Whenever I brought up the possibility of dropping to half-time, my advisor shrugged and said something like “you’re still moving forward” or “you’re doing ok.”
But I wasn’t doing ok. I was too sick to work most days and my progress could only generously be called incremental. It was by no means satisfactory. As my program deadlines loomed, I became more and more concerned, but friends, colleagues, and my advisor just tried to be encouraging.
My advisor and committee wanted to know what they could do to help, but I couldn’t think of anything more they could do for me. So I went to my university’s disability services, explained the situation, and asked what kind of accommodations they could offer me. With little preamble, the disability advisor told to take a medical leave.
I left the meeting furious. Here I was, with a chronic medical condition, being told to take a medical leave! There’s no cure for my disease and it’s notoriously difficult to treat. I’m never going to get well, though I might get better. I felt like I was being shoved off, that instead of working with me, my university was trying to get rid of me.
But then I started thinking about the amount of time I was well enough to work. It wasn’t even close to half the time. By the time I’d taken care of basic chores, emails, and meetings every week, I was working only a few hours on research each week. Some weeks, I didn’t even get the basics taken care of, let alone tend to my own research. I’d also just spent 180-odd days of the last 365 in agonizing pain. I was an emotional wreck and having a hard time contemplating continuing my work in the midst of more days like that.
So I decided to take the medical leave and regroup. This wasn’t easy.
If I’d had more examples of successful students and professors who’d taken leave, my own decision wouldn’t have felt so scary. I only knew of one professor who’d gone on leave, and the gossip was not kind, a bit like Sarah Boon’s experience. Since going on leave, I’ve found that Sarah Boon, Elita Baldridge, and PhDisabled all have helpful things to say. One of the great things Elita’s done is to make a github repo with resources for sicko PhD students. Please add your own resources to the list or comments here!
I worry about being well enough to go back when my medical leave is up. I could theoretically extend it, but that’s not financially possible for me. Going back before I’m ready, though, could lead to missed deadlines, perhaps even failure.
I feel like students with chronic illness are often invisible and not presented with good solutions. This conversation (via @lines_of_flight), for example, on how long a PhD should take, should be allowed to take, completely ignores students whose health might slow things down. Universities should have more options than half-time and medical leave for students with disabilities/chronic illness, and I think medical leave needs some big improvements. Right now it has some pretty onerous requirements.
Get sick on schedule
Medical leave at my university must be 4 months long and correspond to a semester. It also can’t be taken retroactively. The timing of my realization that I needed a medical leave worked out with these requirements, but the inflexibility of starting and stopping leave is a huge problem. The flare-ups of chronic illness do not always follow a semester schedule. For students in research based programs, it doesn’t make sense to have this level of inflexibility around medical leave.
Not being able to take leave retroactively, combined with an injunction against working on your PhD project, means that you can fall quite far behind and are barred from professionally important activities. I lost almost 200 days last year to my illness, but I’m not allowed to “make up” any of those days on medical leave. I’ll be finished with leave in time for conference season, but I’m prohibited from submitting abstracts to any of those conferences because their abstract deadlines fall during my leave.
Be independently wealthy
When you go on leave, you’re required to pay a fee of several hundred dollars, your paycheck stops, and you sign forms swearing that you won’t do any work while on medical leave, related to your research or not.
This is the most classist piece of bullshit I’ve ever had to put my name to. What graduate student can afford 4 months with no pay? I’m making up the difference with some very generous help from my support network, my entire savings, and some small (and rule-breaking!) paid projects.If nothing goes terribly wrong, I’ll have about $300 to my name when I start back. I won’t have saved any money and the interest on my student loans will make me even more sick to my stomach than usual.
Some kinds of leave are paid, like maternity leave. Why is recovering from childbirth worth paying for, but not recovering from a broken hip or a lupus flare? I think graduate students on leave should get paid the base grad student salary for at least one term. Or (in my dreams), the government should guarantee an income to all people regardless of their ability to work.
I feel like I made the right decision going on medical leave. I need the luxury of prioritizing my health right now. But not getting paid for four months, having to “get better” by the end of four months or run out of money, and being forbidden from working on my project don’t help me.
How do you feel about colleagues who go on leave? Do you know about the leave requirements at your university and how they might harm your students and colleagues? Tell us about your experience if you’ve gone on medical leave. How do you think medical leave could be improved?