Pursuing My PhD From Home: A Graduate Student’s Perspective on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Sahar Eshtehardi, MS; University of Houston

39 days, it’s been 39 days that I’ve been home safe, dreadfully aware of the risks many others are facing just beyond our doors. 39 days of online lectures, manuscript writing in my pajamas, and adapting to a new norm. As a second-year health psychology doctoral student at the University of Houston, my days look quite different compared to just 6 weeks ago. Since the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, my classes have shifted to an online format, research data collection is at a standstill, and clinical training is virtually non-existent. These changes pose new complications in graduate education, ones I did not even fathom when I began my doctoral program 2 years ago. I can’t help but think about how this will affect my anticipated graduation date. Will I be able to start my upcoming clinical training appointment on time? What does this mean for my dissertation timeline? So many questions and in a turn of events, a great deal of time to pause and contemplate.


I would be lying if I said it’s been easy to come to terms with the recent changes in my doctoral training. My days start differently and without the typical structure that I have become accustomed to in my usual graduate student routine. The first few weeks were a series of trials and errors. As a student I have a lot of flexibility in my daily schedule, yet this a new level of resilience I wasn’t prepared for. Over the past 39 days sheltering in place, there are a few things I’ve learned that have helped me gain some sense of control. First, I’ve found that a loose routine is key. Waking up and going to bed at different times each day was impeding my ability to have productive days. Finding a sleeping routine that worked for me, even on the weekends, has immensely helped structure my days more efficiently. However, while being productive is important to keep my graduate training moving in the midst of this pandemic, I’ve found it to be equally important to know when to take the day off to take care of myself and my loved ones. Both play important roles in the well-being of my mental health, which is increasing important in stressful time like these. Second, getting ready for the day. While working in my pajamas all day once may have sounded indulgent and amazing, in the past couple of weeks I realized that spending the extra 15-minutes each morning to change into “work” clothes and put on minimal makeup has proven to be a beneficial investment in my overall productivity. This ritual of getting ready for the day puts me into the right frame of mind to focus on my schoolwork, which helps me distinguish workdays from time to relax. Third, finding a hobby. For me, that’s it’s been immersing myself into the science of baking – sourdoughs, muffins, cakes, all the good stuff! Regularly performing creative acts, such as baking, has been shown to increase positive psychological functioning and serve as a great outlet for stress, ever more important in the midst of a global pandemic. With all this eating, I’ve also been keeping active. Unfortunately, my favorite hot yoga studio is currently closed, but they do hold live sessions via Instagram each evening and at this point, I attribute any sense of normalcy and sanity I’ve retained to my evening yoga sessions. Sixth, staying connected, virtually that is. I have found setting up studying sessions, happy hours, or morning coffee dates with my friends and classmates have made the days pass by quickly. Sometimes you just need to see a familiar face and talk about something other than this horrible pandemic.


Finally, the best approach I have found to manage the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic come from my research background in positive psychology. Practicing gratitude and finding benefits even in very hard circumstances are helping me develop and recognize my resilience. At times, I feel enormously guilty complaining about my trivial challenges given I am healthy. While COVID has changed my current day-to-day and potentially extended my doctoral training, I recognize how fortunate I am to have this time with my family, the ability to take time for yoga and baking, and the technology to stay in close touch with my friends and loved ones. It has been great to have dinner with my husband each night, to spend quality time with my dogs, making sweet memories in our tiny apartment despite the chaos that is outside. And though I am eager to get past all of this, I am taking the time to be present and kind to myself and those around me. I look forward to the day when I can return to my clinical training to start helping those who are more severely impacted than me by the consequences of COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the fact I remain uncertain and worried about what the future of my graduate training will look like, I am strengthening my flexibility muscles and learning to apply some of those acceptance and mindfulness strategies I learned about in class, which I know will make me a stronger mental health provider and behavioral scientist. And while waiting for things return to “normal”, whenever that may be, I will continue focusing on being an active member of the academic community, supporting others, and realizing that though this may seem difficult for me, I am so lucky to home safe.