Ask for Help: Graduate Students’ Tips for Navigating COVID and Transforming Research

Sept. 14, 2020

Dear Graduate Students,

Last month we asked graduate students about their recent research and writing experiences in order to gain a better understanding of how students are managing during the pandemic. Twelve doctoral students shared their recent experiences with us. They had many excellent suggestions, but the point that continually emerged was that there are people who are willing to help navigate this new environment – but that often you have to ask for help.

The pandemic has created the challenge of completing the same work in a radically changed environment. While everyone’s situation is unique, we hope that hearing the top three challenges and suggestions from your colleagues highlights one certainty; you are not alone.


What has been the most challenging obstacle that you have encountered while writing and/or conducting research during the pandemic?

1) Establishing a working environment at home.

A second-year PhD student from Clinical Translational Science commented, “The most challenging obstacle was. . . parenting and homeschooling in parallel besides having to do my own coursework in a small home environment.” Managing distractions at home can be especially tough. As a fifth-year doctoral student noted these “include domestic things like pets, children, family, the news, housework, etc.”

2) Financial hardship.

A student in the School of Anthropology shared, “I had a number of unexpected expenses. . . I have had to devote considerable time and energy to finding alternative means of making money to cover my rent and other expenses. I'm spread very thin right now.” Budget cuts along with additional costs imposed by the pandemic have put financial pressure on graduate students.

3) Inability to collect data.

A doctoral student in history described who had planned to do archival research explained that they now must depend on the materials that are online. Joanna E. Sanchez-Avila, a sixth year PhD student in English, had planned to do in-person interviews for one of her dissertation chapters. She is now working on alternate ways to gather information. She will work with materials available online and “at minimum, conduct phone or tele-conference interviews to supplement my analysis.” The unpredictability of research settings has required graduate students to gather information in new ways and even caused some students to reimagine their projects.

Joanna E. Sanchez-Avila, 6th year PhD student in English

Joanna E. Sanchez-Avila, 6th year PhD student in English


What is one major way that you have addressed this challenge?

1) Transforming approaches to research

Doctoral students are transforming their approaches to conducting research by working closely with their advisors to find alternative solutions. Many have shifted their data collection techniques from field work to online analyses. When one study reaches a standstill, students are also refocusing their energies on developing and wrapping-up other projects. For instance, Gitanjali Gnanadesikan, a fourth year PhD candidate in the School of Anthropology, explained she has, “spent more time working on getting articles published and meeting virtually with collaborators.”

Gitanjali Gnanadesikan, 4th year PhD candidate in the School of Anthropology

Gitanjali Gnanadesikan, 4th year PhD candidate in the School of Anthropology

2) Connecting with peers

A fifth-year doctoral student in Planetary Science commented, “The most important meetings have become those with writing support groups or with small groups of close collaborators.” The theme of connection ran through most responses. Santiago Castiello is in his fifth year of the Higher Education program and discussed how meaningful it has been to be a part of a supportive community. “Even while everyone in the world has their own struggles right now, we all need to be in community. We all share very hard and important (but different) challenges…so talking it out helps.”

One way to connect with peers is to share goals with friends or colleagues. Alexander Prescott from Geosciences suggests students, “Set small and achievable goals and ask a friend or family member to check-in with you regarding your progress; someone who you know will celebrate your accomplishments and cheer you up when you feel down for not completing your goals.” This technique, though simple, is surprisingly helpful.

Santiago Castiello, 5th year PhD student in Educational Policy Studies and Practices

Santiago Castiello, 5th year PhD student in Educational Policy Studies and Practices

3) Establishing a routine

A student completing the last year of her PhD in Higher Education and described how sharing house and childcare responsibilities with her spouse has been helpful for finding time and space to write. Another strategy that students have been utilizing to create a productive workspace has been to identify what is distracting in their home and reflecting upon how to manage those interruptions. Luisa Rojas, a third-year doctoral student in Child Health, suggested watching the news only at night, not during the day.

In order to create a working routine, Gitanjali advised students to “Find the times of the day and week when you are most focused and motivated, and schedule your most demanding "brain work" then…Then fill the other times with the smaller, less demanding, and often less important (even if urgent) tasks. And then take a break (or many small breaks) and don't feel guilty about it. I've had to be a lot more intentional about breaks during the pandemic, and one of my favorite strategies while I was writing my comps was taking frequent 5-10 minute breaks to make some tea, stretch, or play piano.”


What advice would you offer students who are writing and researching in the pandemic?

1) Reach out for support and be support

A fifth-year PhD student in Planetary Science stated, “When you get stuck, reach out to get help. This can be as simple as dropping a note into Skype or Slack, or a short email. Reach out to your advisor, fellow grad students, or a mentor. Share your struggles. It's surprising who thinks they are going through this alone. We are all struggling in different ways…we can help each other by being compassionate and patient.” Another student said, “Do not be desperate, search for alternatives and ALWAYS ask for help.” Help may not come from the first person you ask, or even the second, but with a little persistence, you can find someone to support you.

Santiago detailed, “In a time of physical isolation, find a way to create a community that will support you and keep each other accountable. Participating in the virtual writing group or creating one.” Many students who contributed to the survey participate in the Graduate Center Writing Efficiency Groups for writing support.

2) Practice compassion towards yourself and others.

Joanna suggested, “Have patience with yourself and your advisors! Surrender to the things that are out of your control and imagine other possibilities.” Similarly, Kelsey Hanson reassured students that perfection is not possible, but finding peace in imperfection is worthwhile, “Be kind to yourself. There are going to be lots of days where you can't get any work done at all, and that's OK. We're all struggling. Do what you can, when you can, with what you have.

Thank you to the 12 doctoral students, who took time out of their responsibilities to provide us with a closer insight into graduate students’ realities. We look forward to sharing resources and being a part of your professional community as our institution and our world adapts to the changing situation around us.

By Alex Kemp and Shelley Hawthorne Smith


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