A day in the life of a self-isolating PhD student

March 25, 2020

It’s an interesting time to be alive right now. We’ll remember this period for the rest of our lives and will tell our grandchildren about how all schools, colleges, most businesses, and companies had to shut down and people were told to stay home all day and work remotely, if possible. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all Americans in some way or another. I am grateful that as a graduate student, I can work remotely. I appreciate all of the essential workers that are risking their health to make sure the rest of us can carry on. My heart goes out to people that have been furloughed and laid off. My heart also goes out to people who have or know someone who has contracted this deadly virus.

I thought I’d write a blog about how I’m attempting to be as productive as possible, and pass on some tips for others who are finding themselves lost, unmotivated, or anxious. If you are not used to working from home, it can be a big adjustment. You have to find out where you want to set up your workspace, how you want to break up the hours in a day, and possibly how to alter your timeline while working from home. Students who spend the majority of their time doing lab or field work might be feeling the most apprehensive, seeing as your productivity levels have been significantly cut. However, there are some things you can do to still feel productive.

There is some advantage of having a break from the monotony of graduate studies. I was getting to the lab every morning at the same time and mainly working on code for my research. I would tell myself, “Okay, today you are only going to work on code in the morning, and then write for the rest of the afternoon.” Programmers know how hard it can be to step away from a code that you haven’t perfected. Coding can be a black hole. Or I would say, “I’m going to read this paper all the way through” and then find myself getting a coding idea halfway through the paper and stop reading to try it out. I felt a little overwhelmed with all my ideas for my research and knew I needed to step back and read, organize, and carefully consider my next steps.

So that’s what I’m doing now. I am going back and trying to learn basics of programming that I kind of skimmed over. I’m trying to read full papers or reports in their entirety, take notes, and organize my thoughts. I’m also trying to stick to a schedule so I don’t get distracted with other things I could be doing at home. Right now my WFH schedule looks like this:

7am: Wake up and head downstairs. Brew coffee. Read CNN’s 5 Things.

7:15am-8:30ish. Drink coffee and focus on improving programming skills. Currently, I am watching one lecture a day of MIT’s Missing Semester class. A colleague recommended it to become more proficient with the basics of programming tools. I am also going through the Python Like You Mean It online resource, which has been helpful to fully understand the potential of the Python commands I use.

8:30am-9:00am. Eat breakfast and FaceTime my mom đŸ™‚ Usually scroll through Twitter, say my Happy Birthdays on Facebook.

9:00am-12:00pm. This usually changes every day. Some days I continue with the programming learning. Some days I have Zoom meetings. Some days I take a break and go on a run outside. Today I’m writing a blog. Once I bring our lab’s Linux computer home, I will use this time to continue my satellite data processing.

12:00pm-1:00pm. Lunch, yoga, FaceTime a friend, exercise. I usually take an hour to break up the day.

1:00pm-5/6pm. Read and write!! I am using every afternoon to read papers and get some writing done. I’ve set a goal to finish a draft of a manuscript (1st dissertation chapter) by the beginning of summer.

6pm-7pm. Make dinner and watch the news or an episode of a show or two. Right now I’m watching Superstore on Hulu. Highly recommend.

7pm-8pm. Read a book. I’m trying to switch between reading two books. One is a science-heavy book, and one is a read-for-fun book. The science book is Jim Acker’s The Color of the Atmosphere With The Ocean Below: A History of NASA’s Ocean Color MissionsI am thoroughly enjoying reading this book and sincerely appreciate Jim’s comical commentary throughout. I have found myself laughing out loud at some of his anecdotes. My book for fun is Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, a book my mom gave me for my Birthday about a 67 year old thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s making me want to go hiking. 

8pm-10pm. I don’t really know what I do during this time, watch another show. American Idol if it’s Sun/Mon. Eat a snack. Talk to my boyfriend. And go to bed!

I said I would give some advice, didn’t I? Well I guess I just want to say we’re all in the same boat. We’re all distracted by what’s going on in the world. We are all maybe a little unmotivated to be productive. We’re all maybe a little mad that important events we were looking forward to such as conferences, commencements, races, the Olympics, festivals are being postponed or cancelled. It sucks. But there’s not much we can do except make the most of it. Things will improve soon and most events will be rescheduled. When we look back a few years from now, delaying commencement celebrations a few months and having virtual events won’t matter in the big picture.

Try to use this time alone with your thoughts beneficially. Try to take a step back from things you’ve been working tediously on but can’t right now and learn a new skill set you’ve always wanted to. You could enroll in an online class, watch online lectures. Here is a helpful article on how to maximize online learning. You could take this time to work on your personal branding and make your own website.

I’ve come up with a list of online resources in my field that I have used or have come across:

Remote sensing

Google Earth Engine



Science Visualization

If you have any recommendations on other online resources, please let me know!

Hang in there. Try not to be stressed, and to take this time to slow down and learn. It can make you a better student and scientist in the long run. Wishing everyone who is reading this good health and a good mental outlook.

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