Adapting to COVID-19 as a Doctoral Student in the Health Sciences

Jennifer Mandelbaum, MPH; University of South Carolina

The COVID-19 pandemic is escalating rapidly, and my thoughts on what it means for me as a student have evolved greatly, too. Over the last few weeks, numerous articles have said that it’s okay to be unproductive during this time; we’re experiencing a collective trauma, and the grief we feel will touch nearly every aspect of our lives well into the future. I wonder, though, what this line of thinking means for doctoral students in the health sciences. How do we maintain productivity when some of the things that are so central to our work – in-person collaborations, conferences – are canceled? When we can hole up in our homes, but the news of equipment shortages and mortality rates is only a click away? How do we prioritize our mental health, when maintaining good mental health in graduate school is challenging even when we’re not experiencing a pandemic? And what responsibility do health science students have to support COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts?


I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, and I can only speak for myself. I hope, though, that some of the strategies I’m using to adapt to COVID-19 as a graduate student may be helpful to others, too. Here are some of the ways I’ve been coping:


Limit news exposure. I’ve had a difficult time finding balance between being informed and feeling inundated with information. I’ve subscribed to a few podcasts which present evidence-based information in an easily digestible format (e.g., America Dissected, Coronavirus Daily from NPR). When I feel like I’ve reached information saturation (I’m hearing the same things over and over), I know that’s a sign to stop.


Set daily priorities and celebrate small victories. There’s only so much time in the day and so much energy one can exert on academic work. With COVID-19, I find my attention span cut shorter than usual. I try to focus on 2-3 tasks I can accomplish a day. Sometimes, this means breaking down larger items on my to-do list into more manageable pieces. I’ve also heard of people having success working for a set duration of time rather than being task oriented.


Contribute where I can, but focus on current work. Inspired in part by a recent Twitter thread from Dr. Atheendar Venkataramani, I’m trying to contribute where I can, but focus most of my efforts on current work. As a public health professional, I feel compelled to help with pandemic control efforts while acknowledging that I’m not an infectious disease expert, and there are people more well-equipped than I am to tackle some of these challenges. I don’t need to become an expert on COVID-19. Instead, I’m focusing on what I add as a health disparities researcher and guiding family and friends to accurate information. As a student, I still need to prioritize making progress on my degree.


Lastly, I validate my emotions. I’ve felt conflicted at times about being anxious about COVID-19 when I recognize that I have so many advantages. I’m privileged to be able to work from home, to be spending this time with supportive family members, and to have some measure of job security. I don’t take any of these things for granted. The fear and anxiety many of us are feeling are real natural responses to the ways COVID-19 has disrupted our lives; burying these feelings is harmful to our mental health. I’ve found comfort in some of the coping strategies shared by the Time’s Up Foundation.


I suspect it will take a while for us all to settle into a new routine (that none of us asked for). I’m a planner, and I wish I could look into the future and know how this pandemic might change my graduation timeline or influence my job search. While I can’t know what the future holds, I’m trying to control what I can and adapt where necessary.