The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted most people, and grad students have been no exception. Grad students juggle many roles and responsibilities that they’re finding increasingly difficult to manage during the pandemic. Here, grad students’ experiences during the pandemic have been highlighted. If you are a grad student reading this, I hope that this helps you know that you’re not alone in this. I also hope that this post can help faculty and staff members working closely with grad students identify major areas of concern for them and prompts ideas for how to address these concerns.
An online survey with 13 grad students and interviews with two grad students were conducted in the U.S. Participants’ responses are represented below:
Challenges faced during the pandemic: Summary of students’ responses
Some of the major challenges that grad students have faced during the past 15 months have been in:
- Maintaining a work-life balance: The psychological toll that the pandemic has exerted on graduate students has resulted in part, from the anxiety and stress that students have experienced and increasing pressures such as childcare, worrying about the health of family members, and not being able to meet friends and family. Such preoccupations have interfered with students’ abilities to maintain a healthy work-life balance. To add to this, a lack of a structured work environment, such as differences in people’s availability and work schedule, has hampered students’ abilities to balance work and other obligations.
- Participating in online interactions like video calls on Zoom and WebEx: Video chatting might be harder than face-to-face communications. In fact, one grad student reported that they felt fatigued during online classes and online meetings. What’s more, even virtual happy hours that are meant to be fun and relaxing can be anxiety-provoking because people make associations between using these online platforms and work meetings. This makes a supposedly fun activity like meeting a large group of friends using video calls feel like sitting through another work meeting.
- Time management: Some students reported having difficulties with setting boundaries between work and breaks, often working through lunch and dinner breaks. The variability in day-to-day schedules made some students less motivated to get started while others had trouble knowing when to stop working.
- Maintaining social relationships and networking with other professionals: Because of social distancing guidelines, many students currently feel socially isolated from their peers. Without the opportunity to spontaneously run into people while also trying to avoid Zoom fatigue, students’ experiences of being socially isolated has only been increasing.
- Staying updated on important information: With the inundation of information online, not being able to keep track of important information about milestones and other available opportunities has become another barrier to grad students’ success.
Struggles stratified by year in grad school
During the interviews, I noticed that although we tend to classify grad students as one homogenous group, their struggles tend to be vastly different based on their year in grad school. For example, many first-year to third-year students faced difficulties in connecting with other students. Some students, especially those in their first year who were enrolled during the pandemic, reported that the pandemic, and the isolation that it brings with it, hindered their ability to reach out to more experienced grad students for advice and support. Talking to more experienced graduate students about expectations regarding courses, theses, and other milestones plays a crucial role to graduate students’ success and this was impacted during the pandemic.
For students in their fourth year or above in grad school, having to change the trajectory of their research projects, especially for human experimental research, was a major barrier to success. In her interview, Stephanie, a sixthed-year PhD student, said that she had an approved dissertation proposal in early 2020. She planned to conduct her research on communication in children with developmental disabilities and for this, had planned visits to participants’ houses for primary data collection. Her planned studies involved comparing in-person learning with learning online and therefore, relied on a face-to-face research setting. Because Stephanie had collected data for only three participants at the time that the university closed in March 2020, she was apprehensive about what would happen next. Eventually, Stephanie had to “… start an entirely new dissertation, …go back to the proposal stage, and get a whole new committee…” She said, “It probably put me back two years.”
Helpful resources for coping during the pandemic
Even though the effects of the pandemic have been debilitating, many students have tried to cope with it using a myriad of techniques.
Some students reported that seeking psychotherapy or practicing yoga and meditation was helpful. Others provided examples of how practicing self-care, taking breaks when needed, and setting boundaries between work and relaxation were useful. Self-care could involve something as simple as drinking your favorite cup of tea in the morning. To avoid “Zoom fatigue”, and fatigue from seeing yourself on a video call, some students even suggested turning off your video camera.
In her interview, Stephanie recommended that for those who are wearing many hats, like being a primary caregiver while also being a graduate student, being honest and transparent about other responsibilities with your advisor and other teams that you’re working with might work in your favor. Stephanie does mention, however, that parenting as a graduate student is somewhat tabooed and suggested to disclose such information only if you feel comfortable doing so in that context.
As hard as it might be, many students agreed that reaching out to other students for support or creating group chats with students in their cohort made them feel more connected to others and facilitated meaningful social relationships.
On a more positive note, many students identified some changes that resulted from the pandemic that they would like to leave unchanged even when things are closer to “normalcy.” For one, students agreed about keeping shorter and less important meetings online instead of always having face-to-face meetings. Some students also suggested that allowing students to work from home on some days would save time on commute, and this can be especially helpful when students are primarily writing their thesis or dissertation. Having some conferences scheduled online was also seen as a preferable change because of it being accessible and easy on the pocket.
Importantly, at times like these, doing what’s best for you, even if it just involves “going through the motions” has been echoed in students’ responses.
I would like to sincerely thank the students who participated in the survey, Stephanie Baumann, and an anonymous student for being forthcoming and open to sharing their experiences. I would also like to thank Stylianos Syropoulos for sharing his research findings and insights into this topic.
June, A. W. (2021, January 26). How the Pandemic Put More Strain on Students Last Fall. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-the-pandemic-put-more-strain-on-students-last-fall
Troop, D. (2021, March 7). ‘Zoom Fatigue,’ Gratitude, and Purring Cats: A Peek at Life During the Pandemic. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/pandemic
Woolston, C. (2020). Signs of depression and anxiety soar among U.S. graduate students during pandemic. Nature, 585(7823), 147–148. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02439-6