Valuing chronically ill graduate students

nsf_disability_removal

Many states issue “special wage certificates that allow employers to pay disabled workers according to productivity rather than hours worked.” Working under these rules, a disabled person can expect to make less than $4/hour. Some people think paying disabled people less is a good thing, as shown by this response when Maryland ended sub-minimum wages for disabled people:

If a worker is less productive, should they be paid less? This is not an abstract question for me.

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Managing Health on the Tenure Track

When I started my first year on the tenure track, I did so knowing that it would be challenging. Not only would I have the tenure process to worry about, but I also began teaching more than I ever had during my graduate school training. On top of these challenges, I live with a chronic autoimmune disease which can be unpredictable and flares under new and stressful conditions. It was a perfect storm and I knew that my health would suffer if I didn’t make it a priority.

Today I submitted grades for all of my writing classes, and I want to briefly reflect on what worked as I tried to take care of myself this year.

  1. Health Insurance! As I have mentioned in the past, benefits for full time faculty at CCs can be substantially better than other types of schools due to a strong union presence. This was the first time I had access to all the medical help I could want, and I took advantage. From taking care of my Vitamin D deficiency to getting referred to a dietician, this benefit was immensely helpful.
  2. I had a health coach. In the past couple of years, I have noticed an increase in the availability of life coaching, career coaching, or other kinds of guidance beyond a therapist/patient relationship. A friend of mine was beginning a coaching career and allowed me to work with her for a discounted rate as she earned her license. We talked on the phone twice a month about my goals and values alongside her speciality in mindfulness and meditation. These conversations became an opportunity for me to re-center my health as work demands constantly drew my focus.
  3. My chronic illness buddy. My very good friend suffers from an autoimmune disease similar to my own and we are working to create structure and support for each other even though we live far away. When doctors do not take our pain seriously, we take each other’s pain seriously. We have a Google Doc with updates on our health, procedures, and doctor visits as well as resources such as recipes and articles in the news.
  4. Rituals for Selfcare. From Adeline Koh’s line of Sabbatical Beauty to Rebecca Schuman’s 10-step Korean Skin Care Routine, to Sarah Ahmed’s Selfcare as Warfare this has been the year of academic women taking care of ourselves. My personal rituals include epsom salt baths with Ylang Ylang and lavender essential oils, watching The Americans while eating chocolate, and sleeping 9-10 hours per night.

What rituals, practices, and support networks do you turn to when health issues flare up?

Never A Fraud: Combating Imposter Phenomenon

As a disabled woman of color, I have had to jump many a personal and professional hurdle to gain admission into my current program. Even without a disability, being a matriculated graduate student is an accomplishment. However, sometimes I wonder if I have truly earned my place among my peers. The insecurity is confusing, and if that weren’t enough, the battle to internalize my achievements is exhausting and demoralizing. I feel like an imposter unworthy of the position I had worked for. Were my entrance essays that good? Did I get special consideration because I am a woman? Or maybe I was admitted because I had a disability?

This feeling is common enough to have a name: Imposter phenomenon. Continue reading

How to do a medical leave

I’m three-quarters of the way through medical leave. I’m going back to work soon and I feel ready, even though my health still isn’t perfect. I was anxious about going on leave and determined to make the most of it. Going on medical leave isn’t about going on a four-month vacation; it’s about getting better and learning to work around your illness (if it’s chronic) – and that takes work. Here’s my guide to making medical leave a success.

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Knowing when to stop

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. Continue reading

Doing a PhD in half the time

Today is the 255th day of the year and I have been sick for 110 of them. When I am well, I do work so cool, funding agencies throw money at me.* When I am sick, I am lucky if I am able to brush my teeth.** Being sick so often can be a wee bit depressing. Of course, Darwin was ill most of his life, but still managed to do some pretty important work. That’s inspiring – and comforting!

Less comforting is the overwhelming importance of “productivity” in academic science.

I love doing science and I’m good at it. But my illness takes away about 3 days every week, and I get less done than many of my peers because of it. I don’t know if my illness will improve, and I worry that  I won’t be able to compete for a job. Continue reading

Staying on the tenure track when you probably won’t get tenure

I was going to make my first post here a practical discussion of some of the challenges a chronic illness creates for someone on the tenure track, but that can wait a few weeks. This post is about how thwarted dreams don’t ruin your life, and how staying on the tenure track when you think you won’t make it to tenure can be a good decision.

When I was 13, I read Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. The next year I learned about botanists who worked for the Missouri Botanical Garden, travelling the world and finding new plants. I was already in love with all things photosynthesizing, but I was captivated by the idea of scrambling through rainforests and deserts to find ones no one I knew had ever seen. That was the only job I imagined myself in for many years. Continue reading