Being a Graduate Student During COVID-19

Conferences: Canceled

Fieldwork: Canceled

Research: Canceled

Internship: Canceled

Commencement: Canceled

Social Gatherings: Canceled

Online Classes: Full-Steam ahead…

*Sigh* When I wished for a relaxing spring semester, this is certainly not what I expected! I find myself practicing social distancing during a time when I would have been collaborating and working in the lab to prepare for an upcoming conference. Whether we like it or not, the novel coronavirus has changed the course of our academic landscape for the foreseeable future. Our universities have been shut down, and we’ve been told to not engage in research. Any resemblance of structure has now vanished, and it is driving some of us crazy (myself included).

I have to admit, while the change of pace can be nice, I’m incredibly disappointed and frustrated that I won’t have the opportunity to participate in upcoming events that I was really looking forward to. As of now, I’ve had two conferences canceled (I was chairing sessions and presenting papers at both of them), three of my in-lab projects have been postponed till further notice, most of my summer fieldwork has been shut down, I had to move my TA labs online, I won’t get to walk at commencement, and all the talks and events scheduled through my department have been canceled. I feel like I went from 100 to 0 in the blink of an eye. And now, I find myself struggling to make sense of what to do in this sudden void of academic structure. Scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, I do find some solace knowing that I’m not the only one struggling…

Thankfully, I have already completed my thesis defense and was not personally taking any classes, as I planned to work on all my remaining side projects and prepare any completed projects for publication. Following the advice of those already in their PhD programs, I wanted to tie up all my loose ends before starting in the fall. Those hopes have been completely dashed, at least for the spring and summer, thanks to the coronavirus. However, I count myself lucky as I see my fellow graduate students transitioning to taking challenging courses online, freaking out about canceled internships, and strategizing new data collection plans in the wake of canceled domestic and international travel. While we are each facing different struggles, we all are facing similar pains of social confinement and the desire for life to return to normal…. whenever that be…

So, while I sit outside in my Panic! At the Disco shirt, leggings, and fluffy llama slippers wrapped in a blanket (social isolation is not a time to be glamorous in my book), I felt the need to put to words my various takeaways from the pandemic. While graduate students may be feeling like they are drowning amid a global pandemic, know that you are not alone during this everchanging landscape. Hopefully, this will provide some form of support for students who are confused and hollowed with uncertainty. I don’t claim to provide any answers, just mere pointers and tips based on my own experiences (so far) and advice that I have been given. Thus, some wine-fueled guidance!

1. Don’t feel guilty for not focusing on your research! This is a crazy time, and everyone should be prioritizing their health and safety first. You are not expected to churn out grant proposals, articles, proposals, theses, etc. during this time. Sure, continue to work on your research, but don’t enslave yourself to your computer. You may be focused on caring for loved ones, trying to stay healthy, stuck at home with dodgy internet, balancing coursework, teaching online classes as a TA or instructor of record, and/ or caring for children. Yes, I’d love to work on publishing my thesis research or edit a chapter, but I’m doing my best to not put expectations or unrealistic deadlines on myself. Because while everyone keeps saying we are working from home, in reality, we are just trying to work during the middle of a crisis. The bottom line is: don’t expect your research to be your number one priority during a global pandemic. We are all human, and we all have a number of priorities that are on our metaphorical plate.

2. Communicate with your advisor/supervisor/PI about your realistic abilities and expectations during this pandemic! Engage in virtual communication to maintain a sense of structure. Game plan new academic paths and strategies now that research for the rest of the semester, and likely the summer, have been postponed. This is also a good time to let your advisor know how you’re doing and handling social distancing. While everyone has a different relationship with their advisor, don’t leave them in the dark about your current status and let them know what’s on your mind or troubling you. Personally, my current advisor has just been keeping in touch with me via text and has expressed that he has no expectations from me during this time, and my soon-to-be PhD advisor has expressed the same sentiments. While I’ve seen some graduate student horror stories on Facebook and Twitter, I implore you to put your physical and mental health first before running into the lab or overworking yourself per the request of your advisor. Whether via text, email, phone call, etc. professionally inform your advisor of your current situation and game plan for the future (and keep that plan flexible, because who knows how long this will affect academic work).

3. It’s 2020, use technology to hang-out with friends and family! Your mental health is of utmost importance (and something that graduate students struggle with constantly), so contacting your loved ones can put a positive spin on your day! Even though you are isolated in your home, video chat the people you care about to still gain a sense of human interaction without risking anyone’s physical health. I’ve video-chat with my group of friends at least once a week (with wine in my hand) to catch up and chat! I also make an effort to call or facetime my family several times a week to check and see if they’re hanging in there. Set up virtual coffee dates, game night hang-outs over zoom, organize a virtual happy hour, watch movies together on Netflix, etc. There are so many options for you to still gain social interaction without leaving your home. Personally, facetiming my loved ones has helped me battle cabin fever and keeps me from continually reading the news (I’ve started to limit the number of times I check in on the news per day…because I can only read “coronavirus” so much in one day).

4. Set-up a reasonable schedule to not go insane! Wake up in the morning, get dressed (even if it’s just a t-shirt and leggings), and have a routine for the day. Perhaps you will work on your research for two hours, then take a walk, read a book, do a craft (I have decided to dive into cross-stitching for some odd reason), make food, watch TV, talk on the phone with friends and family, you name it! While we don’t have a lot of control on the global situation besides staying at home and distancing ourselves from others, you CAN control what you are doing each day. Lower all your bars, but don’t lose focus on some sense of structure. Personally, I love structure and enjoy having something to do each day or something to look forward to and work on. While social isolation has removed a lot of the academic goals I’ve been working towards, I find comfort in waking up each day to an alarm, working on a craft for a few hours, answering emails, going outside for a walk, occasionally working on a paper or project, and making food. Even though it’s a completely different pace of life than what I had been doing, I haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater (IDK if that’s still a saying at all). On a side note: Don’t let someone on Facebook shame you for not achieving your highest potential or learning 5,000 new skills during social isolation. To quote High School Musical, we’re all in this together! And how you choose to spend your time in isolation is 100% OK. Focus on making yourself happy and staying healthy.

5. Still include your cancelled academic ventures on you CV! You put a lot of hard work into prepping your poster or paper or session for an upcoming conference, don’t let the coronavirus strip you of that hard work. If your work was accepted to a conference, it was still peer-reviewed and should be included on your CV. I have simply placed “(conference canceled)” at the end of the papers and posters I had planned to present. I’m also planning on re-submitting those sessions and papers next year (with any additional collected data over the next academic year). I’ve been dying to present the culmination of my thesis material, and while the conference was canceled, I plan on submitting it next year. The work you have accomplished is still important information to disseminate to your peers, don’t let COVID-19 hinder your research from being shared to your discipline.

6. Finally, search for the positive side in all this chaos. Yes, everything has been canceled for the foreseeable future. However, I now have the opportunity to social isolate with my fiancé (who also happens to be an archaeology graduate student and finds himself in the same boat) and engage in new things that I otherwise wouldn’t have tried. I’ve learned how to sew, made a beautiful needlepoint to hang in my new apartment, grew an herb garden, and have started a bullet journal. Yes, I’ve mildly engaged in academic activities, but I’m not pushing myself to perform at my academic peak. I’ve found that keeping to my own schedule and finding things to occupy my time has filled me with contentment that allows me to find the bright side during these trying times.

While the world is full of uncertainty, and our social media is a range of welcomed optimism and doomsday overreactions, focus on keeping yourself and others healthy and safe. Don’t push yourself past your limits and enjoy the change of pace to re-center on different pursuits that are within your own control. And if nothing in this post brought you solace or guidance or peace, just know that you are not alone. And be realistic in recognizing that some days are going to be a struggle. That’s just a byproduct of the complete upheaval of our perceived daily lives. But happiness is not lost either…it may just come to us in different ways and forms during these next few months.

Till next time,

Keep on swimming

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