Grad School in the Time of Corona

Pardon my French, but what a shit storm of a week it’s been.

The spread and severity of COVID-19 has taken many of us, as individuals and as institutions, by surprise. Here in the Heartland, far from the coasts where infection rates are higher, we thought we’d be insulated for a while. Spoiler alert: we were not. About 10 days ago, we were told that after Spring Break (this week), we’d be moving to online instruction for just two weeks, but staff would still come to work. On Tuesday the University mandated remote work for all non-essential (i.e. non-health care or research) personnel; on Wednesday Spring Break was extended a week, virtual instruction was extended for the rest of the semester, commencements were cancelled, and students were given 36 hours to get out of the dorms.

Of course, this head-spinning changing of plans—and the incessant pinging of new emails as a result—has been happening at schools across the country for weeks now. For undergraduates, especially those without a safety net, the confusion and panic of being kicked out of dorms is visceral. For those finishing a degree this Spring (like my husband), there is real mourning to be done over the cancellation of commencement. And for the rest of us graduate students—what happens now?

Do we push through, hunker down at our kitchen tables and immediately pound out chapter draft after chapter draft, speed-read all those dissertation sources we’ve never had the time for, now that we “have all this free time” and “don’t have any distractions”? Maybe that’s working out for some of you, but it sure as hell hasn’t worked for me.

Even though social distancing and working remotely should not have affected my routine in any major way on paper, the inability to work outside my home has had a significant impact mentally. As an able-bodied person, this is new for me. And I’m guessing it’s new for a lot of other healthy, able-bodied grad students, too.

The imperative to practice social distancing should not have affected my life or routine very much. I have become more and more introverted as I’ve aged; adopting a puppy last Fall put even more restrictions on my already limited social calendar. I already communicated with my closest friends primarily via text, phone call, or FaceTime. Basically, I don’t get out much. To be honest, when we had confirmed cases in our county but before the virus reached crisis level, I was kind of okay with having a built-in excuse to stay home for the next few weeks. But now that the danger is real and everything is shut down, now that I literally cannot go out, I find myself strangely wanting to. Add the realization that I’ll be spending my final few months in Iowa on lockdown, and you get the weird, anxious/depressed, lack-of-productivity soup that I’ve been swimming in all week.

And so I say this to all of you thesis- and dissertation-writing graduate students working from your couch today, because I need to hear it too: it’s okay to stop working and feel your feelings. It is important to grieve the freedoms that this pandemic has taken away and everything you will miss over the coming months. It is normal to be anxious and stressed about your health and that of your loved ones. It’s okay to stay in your pajamas all day and binge shows on Hulu and, you know, actually take a break this Spring Break. Because this is no ordinary Spring Break. This is a semi-quarantine brought on by a global health crisis.

You can’t wallow in your feelings forever, but you can’t skip right over them either. You have to sit with them for a while. The one luxury of being stuck at home is that unlike most of your time in graduate school, you actually have time to do that now.

I have spent a whopping 90 minutes on my dissertation this week. To be honest, most of my time not spent doing my assistantship work remotely has been spent knitting up a storm or snuggling with my puppy. At the beginning of the week I felt bad about “being unproductive” despite very few changes to my routine on paper. Now I realize that I needed this break.

Routines keep us sane, and it’s important during this time of isolation and uncertainty that we hold onto as many routines as we can. So next week it’s back to business for me, and I hope it will be for you too. I will get up and put on real clothes every day. I will sit at our desk or my kitchen table (anywhere but my bed, really) and spend a few hours getting shit done. I’ll get some fresh air, walk my dog (while keeping 6 feet from other humans), do some yoga. I’ll set myself a schedule for work, exercise, and relaxation, and I’ll do my best to stick to it.

Grad school is so hard on our physical and mental health as it is; let’s not let this pandemic make it even worse. I hope you will prioritize your mental health even as you try to get some work done. And for God’s sake, wash your damn hands.