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There’s no TikTok tutorial for this: Completing the first year of doctoral studies in a pandemic

If you’re like me the chapters of this pandemic probably have meshed together at this point. The chapter of Tiger King feels like a lifetime ago and I’m not sure which chapter we’re on in terms of TikTok dance trends anymore. While I can’t say for certain, it feels like we’re between Chapter “Millennial vs. Gen Z memes” and Chapter “To mask or not to mask”. The messiness of this story can only be described in the words of the newest popstar sensation Olivia Rodrigo, “It’s brutal out here”. In September I shared the chapters of my own story (see here) starting a doctoral program during a pandemic and spoiler alert, there is no TikTok tutorial for this. Now that I have completed the first year of my studies, my story continues with lessons on the power of connecting with others, balancing a never ending to do list, and navigating doctoral studies while countless traumatic events unfold.

Chapter four: More than just “likes”-Virtual connecting.

Meaningful connections are helpful in any doctoral program, whether you are studying during a pandemic or not. While the pandemic impacted the way I made connections, in some ways the ease of zoom allowed me to connect with people I normally would not have been able to.

Lesson: It’s the Building Community for me.

  • Collaboration vs competition: I’ll admit that in my doctoral program search, I was pretty particular in that I wanted to join a program that promoted collaboration versus competition. I wanted a program that brought people together, not pit us against one another. Academia has this sneaky way of making you feel like you always need to produce to get ahead (#thankscapitalism). A doctoral program is difficult enough with the amount of workload required and feeling like you have to compete with those you are studying with is (in my opinion) an unnecessary, stressful path to take. This past year I have leaned into the community provided to me through my program and it has made all the difference. From writing zoom sessions to help us meet those paper deadlines, to sharing scholarships and professional development opportunities with one another, to peer reviewing each other’s papers or projects, to hopping on a zoom call to vent- I can honestly say that I would not have made it through this first year without these moments of support.

  • Let’s talk research teams: I think many people imagine academics to be people who work continuously on their own individual research projects and papers. While this is a reality for some, it’s not the only reality that exists. I had the opportunity to work on a research team this past year, where a group of us collected data, analyzed data, and co-wrote manuscripts. While the work was challenging some days, the community of working with others and bouncing your ideas and thoughts off of someone else was extremely helpful and supportive. It also showed me another way to do research that did not feel as overwhelming or lonely as doing a solo study. It is important to acknowledge that no two research teams are the same, but if you find people you work well with and have similar research interests, it could be like catching lightning in a bottle (as my research team leader says).

  • More than just LinkedIn: At this point, probably everyone has heard of the importance of building your network. This year I have been able to virtually connect with scholars whose work I am interested in, as well as other doctoral students. While those conversations may or may not lead to collaborations, they can be extremely helpful in shaping your research interests, identifying other scholars or published content you should engage and also demystifying academia. While initiating the interaction can feel awkward, I found that most of the time people were happy to spend an hour chatting about what they do with a current student. I’m fortunate that my advisor was willing to do some first-round introductions to alleviate the awkwardness of a cold email and I also found connecting via social media was helpful too. In addition, although we live in the digital age, I recently learned that engaging on platforms like twitter during a conference (i.e., tweeting at the provided hashtag) was beneficial in connecting with other students and scholars. There is something to be said about building your digital presence in your respective field and virtually engaging others on your research. While it may not go viral, you never know who is keeping up with your work.

Chapter five: For-evvv-er (any Sandlot fans?)

It’s true, there is always some task to get done, some paper to write, some article to read, the list goes on (and on and on). No matter how productive you are each day, the work technically never ends. As someone who thrives on completing a to do list, this was tough for me to accept and acknowledge. To be fair, I have heard this many times even before I started my program, but sometimes it takes being in the environment to fully understand what this meant for me.

Lesson: Make a Schedule that Works for You (and tweak as needed)

  • Finding your medium: Whether you are a pen and paper to do list person, a scheduling software guru or a combination of both, figure out what works for you (but be open to other options too). I have always loved having a physical planner with color coded pens to map out my weekly and monthly schedule, but I found my schedule in my doctoral program moved quicker than my previous work schedule. This meant adjusting to using an online calendar and other online software that allowed me to map out my research projects and school projects, and even include others on them too. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the satisfaction of crossing off an item on a to do list, but I found ways to incorporate both.

  • Defining your non negotiables: We all have competing priorities and our schoolwork and research are not the only things that require our attention. Figuring out what your non negotiables are when it comes to making a schedule is the first step. For example, I need one day a week where I don’t do anything school or research related. This day is up to me how I want it spent and it gives me an opportunity to disconnect from the world of academia which I have found to be immensely helpful.

  • Writing, writing, writing… did I mention writing: There are countless blogs on best tips and tricks when it comes to writing in higher ed. I will say that incorporating writing into my schedule ended up being the hardest adjustment for me. Figuring out what time of day I could zone in for 30-60 minutes and work on one of the many writing projects I had was a task in itself. But once I found the time that worked for me and limited my distractions (aka phone had to be put on do not disturb) I gradually incorporated this into my schedule. Now I’ll admit that there are times I’m still writing on the day of a deadline, but having time built in my schedule 4-5 times a week has lessened the load in a positive way and kept me engaged.

This year has truly been like any other, it is difficult to even name the growing list of traumatic events that have occurred (i.e., the white supremacist domestic terrorist attack on the capitol, the continuous racialized harm inflicted on communities of color, mass shootings, a controversial presidential election) during this pandemic. While I have learned many lessons throughout this first year (considering the historical, social, and political context we all have been uniquely situated in) one lesson that has been ever present is that there is a lot going on outside of your studies that take your time and energy, and it is okay to acknowledge that. It is okay to take the time to process, whatever that may mean for you, because while I’m a student I’m a human too. Here’s to completing year one and writing the rest of my own doctoral story, once I figure out how to cite each chapter according to APA 7 (casually googles PurdueOWL)...

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