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  • Writer's pictureHolly M. Fruehwald

Surviving Grad School During a Pandemic

March 12th I received the dreadful news saying that classes have been cancelled and the school had closed down for the rest of the semester due to COVID-19. While many of us knew this was coming, it was nonetheless still a shock for myself and many others who do research in wet labs. I found myself frantically grabbing as much of my things as I could carry home from my office that I thought I might possibly need and braced myself for working from home. I naively thought that “oh this is only going to last 2 weeks and then we’ll be back in the lab”.

It is now July and we still aren’t REALLY back in the lab, at least at my school. These past few months have been met with so much uncertainty. Concerns about paychecks, teaching assistantships in the fall semester, and when I would see the lab again to perform experiments to finish papers and my thesis. At the beginning there was a lot of anxiety, and not knowing what to do. I was still in a state of confusion as we had almost no information being communicated to us from the university. We didn’t know what this meant for our thesis requirements, and when will be able to do experiments. There were many many questions.

To make things worse, I live about an hour away from my family. I did not feel overally comfortable to travel home as there is someone in my family who is immunocompromised. This caused- and still does cause a lot of anxiety, especially as they have been (and still is) an essential worker throughout the pandemic. It's been very hard and caused me a great amount of stress to be away from my family during these times.

At the beginning of #WFH I set some goals for myself: papers I wanted to write, extracurriculars that I wanted to spend some time on, staying current with literature in my field. I natively thought that I had so much time and I’d be able to “catch up” from my usually very busy schedule. I was almost excited! In reality, some days I’m lucky if I can do 1 hour of work, while other days I can work for 8 hours straight. This wasn’t the work ethic I wanted and was hoping for myself. I was really hard on myself at first. I found comfort in people on twitter sharing similar struggles. I am slowly learning that if I can only get 1 hour of work done a day, that’s okay. I need to learn to be more gentle with myself.

Of course, I was also devastated to hear of cancellations of all the summer activities I had planned. I had quite a busy summer planned with teaching a course, conferences I was planning and attending, along with some personal vacations. While I realize that the cancellations were very necessary precautions and that it was not safe to proceed with these events in person, it was still a bummer as I had been looking forward to the events for a while.

I was also amazed to realize just how active I had been working in the lab, taking the stairs, walking between different labs. I was going from being so active to sitting in front of a computer working all day now. I got very stir crazy and found it a struggle to sit for hours, plus it started to feel very unhealthy. While I was excited in the beginning to be able to attend webinars, and online conferences. I just can’t do it as much as I want to anymore, the Zoom fatigue is real. It’s become very exhausting.

Some positives

As much as I’ve been ranting, It hasn’t been all negative. Trying to do a PhD while doing a lot of additional work on top of that, I barely find time to focus on myself and making sure that I have healthy self-care habits. Thankfully, all I have is time now! I am glad to have more time to focus on myself and start doing things that I love again. I have been doing a lot of skin care, and reading books (I LOVE reading). During this time I have also be trying to stay active by going on walks, working out at home with friends on Skype. It has been nice to start these healthy habits with friends.

I was participating in various webinars all over the world. Topics including professional development, networking, research in my field. It has been nice as I have had a chance to meet and connect with people all over the world and we are able to vent and share about what we have going on.

I have also made time to focus on creative passion projects. I have been working on more science communication projects, like starting a science communication instagram (on my home page if you want to check it out). It has been fun sharing my passion for electrochemistry, materials science, and outreach there. Its been nice to work on professional development as well- working on my website and trying to write more blog posts.

In the wake of the black lives matter movement recently, I have also taken time to learn about my privileges and biases to help me understand how I have contributed to systematic racism, and how I can do better moving forward. It has been a time of listening, growth, and putting my money where my mouth is.

While I have started back in the lab part-time as of posting this, I really want to make sure that I continue to practice all the healthy habits and self care I made time for. I want to be sure that I do not lose those habits as things are starting to return to "normal" for me.

It has really been a challenging time for myself, professionally, personally, and mentally. These are definitely challenging times for all. I hope you and your families are staying safe, and healthy!

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