The Importance of Health for Graduate School

Posted March 24, 2015 by Anya Vostinar in Graduate Life, Work/Life Balance / 2 Comments

We’re well into the season of prospective graduate students visiting graduate schools and trying to decide where to spend possibly the next five or more years of their lives working pretty darn hard doing something they hopefully love. There are a lot of things to consider when thinking about graduate schools and lists exist that are much more thorough than I could achieve, but one thing that many students probably don’t consider is health insurance (I know I didn’t).

Since graduate students are generally employed part-time as either research assistants or teaching assistants, you will likely have the option of getting health insurance through your employer, i.e. your university. For many graduate students, they’ll be approaching the years where they will no longer be able to be on their parents’ health insurance or it’ll be the first time they have an employer that provides health insurance. From my personal experience this adds up to health insurance not being anywhere near a consideration when students are considering schools.

Many prospective graduate students are in their 20’s or early 30’s and therefore likely to be in fairly good health. I have friends who have only gone to the campus clinic for the occasional flu shot and don’t even realize that at Michigan State University, graduate students get practically unlimited free clinic visits and a number of injections free.

Graduate school is an exceedingly stressful experience, however, making good health something that can slip away without you realizing it when the paper deadlines add up. Health problems (mental and physical) then of course have the effect of making pretty much everything harder, adding to the stress of keeping up with the unlimited amount of work, creating a pretty vicious feedback cycle.

Michigan State has health insurance for graduate students that is so good that I heard repeatedly in my first semester the rumor that the grad students had better health insurance than the professors (I find this highly unlikely to be true, but I never did check!). As I mentioned, grad students can go to the clinic to meet with a doctor for free as often as you could practically need. For specialist referrals, the copay is $10 with no deductible. The copay for prescriptions is $7.50 and often is less depending on the medication.

I know all of this because I have discovered the fun of trying to manage grad school and a disabling medical condition. I found out when I started at MSU that I had three bulging discs in my spine. It was the first time a doctor had taken my back pain seriously enough to send me for an MRI. I proceeded to try every option with an orthopedic specialist over the last three years, finally ending with surgery (just two weeks ago!) to remove the worst bulge that had progressed to pinching my sciatic nerve.

The surgery was laparoscopic with only a one-inch incision, so I was feeling remarkably better even just an hour after waking up without any painkillers. A week later and I can already see the devastating impact that my poor health had had on my graduate school experience. I had been wondering for a while why I wasn’t able to keep up the good study habits I had had in undergrad. I can now see that previously good study habits were due to my love of being productive and solving problems. That passion was stifled when my physical and emotional energy were being drained by pain and medication.

Homework that I was procrastinating starting before my surgery now sounds like fun. While I knew logically that pain and medication explained my tiredness, it didn’t make getting out of  bed after only eight hours of sleep any easier. Now I feel like I have insomnia because of how early I wake up feeling rested and ready to start the day. In short, taking care of your mental and physical health is essential to your productivity as a grad student. Having health insurance that makes it easy and affordable for you to take care of your health can therefore make a big difference in how successful your graduate school experience turns out.

As you or students you know are considering where to go to graduate school, I encourage you to ask current graduate students what they think of their health insurance options and be a bit worried if they give you only a knowing laugh in response! I suspect the same can be said for postdoc and faculty positions. In particular, try to find out about mental health coverage because it seems in my experience to be more variably covered and what graduate students are more at risk of needing help with.

Do you know your health insurance benefits at your university (or your prospective universities)? Do you know how they compare to other universities?

Good luck with your applications and decisions!

Anya Vostinar

I’m a doctoral student in Computer Science and Engineering and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior at Michigan State University. I am studying the evolution of various group dynamics such as altruism, cooperation, and mutualism using computational tools such as Avida and simulations. I love organizing outreach activities to bring local school children to BEACON as well as developing educational tools that take advantage of technology.

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