Ten Graduate Students on the Impacts and Challenges of the Ongoing Pandemics, and What They’ve Learned
Jaboa Lake, Portland State University
The ongoing health, environmental, and economic crises and the confrontations of long histories of systemic and persistent oppressions have impacted students globally. Graduate students, who already disproportionately face growing mental health crises with few financial or other resources and support, have been impacted in numerous ways. SPSSI’s graduate students share some of the challenges and lessons learned during the ongoing pandemics.
How have the pandemics impacted you as a graduate student?
Brittany Torrez (BT): The pandemic has disrupted my motivation as a graduate student. Academia is already so solitary and the pandemic has made it more difficult to connect with the friends and family in my life that keep me going.
Zeinab A. Hachem (ZAH): The pandemic has impacted my productivity as a graduate student. Working from home has always been a challenge for me and having no choice but to work and try to be productive in a space I have long considered a space to unwind and relax has been a considerable challenge.
Chelsey Clark (CC): Because of the pandemic, I now live in my childhood home with my parents. Here, I do not have a quiet workspace, and I have very few opportunities a week to work without interruption. My work has slowed tremendously, and I worry about my ability to take and pass my general exam this year.
Kayla Storm (KS): The ongoing pandemics have had a relatively minor impact on me as a graduate student, which is an enormous privilege. My university is in a smaller Midwest town and my program is also quite small, which may be part of the reason that my life has not changed drastically. I am fortunate to still be able to attend classes, teach, see clients, and afford the things I need.
Kimberly Martin (KM): I have had to reckon with the privilege and prejudice that I am experiencing during this time. I have been meditating on my own intersecting identities as an academic who can safely do research from home and a Black woman doing research on racial inequality.
Quinnehtukqut McLamore (QM): The pandemic has had a mixed effect on my work as a graduate student. It's launched a lot of some of my best work, and I’ve been awarded more than a few small grants. I've been confined to my room and have used the time to myself to think and reflect on my writing. In terms of actual graduate school milestones and general wellbeing, it's been a disaster: my income and pay are hilariously unstable, administrative plans and revisions have placed graduate student livelihoods on a knife's edge, I have not had time to finish my comps, and I am in meetings almost six hours every day. That the pandemic has created living conditions which are not conducive to getting anything done, and a crisis a day wears upon you. Every single day, someone I know loses a loved one. And that—that right there, is the biggest impact it's had on me as a graduate student.
Ashley Weinberg (AW): I have felt both more out of control and in control of my life. In many ways, the lack of structure has been difficult for me. I am constantly pulling from my small well of self-control to be self-disciplined. On the other hand, I have finally had the time to try and prioritize parts of my home life and hobbies that I feel I had previously neglected, and this has provided me a renewed sense of control.
Maya Godbole (MG): The pandemics have changed the way that I view my own work. We have a unique opportunity to use psychological theory to inform, create, and communicate, actionable knowledge—and in doing so, to engage with community members, explore new methods, and collaborate across disciplines. The pandemics have highlighted the urgency of some of the most important issues of our time—from addressing systemic racism to engaging people in climate action—and I believe we as psychologists-in-training have tools to help address them.
Gerald Higginbotham (GH): Not unique to me, but definitely the pandemic has added to the already socially isolating experience of a Ph.D. program. Given the additional weight of having to contend with many Americans starting to realize the full weight of race on the lives of Black people, and being reminded that America doesn't really value Black life that much, I've had to be intentional about staying connected with loved ones and friends in safe ways and finding more virtual spaces to work with others to get my academic work done.
Da’Quallon Smith (DS): Except for a few international affairs—like what is, in my opinion, a blatant abolishment of Hong Kong’s liberty and independence by the Chinese Communist Party—the pandemics feel like just another day. The health, racial, and economic disparity that has fueled the current pandemics has perpetually been my everyday life. What is abnormal and impacting me is the amount of attention these issues are receiving. Some days are great, and I feel like the door will be open to make progress for people from backgrounds such as my own, and other days I feel like it’s a fad that will fade with time. Traditional media has become a constant reminder of the negative aspects endured in my life. I have come to appreciate my social media as there are continuous examples of Black excellence and achievement in light of unfortunate events surrounding the pandemics.
What have you learned from the impacts of the pandemics that has changed your life as a graduate student?
KM: I have learned more deeply how the community pain that I feel and the community support that I receive fuels my research. This time has magnified the topics I study as a graduate student: racial prejudice, inequity, and health. It has also intensified my dedication to fight these injustices using social psychological science.
CC: This pandemic has taught me the importance of living in a community of people with whom I identify outside of my work. My mental health has improved noticeably since moving back home, and when/if the pandemic ends, I plan to move out of my University town to a place with more people of color.
BT: The pandemic has forced me to be more resourceful about creating and maintaining virtual connections. Me and my friends do virtual work "parties" with each other every week and it helps me stay focused and on track.
QM: What I have learned, above all, is that academics needs a cultural change in how it handles crises. We cannot continue to assume "resilience" will carry people through, or treat a period like this as an "excuse" to get productive. I tried that and I was very productive, but it was a coping mechanism. There's a level of stress and strain at which no amount of compensatory productivity is ever enough. I've been trying to take care of myself better and learned that taking care of yourself is not something you can neglect.
DS: To be more diligent and critical as this entire year has left me dumbfounded in light of ambivalent discourse shared within academia, media, and various outlets that serve to preserve the status quo of disenfranchisement in America. Being in different environments (i.e., my neighborhood, academia, etc.), I have always noticed a difference in approaches to addressing issues like those that have incited the current pandemics. In various spaces, the circumstances that shaped the pandemics have consistently been trivialized. I have learned from this that I need to trust in my capabilities and advocate for more direct interchange in these environments.
AW: I have learned that it shouldn't take a pandemic for us to have more grace with others. Due to the pandemic, I have experienced the value of giving people the space they need for their mental health, having flexibility with what life means for me and others, and generally giving people the benefit of the doubt. I have appreciated the open conversations that the pandemic has forced me to have with my RAs, students, and advisors. Although the pandemic is particularly unique, having real life struggles impact how we work and function is not. I have learned I want to honor that better.
GH: I think importantly, the pandemic has forced me to acknowledge and try to better compartmentalize graduate school as only a portion of my life for my own sanity's sake.
KS: I have learned to treat others (clients, students, faculty members, classmates) and myself with more compassion and flexibility than ever. Today's health, racial, and political climate is a reminder that we are all doing the best we can with the resources available to us, including myself!
ZAH: Due to my decreased productivity, I have increasingly struggled with imposter syndrome. In these past few months, I have learned to be more compassionate toward myself and recognize my accomplishments, even if it is just completing an assignment. I have also learned that consistently reminding myself that I am capable of doing this work motivates me to start a task rather than put it off and build it up in my mind as something impossible to complete.
MG: I’ve used the time spent mostly at home to really establish a work-life balance. Prior to the pandemic, I often felt anxiety creep in when I wasn’t working. Setting and sticking to reasonable working hours and re-framing my PhD like a job has not only lessened that anxiety, but has made me a better researcher/writer/person.
What guidance would you share with other graduate students?
AW: I would highly recommend taking this time to explore different lifestyles and systems you might like to try out. I've actually played around a lot with how I want to work. One week, I tried a "bootcamp" week where I focused only on work after taking it a bit easier the weeks before. I don't know if I'll do a bootcamp week again, but I did figure out that one positive of that week was how focused I felt when I wasn't watching TV. So now I'm only watching TV on the weekends. This change has helped me feel more centered and focused on my priorities (work and personal life included). Play around with some sorts of habits, changes, or work-life balances you might be interested in!
GH: Phew, I feel really bad for newer graduate students who have to balance beginning coursework, starting to build new research projects, potentially acclimating to a new city, and finding their pocket of folks who they can rely on, all while the world feels like it's coming to an end. Do your best to routinely carve out time for yourself to do things unrelated to graduate school (I emphasize “best” because you may fail at some point, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about that). I think because of social distancing requirements it can be easy to fall into a trap of working (mostly unproductively) too much. One way I've tried to combat that tendency is by focusing on me through exercising, taking walks, making art, engaging in socially distant interactions, and reading for pleasure. Again, make time for yourself as a non-graduate student person.
ZAH: These are unprecedented times with a pandemic, climate change, and unstable economies threatening our literal lives and livelihoods. Add to that our want and need for social change. Please understand that it is perfectly acceptable to feel overwhelmed. It does not mean you are not “cut out” for graduate school. It means you are human. Treat yourself with the same compassion and understanding you would afford friends and colleagues and remember that you would not be where you are if you were not already capable and competent enough to succeed.
KS: My guidance is more of a call to action, given my own experience of trying to start a social justice committee and infuse more advocacy into the culture of my program. Mental health professionals have a duty to their clients and to society to advocate and be actively involved in social justice initiatives. We have immense power and privilege as students in higher education, and we don't have to wait until we graduate to become advocates and lift others up. Protest, unlearn, learn, educate others, and challenge the institutionalized racism that inherently exists in higher education. Start now!
CC: I encourage other students to set reasonable expectations of themselves during this time and to schedule non-work activities for the week that bring them joy with the same level of commitment with which they schedule work activities.
DS: Appreciate life and take the time to talk to the people you care about and people generally around you. Do what you can, and if something goes wrong live to see a better day. Strive for the best, but never take what you have for granted. Regardless of where you land, the key is to pass the baton.
MG: Create your own rewards! Throughout grad school, we’re debilitated by financial stress, imposter syndrome, burnout—all things that have been intensified throughout the pandemics. And that’s really difficult. Lately, I’ve tried to step back from the reward structures in academia and create my own. If I learned something new, that was a useful day. I feel fortunate to be a student, to immerse myself in a new theory or book, and call it my livelihood.
KM: My advice is to be kind and compassionate to yourself. My own journey, thankfully, has been one of finding things inside and outside of work that bring me joy and pursuing them intensely. That balance is how I try to be compassionate to myself.
BT: Don't be afraid to lean on others for support and give grace to others. We all need to be lowering the bar right now and just meeting each other where we're at.
QM: Create some kind of separation between the two states of "work" and "not work." For grad students, work stalks us at the best of times. When we're confined, it can be difficult to delineate when you are working and when you are not working. Try as best you can to have a wedge; it did wonders for my limited sanity.
About the Authors
Ashley Weinberg, MA (she/her) is a second year PhD student of Social Psychology at New York University. Ashley is a PhD student and dancer (ballet, contemporary, and hip-hop), who pursues creative projects in addition to her research. Ashley can be found tweeting at @AshleyLWeinberg
Brittany Torrez, BA (she/her) is a third year PhD student of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management. Brittany is a first-generation college student and can be found tweeting at @BrittTorrez.
Chelsey Clark, BS (she/her) is a third year PhD student of Social Psychology and Social Policy at Princeton University. Chelsey can be found tweeting at @chelseysclark.
Da’Quallon Smith, MSUP is a first year PhD student of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Da’Quallon is a first-generation college student and proud HBCU Alum of Texas Southern University; who remains disheartened that Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Daniel Jay Cameron, did not charge Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly, and officers Brett Hankinson and Myles Cosgrove of the Louisville Police Department for murdering Breonna Taylore.
Gerald Higginbotham, MA, CPhil (he/him) is a fifth year PhD student of Social Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gerald can be found tweeting at @gd_higginbotham.
Jaboa Lake, MS (she/her) is a sixth year PhD student of Applied Social Psychology at Portland State University. Jaboa works full time as a social policy analyst, is a first-generation college student, and a community organizer. Jaboa can be found tweeting at @jaboalake.
Kayla Storm, MA (she/her) is a second year PsyD student of Clinical Psychology at Indiana State University. Kayla is a first-generation college student.
Kimberly Martin, MA (she/her) is a fourth year PhD student of Social Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kimberly is a first-generation college student and can be found tweeting at @K_DMartin.
Maya Godbole, MPhil (she/her) is a sixth year PhD student of Basic and Applied Social Psychology at the City University of New York. Maya can be found tweeting at @mayagodbole.
Quinnehtukqut McLamore, MS (they/them) is a fifth year PhD student of Social Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Quinnehtukqut is an instructor, stats consultant, and graduate student mentor who can be found tweeting at @GhawinRiver.
Zeinab A. Hachem, MA (she/her) is a second year PhD student of Applied Social Psychology at Portland State University. Zeinab is a Lebanese-American and a first-generation college student who can be found tweeting at @ZeinabAHachem.