General Education

How to Thrive in Grad School When You Have a Chronic Illness

How to Thrive in Grad School When You Have a Chronic Illness
Effective time management requires both proactive decision-making and acceptance. In other words, figuring out what tasks I needed to accomplish on a given day and surrender to doing them. Image from Unsplash
Lauren Jonik profile
Lauren Jonik August 27, 2019

Knowing that you can conquer academic challenges while living with serious health challenges adds a level of confidence that no one can take away.

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When I started my master's program in Media Management at The New School, I lived with a chronic illness and felt unsure about how I would handle the course load while maintaining the level of wellness I had. I graduated with honors from my undergraduate program and was passionate about continuing my studies. But secretly, I wondered if I could manage equally as well in graduate school.

Knowing that the cost was higher, and I already had accrued student loan debt, it felt as though the stakes were higher. But, I decided to toss my hat into the academic ring once again and applied just before the deadline closed. I was thrilled when I was accepted into my top program—and received a scholarship that covered part of the expense.

During the first semester, I quickly realized that there is a vast difference between the amount of work and the expectations from professors in graduate school. So, I adapted my schedule and honed my focus. Graduate school was an opportunity that I wanted to make the most of. Over time, I learned ways not only to survive but to thrive while a student. Managing my time, planning ahead in case of "bad health" days, and prioritizing my studies helped me succeed and maintain a high GPA.

1. Share your schedule with loved ones

When I received the syllabi for my courses during my first semester, I felt both excited and overwhelmed. I wondered how I would find time to do all that was required—and do it to the degree of excellence that I hoped I was capable of.

Realizing that I had to prioritize what would be most important to my well-being and for my long-term future, I limited my social media time and kept phone calls brief, trusting that my most dependable friends would understand the limitations I imposed. There were a few exceptions to the boundaries that I set for myself; I never turned down a phone call from my grandmother or my young niece and nephews.

Effective time management requires both proactive decision-making and acceptance. In other words, figuring out what tasks I needed to accomplish on a given day and surrender to doing them. There are ample opportunities to be distracted, but one key to success is a single-minded focus on the task at hand. 

2. Plan ahead

It can be so easy for deadlines to sneak up faster than expected. Two weeks may sound like a lot when a paper is first assigned, but those 14 days will pass by in the blink of the eye. Why? Because you're busy doing other things while completing your master's degree.

I found it helpful to make lists—either on paper or online. Google calendar is an excellent tool for keeping track of what is due. Some people write reminders on Post-It notes and place them where they can't go unnoticed. The method doesn't matter as much as selecting a system that works for you. It is a rookie mistake to rely solely on your memory: don't.

As a semester gets underway, there are more and more things to remember and keep track of. Having a list of your tasks helps to ensure that nothing goes missing. 

I've found that it also helps when prioritizing what needs to get done first. When your assignments are written down before you, it is easier to plan the scope of work. If I only had two hours on one day, I might opt to work on a shorter paper. If I knew that I had a long term paper due, I would choose a day when I could allot an extended block of time and delve more deeply into the project.

This approach also allowed me to factor in that some days are better than others in terms of health. If you're having a good day or a series of good days, use them to your advantage to get your work done. It will help prevent the cycle of feeling sick and stressed and then, sicker because of stress. 

3. School first, distractions second

When I was a little kid, I routinely complained to my mom about being bored. As an adult, I have the opposite problem. In a world of Netflix and social media, distractions are plentiful. And, while I may enjoy a funny cat video as much as the next person, I've discovered that it is vital to be aware of how you spend your time.

I found that I couldn't fully enjoy the movie I was watching if I knew a deadline was rapidly approaching. Conversely, if I completed my assignment first, I savored relaxing afterward, guilt-free. Instead of a distraction, I viewed my time spent watching the movie as a reward. That shift in perspective made me feel like everything could be a win-win situation. 

4. Register with your school's disability office

At the start of the semester, make sure to register with your school's disability office as you may be eligible for accommodations. Typically, your physician must verify that you require accommodations by filling out a form. It adds a level of protection to have your challenges formally recognized. I was allowed to take a final exam for my Spanish class in a separate quiet room. When I became sick and was admitted to the hospital unexpectedly, my professors extended the deadlines work I had due. This allowed me to focus on my health without the added worries of late assignments. 

The key is to be proactive and line up the accommodations ahead of time even if you won't end up needing to use them. Whenever possible, I opted not to take advantage of my accommodations and save them for when I was really in need. Remember that the people who work in education at all levels want to see their students thriving. If you approach the appropriate offices with humility and a real sense of inquiry, the chances are higher that they will go up to bat for you if necessary. A positive attitude yields positive results.

5. Opt for online courses

Most universities offer graduate courses online. While it may not be possible to complete all of your classes virtually, taking just a few online courses may make things a bit easier.

On days you're not feeling well, it can be a relief to work from the comfort of your couch at the time of day when you feel your best. I tend to be a night owl and found that much of my best thinking happened after sunset. An added benefit was that I was able to schedule doctor's appointments and physical therapy sessions with no conflicts. Having a school schedule that makes daily life manageable is vital. 

6. Expect the unexpected

Living with chronic illness brings a particular inherent uncertainty. It can be challenging to know how you will feel next week or even tomorrow. I know someone who is debilitated by migraines that are triggered by specific weather changes. As much as one tries to plan ahead, it isn't always possible—some things are beyond control.

The key is to face whatever comes and take whatever steps are required to restore equilibrium as soon as possible. Sometimes, that may require calling on family, friends, or professionals for help. If you're too busy and under the weather to prepare meals, shop, or do laundry, consider who may assist you. Lining up potential help in advance can alleviate the stress of searching for it when you're not feeling well.

Graduate school can be exciting and at times, overwhelming. Knowing that you can conquer academic challenges while living with serious health challenges adds a level of confidence that no one can take away. Health—of lack thereof—doesn't have to limit academic success. Instead, overcoming obstacles better prepares you to succeed in every area of life.

One of the benefits of graduate study is knowing that you have accepted a challenge many choose not to embrace. As a result, not only does the scope of your preferred discipline expand, but the sense that you're capable of anything. 

Questions or feedback? Email

Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer who's currently finishing her Master's degree in Media Management. She is the co-founder and editor of Follow her on Twitter @laurenjonik.


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