Grad School 101: Learning from (and through) COVID-19

Effective strategies for managing your time and your work

Collection of papers, pencils, paperclips and an ink spill splashed on a tan background

Many of us have been in some form of virtual graduate school since around March when the Covid pandemic really took hold of the country. After making it through the past five months in a largely virtual manner, certain strategies are emerging as being more effective than others. Read on for some of my tips on making the most of this time!

Keep a virtual calendar and include video chat links.

Keeping a calendar is nothing new to grad students, but I have found myself needing a detailed calendar of my weekly schedule now more than ever. Taking classes, having meetings, and doing just about everything from home has made it difficult to keep track of which day is which. A list of detailed class times, meeting times, research group times, etc. helps structure the day. Virtual calendars like Google Calendar are a great organizational tool, and they tend to be easy to use as well as highly personalizable! Virtual calendars are also great because you can make sure the link for the appropriate video call is saved with the virtual event. For example, you can directly turn Zoom links into Google Calendar events, which not only keeps your schedule updated but also saves the necessary video link in one virtual space for when you need to go back to it.

Many classes are using recurring video chat links for their meetings times. It is also helpful to have some kind of document (such as an Excel sheet, Word document, Apple Notes page, etc.) that saves all of your Zoom links for your classes and recurring meetings in one spot. Having this document stops you from sifting through countless emails looking for the appropriate link for class time.

Give yourself a moment to settle in before starting class.

Many grad classes take the format of lengthy seminars, and grad students are sitting down in front of Zoom for multiple hours at a time. Take a moment before starting class to make sure you are settled in at your work-from-home spot. Have a glass of water in reach and perhaps a snack ready for a mid-Zoom pick-me-up. Make sure that you are comfortable, you are situated with headphones if needed, and your lighting is adequate for your webcam. Have your class materials pulled up and ready so that you do not have to search through document folders, websites, or notebooks while trying to listen in on the video call.

Get up and move during class breaks.

Focusing for an extended period of time on a video call can be extremely difficult. It is tempting to start doing other tasks on your computer, check your phone more frequently, or even just zone out! Faculty are aware that it is harder to hold students’ attention on a video call format like Zoom. Implementing more frequent breaks during class is one way to break up the time and keep attention fresh. When your class takes a break, stand up and do something to get moving! Don’t just sit at your desk looking at social media for five minutes. Get up and refill your glass of water, do a walking lap around your apartment space, stretch with some yoga poses. Try to get out of your desk chair and give yourself a quick break from the computer screen.

Try to take notes on something other than your computer.

Many grad students taking classes from home find themselves short of resources. Without being able to go into their labs or office spaces as frequently, many students had to throw together some kind of makeshift “home office” in the spring. One common struggle is figuring out how to best manage so many things on just one computer. When classes were in-person, you could easily use your computer to take notes or follow along with the readings while listening to your professor and peers around you. Now, your computer is the class. If you’re anything like me, you have probably spent a lot of time frantically juggling the Zoom window, the internet browser window, open PDF files, your notes document window…

Having something other than just your laptop or home desktop is a big help for online class. Investing in a second monitor can help clean up the messiness of countless programs open on one small laptop screen. Having a screen designated largely, if not completely, to the class video call while you use some other resource to take notes or pull up readings helps avoid the many-windows-open-at-once scramble. Taking notes by hand is always a good option as well! The separation is a big help in staying organized during class.

If you need help finding tech for your “home office,” there may be campus resources available to you! For example, Fondren Library has lots of tech and equipment that students can rent out for their own use. You may be able to rent an extra laptop or a tablet during the semester in order to make your work-from-home space a bit easier to navigate.

Designating work vs. rest time is highly important.

As the pandemic stretches on, a common saying is that we are not working from home but living at work. A lot of grad students already struggle with separating their work life from their home life, and taking breaks, such as a weekend off, is something that many grad students feel they are not able to do. Whatever your work habits may be, it is especially important now to make some kind of divide between time for work and time for rest.

Try to set an end time for each day. At this time, you will cease working, step away from your desk, and ideally be finished using your computer for the day. While it can be tempting to work all night when your desk and your bed are mere steps away from each other, that is not a healthy approach to working from home! You can read more about creating separation between work life and home life here in an article I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic.

Even though virtual grad classes allow us to sit at home all day, they are still just as taxing as in-person classes. In some ways, virtual grad classes can feel even more taxing, and Zoom burnout is a real thing! Make time for yourself to rest. And remember, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic! The stress of the current circumstance only adds onto the usual stress of grad school. You deserve to take breaks.

Further Reading

Six strategies for staying motivated during COVID-19

Finding work-life balance during COVID-19

Five simple steps to organizing an online journal club


About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a third-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.