Beginning your research project during a global pandemic

In the Haze

Graduate school can be hard and a dredge. You get lost in the details, in YOUR project, in the details of your project and you lose perspective. When I decided to come back to school for my graduate degree, I decided that I would lay down some boundaries that might help me keep better perspective. Work whilst at work, play and rest at home. Obviously there would be some exceptions (research is not a 40 hour a week job, between teaching classes, taking classes, applying for funding and grants, conducting your research, and professional service inevitably there is always some working during your planned free time), but I found that sticking to this plan to be very helpful. Working from my office gave me a chance to engage in work actively and intentionally, reinforcing a need to use my time wisely and efficiently. This also meant that I was able to disengage and recharge when I went home.

Then, COVID-19 made its internationally debut. EVERYONE has been impacted by COVID, I am no exception. Overall, I feel very lucky and privileged to have faired as well as I have. Yes, my field work has been continually delayed, but I have a paying job, food in my belly, and a roof over my head, and a loved one (and furry one) to keep me company at home. It is hard not to be grateful when I know that I am much better off than many. That is the large-scale perspective.

When I analyze how my professional life has been affected by COVID-19 things start to get fuzzy. For the safety of myself and my family, I work from home. I have a quiet place to work and have no real obligations or worries that hinder my ability to work from home (like children or loved ones that need my care). Yet, I know that my ability to stay focused and motivated has decreased. My ability to draw the lines between work hours and personal hours has blurred, my efficiency has gone down, and as a result my morale has greatly suffered. Being a graduate student can be hard… I have so many privileges including setting my own schedule and having ultimate flexibility and culpability with nearly every choice that effects my professional life. But it can be difficult to keep perspective when you have ONE over-arching goal over the course of several years to accomplish – your research project, your thesis, your publication(s). It is hard to see the progress you have made, to see the steps forward, and the steps you have already taken behind you.

In my experience, field work keeps you connected to your study subject. Working in the field rejuvenates your excitement, inspires new ideas, and thus keeps you motivated throughout the rest of the year. Like many, my field work has been delayed due to COVID-19 (hopefully, I will be collecting data this fall). However, the combination of working from home on a research project with no definite end date, and without any field work or significant excuse to leave the safety of my home, has left me feeling a bit lost and dejected.

Do the next right thing…

Alas, time continues to pass and the reality of an impending defense date looms somewhere in the future. Currently, it seems difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It almost feels as though I have stalled out before my project even started, yet I remind myself of the long-term goal. The goal is to conduct a research project from start to finish, complete a thesis, publish, and obtain my master’s degree in fisheries science and hopefully along the way I will take a step towards doing some good in the world of marine science.

For now, I will keep in mind advice that I once received from a wise source, Disney’s animated film Frozen 2, “All one can do is the next right thing”. At this point in time that means continuing to engage in my quantitative ecology class where I am learning about how to better conduct data analysis; continue to make appointments with mentors and collaborators who can help inspire ideas and motivate me during this strange time; and lastly, to refine my methodology as much as possible before data collection begins this fall. One day at a time, one step at a time, just doing the next right thing.