Handling a Chronic Illness in Grad School

I’ve sent out applications to three of the four schools I’m applying to for graduate school and have begun a dialogue with potential major professors.  I feel pretty optimistic about getting into grad school.  I’m a smart cookie and I did some pretty cool research as an undergraduate.

One of the things I haven’t brought up in my correspondence with potential advisors is that I have migraines. A lot of migraines. I used to have them almost constantly, but I was able to cut them down to about 20-30 hours a week after identifying some controllable triggers.

As an undergraduate with classes that weren’t especially challenging and teachers that didn’t mind letting me make up tests, migraines didn’t really hurt anything other than my head. I did really well and accomplished a lot in and out of my classes: I obtained more than $40,000 to support my research and club projects, I’ve presented at lots of national and regional meetings, and I’ve taught myself the ins and outs of data management and two programming languages. The flexibility and support of the people and organizations I worked with made it so that my migraines weren’t that much of an issue.

But I’m really worried about grad school. What will I do when I need to teach classes?  Or have committee meetings?  Or just have to deal with a heavier workload?

There are places I can live where my migraines will be less severe, but I think one migraine a week is the best I can hope for.  And I won’t know for sure until I’ve lived in a place for a few months.

I’ve asked you all about this before, and I’ve really appreciated Lady Quantum‘s insights.  But I haven’t got a lot of feedback from real live professors with graduate students.  I’d hoped Dr. Isis could answer some of my questions, or at least get me some answers from more professors. However, about the time I emailed her, the universe tried to kill her. So I’m trying again here.

My field isn’t quite as intense as biomed, but people still have to work hard and get a lot done in a short amount of time.  At what point in the application process should I bring up my health? Would you consider taking on a student with a chronic illness that would certainly impact their productivity?  Under what conditions?  If you’re an advisor with a sick grad student, what do you wish the student did differently?  If you know a student with a chronic illness (or are one) – what are some good coping strategies?


  1. This is relevant to my interests, although my situation is more along the line of chronic anxiety/panic disorders. I’ve been able to survive my master’s program, but I’m trying to get into a much rougher doctoral program and I’m pretty concerned about it (agoraphobia kinda gets in the way of conference travel and I’m terrified of bringing that up with potential PIs). I’ll be watching the comments, thanks for posting this.

  2. As someone who used to take grad students, I find your question a difficult and interesting one. I think the kind of chronic illness affects the answer; for example, for some chronic illnesses that have a predictable course, accommodations can be made so that life–and research and teaching–can be made more predictable, as well. But your chronic illness is intractable and unpredictable migraines. Were I still in the business of taking grad students, I’d take you because I, too, have an unpredictable, chronic illness (migraines are involved) and have proven that I can be productive in the midst of it. Teaching can be an issue because you’ll put out students and others if you can’t make it, so one accommodation might be that your assistantship is of the research, rather than teaching, variety, or that it is an assistantship that involves flexible virtual office hours as well as in-person ones, and you only attend lectures that someone else conducts, as an assistant.

    Have you worked with mentors who can attest to your ability to produce in spite of the migraines? It might be better coming via a rec letter from a current mentor/advisor who (a) knows your condition and (b) also knows how well you’re doing in spite of it. Depending on the target school, you might even be able to work it into your application essay as an obstacle you’ve overcome again and again and will continue to overcome and work out the details of accommodations later.

    I’m also wondering if you can get some kind of Section 504 waiver for what obviously amounts to a disability. If you do that, you likely don’t need to mention the migraines at all, and the school will need to accommodate you once you’ve matriculated. That wouldn’t be entirely cool with a potential advisor though, so see above.

    Short of finding potential advisors who also have intractable migraines, those are the ideas I have.

    • sarcozona says:

      To get support from Disability Services at whatever university I go to, I’ll need to be under the care of a neurologist. I haven’t been able to afford to see a neurologist for several years now, but grad school should come with health insurance. Between getting in with a neurologist and the mountains of paperwork, I probably won’t be able to get support from Disability Services the first semester. But it’s a good option after that.

      I was able to address my migraines a bit in some of my grad apps – especially the ones that asked for a personal history essay in addition to a research interests essay. And my rec writers did tell me that they talked about it as something I deal with successfully – I was far more productive than most other undergraduates even with migraines. Of course, my classmates in grad school will not be like most undergraduates.

      The funding is definitely tricky. Research assistantships are more coveted than teaching assistantships, and I’d hate for other graduate students in my lab to resent me for getting the good money because I’m sick. I’ve applied for an NSF graduate research fellowship, but the chances of that are slim. I’m on the lookout for other kinds of external funding.

      I would like to get some teaching experience while in graduate school, so an assistantship that involves flexible virtual office hours as well as in-person ones, and you only attend lectures that someone else conducts, as an assistant sounds like a good option for me. I'd also be willing to take on a larger role than expected of most grad students mentoring undergrads in whatever lab I end up in.

  3. Also, I’m a huge Trollope fan and love that you have The Way We Live Now on your shelf. He shreds his people in that one.

  4. I’m at the other end of the pipeline (retired) but I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just as I finished the classwork for my PhD (geophysics.) This was 40 years ago, and I just kept slogging on with my dissertation. The unpredictability of migraines could be a problem, especially if you are thinking of going into a university job after graduation. But I’d say the key is getting an advisor who is willing to work with you on choosing a topic that your migraines are compatible with.
    P.S., I’m on Goodreads, too. Taking up writing in my retirement.

  5. Clarissa says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post ever since I first read it a while ago. At first, I wanted to suggest that you share this with your future thesis director. Then, I remembered my own thesis director and the departmental chair, and I realized that I would have never mentioned my autism to them. It wouldn’t have helped to hear endless jokes and comments about it. The sad truth is that not all departments are filled with kind, helpful people. There are tons of jerks in academia.

    What I think you need to do is find some support from people you trust and like. In terms of teaching, friends from your cohort who know this might happen can be asked to substitute for you in class at a moment’s notice. A network of support from your peers is definitely something that can be helpful.

    I’ll think some more about it and see if I come up with anything better.

  6. Brazilian* says:

    Sorry, I don’t feel comfortable identifying myself.

    I only discovered my daily afternoon headaches were an issue when I commented it with a classmate, when I had 20 years old. I was then diagnosed with migraines and could finish my both my undergraduate courses and traineeship without many problems. Then I came to do a master course in Japan with 26.

    On the beggining my migraines disappeared. The cold and cool weather were preventing migraines. I felt extremely excited about that. But summer came and I realized the humidity and longer ours of sun light would be a torture, even worse then life in equator. Together with the fact that finding an English speaking neurologist in Japan was hard and demanding. I had a heavy load of japanese classes, homework, laboratory work. It was hard. The profilatic medicine helps a little bit, but makes my blood pressure goes around 9/5 instead of common 11/7. I always feel tired and any phi social activity is a challenge, but at least now I only have two migraines per week and not very intense, before they used to last days. How can you explain to your professor 7 days of continuous absence?! And when the medicine makes you so numb you end up as useless as before?

    My whole life turned into a mess. Finding the best treatment takes times and I even needed to change sometimes. Some medicines will make you feel tired, sleepy, gain weight. The treatment itself can be as hard as the migraine.

    I managed to finish my master. My research was very irrelevant, my thesis has only 25 pages. I became depressed and didn’t really feel like I learnd anything at all. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if I was in a supportive environment, but working and studying a very rigid company and university didn’t help.

    I’m leaving Japan and going back to brazil. I haven’t applied to jobs or PhD yet, I don’t feel confident to do anything anymore. I have even given up 3 international trips, after paying for everything. Activities that gave me pleasure don’t excit me anymore. I’m back with my previous relationship, but I’m afraid how the person will react once finding out how changed I am.

    The advice I give you: find a neurologist you trust and try a profilatic medicine that suits you best. Let your advisor know you have migraines. Maybe just tell it after some contacts, make simple questions like what is the flexibility for health treatments and if there are neurologists nearby.

    Don’t let it get out of hand like I did. Graduate school is already hard enough for healthy students. And migraines don’t come alone, it brings depression, social impairment, anger, insomina, tiredness. 6 months have passed after my life was turnt upside down and I’m still far from recovery.

    Take care.


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