Three Lessons Learned about Graduate School from a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to our personal and professional lives. Among these, for students who started graduate school in the Fall 2019 semester, the pandemic has created a (somewhat unique) experience of an entire year of acclimating to graduate student life followed by a year of separation from mentors, cohorts, and departments. Going into my third year of graduate school, I can now confidently say that I have learned a number of valuable lessons that apply to the graduate school experience both pre- and mid-pandemic—though these lessons were particularly emphasized during the height of COVID-19.  Here I share three of them:

  1. Actively seeking support when needed is crucial to success. Learning to articulate needs and concerns is pivotal in graduate school—though that is certainly easier said than done. However, especially during a pandemic, it is important to get comfortable with reaching out to others for help. As a first-generation graduate student, this was arguably the hardest lesson to learn, because I assumed asking questions would shine the spotlight on the fact that I was clueless about academia altogether. Yet, getting the push from my mentor to speak openly about my needs and concerns helped me recognize the importance of verbalizing the areas where I needed extra support, especially when the shift to remote work undoubtedly made it harder to see the areas in which I was struggling. Moreover, while mentors should be a significant source of support for their graduate student mentees, one’s lab mates and cohort may also be helpful in this regard. Though COVID-19 has made it harder to stay connected to others in the department—and perhaps even the lab—other graduate students may prove to be invaluable sources of peer support during the doubly isolating experience of graduate school coupled with a world-wide pandemic. As such, reaching out to other graduate students for support may likewise prove beneficial.
  2. Maintaining relationships with friends and family is crucial to mental health. The maintenance of relationships outside of graduate school should remain a priority. This is one aspect of graduate school that may have been least affected by the pandemic, as many of us already moved out of state to start our graduate careers, thereby physically distancing ourselves from our loved ones. However, the methods we have used to continue to foster our relationships with friends and family pre-pandemic (e.g., video chats, weekly phone calls) should carry over throughout the pandemic—and perhaps be emphasized even moreso during this time. This is important for mental health both because it reinforces connections with loved ones and because it provides an opportunity to unwind from the daily stressors associated with graduate school by talking to someone whose life does not center around research, publications, or grants.
  3. Speaking of research, expect that milestones and plans for future studies can and will be altered or delayed. While I was one of the lucky ones who was able to stay on track with my graduate school timeline despite the challenges COVID-19 introduced to the academic environment, other students have faced many difficulties in following their graduate school trajectories as originally planned (e.g., having to take an extended leave of absence due to pandemic-related family matters or having to delay thesis or dissertation defenses due to halted Institutional Review Board processes or data collection). This is not to say that a change of course is an issue solely during the pandemic, however. Graduate school—and research more broadly—comes with many unknowns, including unexpected roadblocks that impact the way a study is executed, as well as changes in research interests or questions that may alter or otherwise extend the timeline of a given study. As such, having the ability to adapt to frequent and unexpected changes is a particularly important skill for graduate students to hone.

For those of us in the midst of our graduate school careers, the value in asking for help, maintaining connections to those inside and outside of academia, and acknowledging that research plans may unexpectedly change will remain long after the pandemic has dissipated. Therefore, as life slowly shifts back to a new post-pandemic normal, these lessons that the pandemic has made so visible remain important to keep in mind.

Anna D. Drozdova is a second-year doctoral student in the Legal Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her research interests center around social networks of justice-involved juveniles, and how such networks impact juvenile offenders’ engagement in problem behaviors (e.g., continued offending, substance use). Specifically, Anna is interested in exploring how the stability and structure of juvenile offenders’ peer networks affect their institutional misconduct during incarceration and their recidivism post-release. 

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