Grad School 101: New Challenges in the time of COVID

By Emily Elia: What I've learned this fall and how I'm applying it to the spring semester.

Cartoon of computer screen with Zoom meeting.

If you finished your spring 2020 semester remotely, you understand that virtual learning can be a curveball during an already challenging time. At Rice, shifting online was a learning experience for everyone, but it was an opportunity to learn together. We’re taking our collective findings and letting them inform our plans for the fall 2020 semester. Rice plans for all courses for fall to be taught in dual-mode, with an option to take a course either online or in a classroom. While this may not be the fall semester we all expected, many expectations for year one will likely stay the same.

Find Ways to Stay Connected

You may not be in your campus office or campus lab as frequently. The lack of interaction with your peers can be challenging. It’s important to reach out, ask for help when you need it, and stay creative in building connections with your cohort and with faculty. Your program is likely creating ways to supplement these valuable in-person interactions with remote interactions, such as virtual research workshops. If faculty or more senior students in your program are putting together virtual workshops, see how you can get involved. While Zoom meetings cannot fully replace the value of in-person interactions, they still provide great opportunities to connect with people in your program, gain exposure to the work they are doing, and receive valuable feedback on your work. There are also opportunities to work with your peers virtually. Try out virtual Pomodoro study sessions on Zoom (see here for how to do it!), or set aside a few hours every Friday to take part in writing sessions with your cohort. We all may be physically distanced, but we can still find ways to be productive together!

It’s essential to connect with people in your program outside of work-related matters. During your first year, social relationships may be harder to build if many work from home or on a rotational schedule. This fall, it will be especially important to take the time to socialize virtually with your cohort so that you can still get to know one another! One great advantage of virtual get-togethers is that it’s often easier for people to coordinate a time and attend, no matter where they are in the world.

Take advantage of opportunities to connect remotely; forming connections with the people in your program is an integral part of the graduate experience. It might be awkward at first, but the other students in your program will likely become your close friends and even your research collaborators, even separated by a screen.

Manage Working from Home

Learning how to best manage your time during graduate school is a difficult adjustment for many students. Managing time well while working from home can be tough regardless of how many years of grad school you have under your belt! A big challenge that people face when working from home is a lack of separation from work life and home life, but there are certain work habits you can establish to create a distinction between work and home. Try and set hours for yourself each day that are dedicated to work. Outside of those hours, leave work alone and take time to relax as you are able. Set up a spot in your home that can serve as an office space, even if it is just a desk in the corner. Reserve that space for work only. Creating this separation between work life and home life will help you to stay productive while preventing you from overworking yourself. Remember that it’s important to take time away! You can read more tips for balancing work and home here.

Know Your Resources

A number of Rice offices, including Rice’s Office of Information Technology (OIT), and the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), have carefully compiled a library of resources for students and faculty who are adjusting to online learning and teaching. OIT is offering 1:1 training for Canvas, Zoom and Kaltura, and students can sign up by submitting a help ticket.

Remember: Everything is Temporary

Eventually, we will ALL be able to return to campus and get back into our offices and labs, but having a hybrid first year will of course pose new challenges. As you navigate your first year of graduate school, keep in mind that everybody at Rice wants to see you succeed. Remember to reach out for help if you need it - we’re all in this together!

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a second-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.