How has COVID-19 impacted my PhD?

Progress Report
Like everyone else, my university abruptly shut down in mid-March. All of my teaching and learning transitioned to online formats. In the months since then, as I have continued with my own work from the safety of my own home, I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error as I have figured out how best to work and live in these strange times.

Communicating with networks

I am lucky to have a PhD cohort who is supportive rather than competitive and collaborative rather than individualistic. We have stayed in touch over WhatsApp, and having that community has been tremendously helpful, both socially and professionally. It’s important for me to have people to bounce ideas off of and to give me feedback about my work. I know I can go to my cohort for advice. We also swap cat pictures, which is a benefit in my book!
I also feel immensely grateful to have a fantastic supervisory committee – they are available for me, they are flexible and understanding, and they remind me that self-care is important. In a time when many of us are physically alone, isolated, and disconnected, having networks that support and care for us is essential.
FaceTime and WhatsApp are not exactly substitutes for real, face-to-face contact. However, they are far better than nothing, and I’m glad that I’ve prioritized staying in touch with my university networks.

Flexibility is necessary

There are certain resources that I simply can’t access, or that I have to access in a different format. I have had to be flexible and develop contingency plans. I had to change the way I graded at the end of the semester because I had no hard copies to write on. I had to change the way I communicated with the students in my tutorial sections. I had to compile my comps list almost entirely from sources available electronically. (Actually, the library has been very accommodating in scanning texts and ordering ebooks, but sometimes you just need a source immediately!) I’ve had to make changes as I go, either permanently or “until things go back to normal” (whenever that is, and whatever that means). This is something that I also tried my best to extend to the students in my tutorial sections – the pandemic was a huge disruption of their normal routines, and the move to online formats created potential accessibility barriers that nobody signed up for. Obviously, as a TA I am rather limited by the parameters set by the course instructor and department, but it was important for me to be understanding of my students’ changing needs and abilities in the face of the pandemic.

Disappointment is inevitable

I had visions of a summer of reading for my comps in cafés and parks, having study dates with my cohort, and exploring the many trails Hamilton has to offer. (As a recent transplant, there is much to discover.) Instead, I’m reading at home and planning study dates over Zoom. (Not quite the same – who can I share my new baking experiments with?) I was very excited to have a paper accepted at the Canadian Communication Association’s annual conference, which was ultimately cancelled. In the grand scheme of things, I am lucky to be able to continue with my work and to be healthy. But there are inevitable disappointments as we all rearrange our lives, and I think we need to be able to feel sadness about these disruptions while simultaneously acknowledging how important these measures are in managing the pandemic.

Routines and structure are essential

Everyone works differently, but I have always found that I need to build structure for myself when my work hours are flexible and self-managed. The pandemic makes time feel strange; often there is nothing much separating one hour or day from the next. Restrictions have eased in my area, but looking at the numbers, the science, and the recommendations from health officials, I’m taking a conservative approach and staying away from non-essential outings. So, when staying home pretty much all day, every day, for months on end, indefinitely, creating routines helps me keep on track and feel some differentiation between the hours and days. I know what time is optimal for me to start my work, how long I can work before my focus wanes, and how much work I can realistically get done in a day. That said, I do need to balance this with the need for flexibility, so my routines tend to be guidelines. Also, important parts of routines are breaks and leisure time! As much as possible, I try to take weekends off and to build in time for fun and frivolous things, such as watching old seasons of Survivor, playing The Sims, FaceTiming friends, and playing with my cat.
In general, I have been lucky that my work has been minimally disrupted. That is, I have had to make some major changes to how I work, but I am still working, and I am still on track with my goals. At this point, I am not anticipating that COVID-19 will lengthen the time it takes me to complete my PhD, and that’s because a lot of the work is solitary, flexible, and mobile anyway.