Chronically Persistent: Surviving Postgraduate Study with a Chronic Illness

It is estimated that roughly 7% of 18-23-year-olds are currently living with a chronic illness. Msc Neuroscience student, Jasmine Belfiore, falls into that 7% as a sufferer of Lupus but she’s determined not to let it deter her from succeeding in her master’s. Here, Jasmine provides some words of advice for anyone else who finds themselves in a similar position…

A year before starting my MSc I was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (nothing good for those of you who don’t fancy looking it up) and ever since I’ve been faced with challenges I never considered before this became a part of my life.

I’m writing this because for the past year I’ve been looking for someone I can relate to, some living proof that it’s possible for me to not only finish but succeed in a master’s. For lack of any solid alternatives, I have decided that I am going to be that (just about) living proof.

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These are my tips on how to survive a postgraduate degree with a chronic illness:

  1. Speak up

As much as you might not want to admit you are struggling, I can’t stress enough how important it is to let people know what you’re going through. That includes supervisors, the Disability Advisory and Support Service (DASS), tutors and even friends. If you take one thing away from this; register with DASS as early as you can, the quicker they know the quicker they can help.

  1. Make your limits obvious

Having an active and ongoing discussion with your supervisors can make your time in academia so much more bearable. Most people will be very considerate, but it is difficult to accommodate for what they don’t know is happening.  Don’t feel embarrassed about applying for extensions or needing extra help. As someone who has had to read from a script during a group presentation, I understand how uncomfortable it can be – but I promise nobody thinks any less of you, despite what your instincts might say. These services are put in place to help you succeed, don’t let pride stand in the way of your goals.

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  1. Mental health is just as important as physical health

Do not underestimate the importance of the university counselling service. Often when your physical health is a concern your mental health can be neglected, but there are plenty of free university services and sessions to help. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Never forget that.

  1. Plan ahead

It’s quite difficult to plan when your condition fluctuates on a daily basis. Leave a couple of extra days to do things in your schedule so that you can feasibly take a day off when you need it and not worry. It’s not the end of the world if you ‘fall behind’ where you think you should be, but preparing for it will help put your mind at ease and not infringe on your next piece of work. One way you can help manage this is to do a little bit of work per day. Have an essay? Try writing 100 words a day. Literature review? Try reading a paper a day. You’ll find that on your good days you probably end up doing more than you think. Breaking things up into manageable amounts keeps stress low and keeps you on track. A planner or calendar can go a long way.

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  1. Go easy on yourself

It might take you a bit longer to do things than you’d like but that’s okay, don’t feel guilty about taking some time off. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wasted a day trying to work when I am physically unable to do so. Listen to your body.  If it says ‘I need a rest’ – let it.

  1. Limit what you do and don’t compare yourself to others

Your energy is finite. Learn how much you can handle and limit your university work and social life to what you can do.  It’s difficult in the beginning if like me chronic illness is a relatively new feature in your life or even if you’re just getting used to the workload associated with postgraduate study. Going from being constantly busy to doing a tiny bit of work when you can manage it is a big change. It’s okay to take some time getting used to it. Pushing yourself to keep up with others is tempting, but I assure you not worth it. When it comes to social life, your friends will understand that sometimes a movie night is more achievable than a night out.

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  1. Be persistent

Postgraduate study is hard, and that’s without the added difficulty of a chronic illness, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s important to constantly remind yourself that you are capable, and you have the resources necessary to succeed. It doesn’t matter how you get there, how many extensions you need, how many breaks you take, if and when you get there you will have deserved it just as much as everyone else.

If you’re looking for a sign you can do this, this is it.

Good luck!


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