An ABGG Student’s Perspective On Starting Graduate School During a Global Pandemic

Three years ago, I was meeting with graduate students and potential graduate advisors, hopeful and excited about the years to come. A few months later, I submitted applications and the prospects of fulfilling my goals seemed just within arm’s reach.

Then, a global pandemic happened.

Looking back at the events of the last two years, some people may be able to identify a singular moment when they realized things were never going to be the same. For me, it was winter quarter finals week of 2020, the penultimate quarter before graduating, when all my professors canceled finals and said we wouldn’t be returning to campus for some time. What followed is what I’m sure was a shared experience among many of my undergraduate peers: a confusing and disorienting period of time. Then, in the midst of it, I had to make a decision about graduate school.

“Should I go to grad school?” is a difficult question for most students under normal circumstances. A global pandemic added to the list of concerns makes this question even harder to answer. A few of the major factors when considering graduate school are further exacerbated by COVID-19’s presence. Moving across the country is suddenly harder when taking into account you may end up in quarantine, all alone with no support system nearby. Studies show that loneliness and isolation show increase the risk of psychological distress, depression, and anxiety, and adverse psychiatric symptoms [1, 2]. Additionally, research says that individuals who have an adequate support system and healthy coping skills are less likely to be stressed during times of hardship [3, 4]. Collectively, this may be worrisome to those going to a new place or already struggling with mental health.

The psychological effects of relocating and the possibility of quarantining are not the only concerns in the middle of the pandemic; sometimes the external repercussion of moving may weigh on one’s mind. Moving away from family members who are at higher risk if they contracted the virus further complicates the decision to pack up and leave. The substantial financial worries that accompany pursing higher education worsen if a supporting spouse’s job security is threatened, or if someone falls ill and healthcare costs are too high. It was these concerns and more that made me take a hard look at my priorities, and options, and make a decision that was right for me. For many people I know, this decision was to take a gap year. For others, it was to continue on and enroll in grad school. Experts say that in times of economic uncertainty, applications for graduate programs increase in number, with many feeling pushed into higher education due to an unstable job market. Furthermore, in combination with the growing attention toward the inequity in society as well as academia, it’s possible that individuals felt a certain momentum to begin their journey into graduate school. For Alice Michel, a fellow second-year PhD student in the Animal Behavior program, the choice was simple. She said that her decision not to take a gap year was based on having, “…something new to look forward to, even though I knew it wouldn’t be a typical start to a PhD.”

Then there’s the question of where to go to school. For some, the choice of staying close to family is essential. For others, it’s evaluation of a school’s response to COVID. With no guidelines in place on how to handle a pandemic, many schools did so in their own ways. And while there is no single correct approach, for some it’s important that a school’s policy reflects their own values and is in accordance with what feels safe and comfortable. Questions like “does a school show support for staff and students during this time?”, and “how will they accommodate an online platform?” were then (and now are) crucially important to consider.

That summer, instead of walking across a stage, I closed my laptop after submitting my last final, and my mom gave me a pat on the back. Rather than spending my only summer not in school at Disneyland and traveling like I’d planned, I stayed inside sewing homemade masks and read a lot of books. My lab and program’s annual camping trips were canceled, replaced with fun alternatives that still left me wishing I could connect more with my peers. To this day, years later, the most I’ve seen of my lab mates has been small windows on a zoom screen. It’s not to say no one has been trying. In fact, many of us  wish we could connect more beyond distanced hellos and zoom chats. Kirsten Sheehy, now a second-year PhD student in the Animal Behavior program, says “I was very lucky to have two amazing housemates who fulfilled a lot of my social needs this year. However, as things are starting to open up, I am feeling how disconnected I am. It feels hard to break into some of the social circles of older grad students despite being here for a full year. I’m excited to have the opportunity to just eat lunch with folks on campus. I really miss those casual, happenstance connections that you get from bumping into people in the hallways.”

Though the lost class of 2020 did not get to walk across a stage, we were given the opportunity to participant in an online digital yearbook that allows us to share campus memories.

After all the big decisions were made, many, including myself, were found thrown into the mix. Starting grad school itself is a major change that comes with adapting to a new lifestyle. Couple that with the unfamiliar territory of dealing with a global pandemic and it was enough to make a lot of our heads spin. The usual get-togethers were replaced with zoom happy hours and the occasional movie night. The rest of the world found itself on hold, and academia was no exception. For Kirsten and me, that was the reality of starting up a new lab. Kirsten states that construction of her new lab was delayed due to personnel restrictions, and she’s worried about how that will impact her long-term goals. Similarly, my lab was beginning our venture into a new study system which came with its own COVID-related delays. Our consultant who planned to help set up tanks came down with a fever and was not able to travel. Manufacturers of our hormone assay kits were on leave, and we couldn’t obtain supplies to run certain experiments. Trainings became a back-and-forth email chain since no one was allowed in a room together. I’m grateful that things have picked up, but many of us are left wondering how these two years have impacted the trajectory of our careers. A recent NSF funded study asked over 4,000 graduate students from over 11 institutions across the U.S about their experiences with the pandemic, and their findings are quite telling. One out of four graduate students said they expect it will take longer to complete their degrees. Most reported they might need another six months to even a year. Fourteen percent were unsure if they’d need to adjust their degree timeline.

People have their own reasons for going to graduate school, and when applying many ask themselves, “what do I hope to get out of grad school?” For many, it’s the opportunity to make connections with people. Building networks is obviously easier in person (though is networking ever easy?) than online; simply being in the same room with peers and colleagues facilitates forming connections and being in a pandemic makes such relationships difficult to come by. Hee Jin Chung, another second-year PhD student in the Animal Behavior program expresses that if it weren’t for the pandemic there would be more chances to get to know her department members and graduate group. Alice echoes this sentiment saying, “The lack of interaction, with professors and other students alike, makes it harder to learn about everyone’s work, to find opportunities for collaboration, and to figure out who will be on my committee. I also probably missed out on some of that inspirational academic atmosphere.” Some have found subtle ways to connect and with vaccination boosters readily available, hopes are high for what the future has in store.  

My first interaction with the whole graduate group was via zoom. It was a great way to start the year and learn everyone’s names and faces!

To further add to this, another thing people may expect to “get out” of their time in graduate school is field experience, and undoubtedly the plans of some students, first-year or otherwise, to travel and collaborate have been put on hold. Even long term programs and projects have found data collection halted, potentially effecting conservation efforts. The NSF study mentioned earlier found that 17% of graduate students said their career plans had changed since the pandemic began, perhaps a side effect of not getting to experience all they’d hoped to or needing to pivot planned research in the face of travel restrictions or other challenges.

Not everything about these past two years was disheartening though, and I know I’m not alone in saying I don’t regret my choice of moving forward with graduate school during a pandemic. Despite Zoom challenges, we have all managed to bond, perhaps greatly over our shared adversity. Many of us have made progress in our research and have found unique ways to connect with our peers and faculty.

The ABGG 3rd years put together a fun scavenger hunt for this year’s retreat; pictured here (left to right) is 1st year JP Calcitrai, 6th year Blair Downey, 2nd year Alice Michel, and me, Sabrina Mederos, 2nd year.

So, what can a new graduate student do in times of great stress?

The first tip seems like kind of a no-brainer, but in actuality is tough for many students to do, especially new graduate students: talk to people, and be honest about how you feel and the support you need. It’s okay to grieve what you didn’t get to do, and it’s okay to feel like you’re behind or struggling. Many campuses have resources to help students either get back on track academically or provide mental health support. Sometimes it’s just about finding these resources and feeling safe enough to ask for help. If you’re a mentor or faculty person reading this: be supportive and create a space where students feel they are able to ask for help and be honest about how they are feeling. One student from the NSF funded study wrote, “I feel like I have no support from my adviser or institution. The graduate-school culture feels so toxic that even my peers and I have trouble admitting to each other that we are struggling with productivity because there is so much guilt and anxiety.” By creating an environment that feels safe and accepting as both peers and faculty, others will start to be honest with their struggles and hopefully get the help they need to thrive.

The second tip is universally relevant to students (grad or undergrad) anytime, but especially in the time of working from home: set small goals and reward yourself for getting them done. It is important to recognize that these are (as every email and newsletter has put it) “unprecedented” times, and your productivity is likely not at its peak. That’s okay. Setting daily goals has helped me make my day as productive as possible and feel good about myself once they’re checked off. Big goals that seem insurmountable could instead be turned into small goals for each day that can be crossed off your list. Things like reading that new article, finishing the intro of your paper, or scoring a few videos. Setting and completing these smaller, more manageable goals that can feasibly be tackled in a day can help you stay on track. What you want to avoid is falling victim to productivity shaming. Academia often supports a “grind until you make it” mindset that leaves students burned out and feeling inadequate. For many of us sheltering at home, our minds were often preoccupied, and it was difficult to feel like we were doing “enough.” Because of this, it’s important to not only schedule your work but also your rest. Developing a system that helps you decide when you have done enough for the day and can walk away feeling content will help you avoid burnout in the long run. Scheduling when to work and when to relax can help manage a healthy work-life balance even while stuck at home. Though things seem to be ramping back up, the virus is still a very real and dangerous threat. To those incoming new graduate students, they might share the same sentiments about how the previous year has been, but hopefully this year they accomplish all they have set out to do. Grad school is hard but navigating life through a global pandemic is harder, so be kind to yourself.

Sabrina (she/her) is a 2nd year Ph.D student in the Animal Behavior program. She is in Dr. Bales’ lab where she studies the neurobiology and epigenetics of pair bond formation and maintenance in seahorses and prairie voles. She currently is interested in the behaviors that are involved in pair bonding and what underlying mechanisms drive this interesting and uncommon mating strategy. When she’s not in the lab, she loves fostering kittens, hiking, and playing video games. 

[1] Rauschenberg, C., Schick, A., Hirjak, D., Seidler, A., Paetzold, I., Apfelbacher, C., … Reininghaus, U. (2021). Evidence Synthesis of Digital Interventions to Mitigate the Negative Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Public Mental Health: Rapid Meta-review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 23(3), e23365.

[2] Loades, M. E., Chatburn, E., Higson-Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., … Crawley, E. (2020). Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 59(11), 1218–1239.

[3] Tan, J., Ai, Y., Wen, X., Wu, Y., & Wang, W. (2016). Relationship Between Shyness and Loneliness Among Chinese Adolescents: Social Support As Mediator. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 44(2), 201–208.

[4] Stark, A. M., White, A. E., Rotter, N. S., & Basu, A. (2020). Shifting from survival to supporting resilience in children and families in the COVID-19 pandemic: Lessons for informing U.S. mental health priorities. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1).

[Edited by Allison Lau and Jessica Schaefer]

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