You’re a Grad Student: You Shall Perform, Even When Sick.

My project is one of those studies where not coming into work is just not an option. I am looking at a phenomenon that requires me to make observations over time, and missing any of those time points introduces a serious gap in my data. Although it is a good project, there is one major flaw in the design: no back-up plan in case I get sick.

Call it lack of sleep, call is stress, or just bad luck, but starting in December I got sick. It went from cold to respiratory infection, and eventually I also got a flu. Basically, once I got sick once it went from bad to worse because I wasn’t able to take a break and just recover.

Not being willing to abandon my project midway through (and consequently start from scratch again once I got better), and with a looming abstract submission deadline hanging over my head, I kept plowing forward despite my physical miseries. This ultimately got me to the point where I was barely hanging on and just doing the minimum work required to keep my project on life-support.

To add insult to injury, I had to have a committee meeting recently. I had pushed it forward to the point where I just had to get it done or my department would be on my case. Having been sick on and off for over three months, it is needless to say the prep work for the committee meeting took quite the backseat to all my other lab work. I was exhausted and irritable, but managed to throw together a moderately interesting presentation for the occasion. I figured I would get through it, as it was “just a meeting”, as my supervisor said before he added, “you are in charge of where we go with the meeting.”

I was expecting some questions regarding my data, or my project design from my committee members. I expected a little chat about what directions to take the rest of the project into, and perhaps some recommendations. Little did I know it really wasn’t me who was in charge of the direction of the meeting, but rather that my supervisor took this opportunity to really challenge me.

I am a big believer in not making excuses for failing to meet my responsibilities. The reality is, however, that when you are physically miserable and drag yourself to work to sit in a hot room all day looking at fish, you cannot really bring yourself to reading a few papers between cleaning, cooking, and laundry as well. I salute anyone who does manage this, but it was just not me.

Needless to say my frustration started to rise once I realized I was being grilled on issues I was still unsure of, given that I also recently decided to abandon my initial PhD project proposal and start moving into an entirely new direction. A direction I was still pretty unfamiliar with. The matter got even worse when my boss asked questions about my colleage’s projects, and the results of these projects. Mind you, our lab is huge. I don’t keep track of what everyone is doing at all times, and when all grad students get together as a group for lunch, we definitely don’t feel like discussing our respective results. Big surprise, I had not read my colleage’s paper, which I didn’t even know existed, but as my supervisor made abundantly clear in front of the rest of my committee, I should have been finding out about said article on my own. Trying to salvage my image a little, I made a smart sounding statement regarding the drug concentration we expect to find in the blood of our subjects. My supervisor cut me off mid-sentence to ask me: “How do you know this.”

“You told me…” I replied. Feeling pretty silly.

“Yes, but how do WE know this?” He reiterated. “Danie, this is something you should know. It was published.”

“Well, someone must have studied it,” I exclaimed with all the built up frustration I had in me while punctuating my remark by throwing my hands in the air.

Realizing I had just done the equivalent of flipping my supervisor the scientific bird, I sat back quietly waiting for the storm.

Thankfully, the rest of my committee saw some humor in this. Yet, my supervisor now took the opportunity to advise me I need to take everything more seriously. I just wish I could, I am not just Danie the researcher, I am also Danie-who-is-responsible-for-a-million-other-things-and-sometimes-gets-sick. Just like most of us.

After my committee meeting disaster, I went home, took a shower, and set up a schedule for a thorough lit review. Starting within my own lab.


Danie is a senior graduate student in neuroscience at a large North American university. Over the years, Danie has lived through the perils of the dissertation process, and takes you behind the scenes to witness the real daily struggles (and celebrations) of today’s graduate students. If any of Danie’s experiences read like they are plagiarized from your own life, take solace: you’re not alone!


See Danie’s previous post:

Their Research is Sexier than Yours


7 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Eric

    wrote on May 6, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    My PI once told my I was looking "a little green" in a meeting- he then proceeded to create list of results he wanted to see by the end of the week…

  2. FedUp

    wrote on May 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    My PI did that too – only it wasn't him noticing something wrong, but I told him that I had some permanent health issue causing me problems. After a 5-min explanation there was silence for a bit – which he then broke by starting to list all the stuff I should do about my project :P

  3. Danie Rerio

    wrote on May 9, 2010 at 2:07 am

    I agree with Whizkid; I'd much rather hear I am not performing well enough before it actually 'goes public'… but heck.. I am just a grad student. Eric, hilarious story!

  4. Maintain Your Sanity With a Smile | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on November 30, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    […] You’re a Grad Student: You Shall Perform Even When Sick – nothing stops the results machine (aka, ‘you’) in your boss’ mind […]

  5. Guest

    wrote on April 17, 2012 at 2:55 am

    Waiting until a cold develops into flu is not a good idea. I always tell my coworkers: better lose several days than three months. Of course you feel guilty not coming to the lab because "it's just a cold", but you don't spread the disease, and when you're healthy at last, there's a good chance you won't be sick again until the next flu season. Believe me, I went though it and I saw people working themselves until they were continously ill. It's not an accident if your body tells you to stop.
    And vaccinate, guys.

  6. [email protected]

    wrote on April 17, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    It's also not a good idea to be the person who gets the entire lab sick. Beyond thinking of your own productivity, it's important to think about how your choice to go into work sick will affect the rest of your labmates — and if you're sick, you're not affecting them in a good way…

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