This year has been challenging for everyone, including our graduate students. What were some of the challenges faced by our graduate students during the COVID pandemic? What kind of mental health, physical, or logistic trials did they experience? Conversely, what were some of their positive, humorous, or encouraging experiences? In this series of blog posts, we would like to share their stories with you.

Natasha Maltais, Ph.D. Student

4 Things I Learnt While Trying to Graduate During a Pandemic

The start of March 2020 was hectic, as it naturally is for MA students in their final year. I had just finished presenting at a conference in the U.S. and was preparing for my first thesis committee meeting. Then in a whirlwind, the country started to lock down and I found myself on a flight to my family in Alberta.

In addition to quickly adapting to the virtual environment, I made the difficult decision to change my thesis topic, knowing that I had to finish by the end of the summer. Without going into details, my proposed thesis was just not feasible with much of the world locking down. With a new topic in mind, I spent the summer determined to finish. I successfully defended my thesis in September in time for my Ph.D. to start, with my work nominated for a senate medal.

To say that I went through an ordeal to finish on time would be an understatement, but I’ve come out of it as a stronger student and researcher. Here are four things I learnt while trying to graduate during a pandemic:


  1. Ask for help when you need it

I have caught myself thinking that asking for help is like admitting that you aren’t qualified to be in your position (hello imposter syndrome), but this isn’t true. By asking for help when you first need it, you can save time that you would spend confusing yourself more and possibly making more errors. Due to the massive time constraints, I had no choice but to contact my supervisor when I needed help instead of trying to work through everything completely by myself. This not only kept momentum for the project going but also let my supervisor know how I was doing throughout the process, allowing them to support me as needed.


  1. Prioritizing is key to keeping your sanity

As a graduate student, it’s normal to want to excel at everything, but this can come at the cost of your health. It was a tough lesson to learn, but there are times where you have to decide what needs more of your attention. For me, this was most evident with the course I took alongside my thesis. I often edit my work until the last possible moment; however, this simply wasn’t feasible with everything else going on. In other words, I had to become more realistic with what I could achieve in the timeframes I had and prioritize my thesis.


  1. School isn’t the only thing that matters

While this might seem like blasphemy coming from a graduate student, it’s important to remind yourself that there are things outside of school. In the early months of the pandemic, I helped my sibling with childcare. It did take me away from schooling for about two months, as I spend most of my days running after my 2-year old niece or helping my 7-year old nephew with schoolwork. However, spending that time with my family has been the highlight of all of 2020. The pandemic allowed me to get closer with my family in ways that would not have been possible, seeing as I live in Ottawa. Even though it meant putting aside my work for some time, I wouldn’t do it differently if given the chance.

  1. You are more resilient than you think

We often don’t know how strong we are until we’re pushed to our limits. I spent most of the summer thinking that I wasn’t going to finish on time. It felt like no matter what I did, there was always more work that needed to be done than hours in the day. Yet, I got up every day and worked until I couldn’t look at my computer anymore. I don’t want to sugar-coat it; I was miserable at times – but I have never felt so accomplished as I did when I clicked the submit button. And now, I’m confident that I can face any obstacles in my work.

Looking back, I am grateful for this experience but in the thick of it all, I was constantly overwhelmed. My hope is that whoever is reading this feels some comfort in knowing that others have also faced obstacles in their pursuits and that even though it may be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel now, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Moreover, I hope you, too, can take something away from my experience.