offer up the extremely personal details of her summer…and yet, here we are (or here I am, imaging the you that might eventually be privy to these revelations).

Suffice it to say, I never thought that I’d be blogging my medical adventures, but — at the urging of a very supportive, and wise partner — I now realize that, the longer we as a group remain silent, the longer we give license to the ongoing institutional response (or lack thereof) to our collective and individual well-being. I have seen that response, multiple times, since beginning my graduate work, and I continue to be stunned, as time goes on, at how precarious our existence within the university is. I think that this precarity keeps many of us suffering in silence, afraid that — should we come forward and admit to/ask for the help that we need — we will be seen as difficult, as unmarketable, as bad investments, as it were, in an increasingly corporatized university. Who knows, I may be sealing my own fate with this simple statement today, and — while I hope that this is not the case — I believe that the time has come (at least for me) to say something.

As graduate students, we work ridiculously hard. Long hours, low compensation, shrinking funding that commands a disproportionate amount of our (always too limited) time to compete for, demanding travel and production schedules, the list goes on…Often, this hard work also requires us to compete with both our peers and our own bodies and minds, pushing us away from the possibilities of collaborative work and support, and encouraging us to ignore various warning signs as we all too often push ahead, sacrificing our own health just to get by. We are overwhelmingly expected to show up, produce, and remain stoically silent regarding our existence outside of the profit-making rubric of the university, and if my writing this convinces just one person to second guess that rubric in favour of their own health and well-being, then my time has been well-served in this project.

So, back to my summer: Let’s start with last year, when I was awarded a prestigious grant to allow for the writing of my dissertation. The grant was twenty thousand dollars, which — in this business — is amazing; however, it came with the stipulation that any recipient must forego teaching for the duration of the award year. In theory, this is a good idea, as it allows the awardee to focus solely on completing their dissertation. The reality, however, turned out to be far more complicated.

For example: At my (public) university, if you do not teach, you must pay your registration and student fees out of pocket (we will round this figure down to $13,300). You also do not receive health insurance (although it can be purchased for an additional fee of $4,365). So, if I were to pay for my registration, fees, and purchase health insurance, the remainder of the grant would allow me $2,335 to live on — for the rest of the year. Just in case you are wondering, I did put together a preliminary budget of the following expenses for the year: rent, registration and university fees, health insurance, telephone, and prescriptions. The total? If I didn’t eat, travel for research or conferences, drive, need emergency care, purchase books and/or supplies, pay for utilities, or any other extras (clothing, etc.), I would need $39,672 to survive the year.

Still, I decided to take the grant money, and did what most of my peers have done when faced with similar circumstances: I supplemented it with employment not expressly forbidden by the terms of the award. I took work as a graduate student researcher (GSR), and became the Managing Editor of an academic journal for the year. While this position added an intense amount of responsibility and work to my year, it also graced me with the safety net of health insurance, which I needed in order to be able to afford maintenance medication for a congenital brain condition that I had informed exactly nobody of when starting my graduate program. To me, it was a private matter; it had been deemed completely stable, and — in the wrong hands — information about it could be a liability (Who’s going to bet on the girl with the brain condition? What if we give her X award, and she gets sick — or worse? Etc.…). With these thoughts running through my head, I decided that my best bet was to shut up, do the work, and keep advancing through the program. Four years in, nobody was the wiser — I was progressing through the program at an accelerated rate, and my work was strong. It really was a non-issue — until the moment I was faced with the choice of forgoing healthcare in order to accept a prestigious grant, or finding a second job in order to continue having access to medical services and my maintenance medications. I chose the latter — and, while the time demands were brutal — that decision may just have saved my life.

You see, I had — like most of my peers — been paying minimal attention to my physical and emotional state over the course of my graduate education. Come summer, however, I was informed by campus health services that — after nine months of intermittent treatment — they were at a loss with how to proceed, and wanted to refer me out for what appeared to be overly-aggressive, highly unusual skin cancer. In typical grad student fashion, I had refused the referral once before (my teaching and travel schedules and additional work left me no time, and outside referrals are often expensive); hence, by the time I finally found a doctor and had my first biopsy, almost a year and a half had passed since my first evaluation and treatment on campus. Long story short, that biopsy confirmed that what I had been doing over the past year and a half (when I bothered doing it at all) was undergoing unnecessary treatment, as the initial diagnosis of skin cancer was, in fact, incorrect.

So, I spent my summer having more biopsies, more procedures, getting more referrals, and driving — a lot — to meet with doctors covered by my student insurance who were willing to take on new patients (trust me, when they send you a six page list, you will generally get to page five before you find anyone willing to see you — much less see you in the next five months). I spent most of my time — and a lot of money — following up on the results of that initial biopsy, because it turns out that what I had written off to stress, fatigue, and an untenable work schedule (you know, the general realities of graduate school) was actually an autoimmune disorder. My body was not only attacking itself on the inside; at this point, it was also waging war on the very skin that was designed to protect it. And, really, who was I to blame it? Look at how I’d been treating it, always making it my lowest priority…in my struggles to stay in the game, and meet the demands of academia, I had missed (and, in some cases, willfully ignored) every sign that something was wrong with my body. The graduate school experience, in its current incarnation, is so much like a disease that I mistook it for the literal disease that was slowly taking root inside of me…and that, I suppose, is why I am writing this today — because I am infinitely troubled by the turn that the university/academia has taken of late. When we, as humans, are reduced to production hours, evaluation scores, and how much money and/or acclaim we bring to our departments and the institution, we receive the message that this is our role in what has become less an environment of exploration and discovery, and more a ledger to be balanced (with profit margins ever in mind).

It is hard not to internalize this in the push to succeed, and many, many other folks have written about the costs (human, political, and economic) of the increasing corporatization of public universities. Perhaps I just wanted to put another face to the cost; add a story that I hope will make people think — and, ideally, act. Perhaps I just want to think that even one person might read this and be inspired to put themselves first again — to take seriously those moments when something feels wrong, or hurts; to insist upon the time and space they need in order to be a healthy human being. This is a basic human right, and it is one that there is an unspoken agreement we will forego, should we choose to abide by the current expectations of the university. As for me, I will continue recording my observations as I search for further answers to the problem at hand. I remain no less determined to complete my work than when I began this journey, but now, I am learning to be more flexible and forgiving of myself in the “doing”; I am slowly, painstakingly learning a new way of being — and new way of “doing” — me… and, after all is said and done, isn’t that one of the things that I came here to do in the first place?