Some Advice for PhD Students and Their Mentors in the Time of Coronavirus

This blog post started as an email conversation between Dana Turjeman and Meghan Duffy. Dana turned her initial outline into a twitter thread (starting here). We decided it would be fun (and hopefully helpful!) to turn this into a blog post that expands on these ideas. So, here are the perspectives of a PhD student and a faculty member who are trying to figure out how to maintain mental health and also hopefully some productivity, but that definitely comes second to physical & mental health while social distancing.

First, this assumes that you are not going about your normal routine, but, rather, trying to stay home as much as possible. This is strongly encouraged! If you aren’t sure of why, please read this.

Here’s our advice:

Most importantly: your health and the health of your loved ones comes first. 

There has been advice on how to stay productive while working from home, and we understand the motivation behind this. But we think it’s important to note that this is *not* business as usual. Things will be different, and it’s important to emphasize that physical and mental health come first. This should always be true, but it’s especially important right now. 

Maintain a routine plan out your working hours, exercise, sleep, eating regularly, connections with others, work breaks, etc. (Note: this should also include keeping a sense of weekends, taking some days off from work.)

Maybe you already were a routine kind of person – if so, great! Keep it up, adjusting your schedule to accommodate the new reality. Maybe you are not a schedule person. Take a growth mindset and give it a shot now! A lack of structure can be tough for mental health. Create structure as much as possible. 

If you can, try to get outside every day, to non-crowded places with fresh air. This might not hold to those who must stay in strict isolation (which is different from social distancing) and cannot get closer to others. But, to the extent possible, try to get sunlight and fresh air, even when indoors. 

Make sure you keep up other aspects of your normal routine. Meghan remembers how, when she was writing up her dissertation and her advisor was in a different state, she was thinking that she could just stay home all the time. At that time, she got advice along the lines of: “You need to come in at least for lunch or else first you’ll stop getting dressed, then you’ll stop showering, then you’ll stop brushing your teeth”. He had a point. So, while we aren’t going to gather in person for lunch now, it is still important to keep up normal routines!

At the same time, be flexible. Modify your plans. Experiment with new approaches.

We’re all going to be learning on the fly. You will misjudge how much you can do. Your initial routine may end up not working well for you. You will realize things work differently than you thought they would. This is all normal. Be flexible, and be kind with yourself and others as everyone figures out how to adjust.

Arrange virtual coffees or lunches with colleagues, even if you didn’t have those before. Start with some small talk. (Bonus points if some of the small talk is *not* about coronavirus!) 

Social distancing is important, but really it’s physical distancing that we need, not social isolation. So, to the extent possible, try to connect with folks virtually. 

Stay connected, but not too connected.

The internet helps a lot with maintaining connections with people (which is good!), but it’s also easy to get sucked in in ways that are not helpful. There are real downsides to anxiety scrolling through social media and constantly checking the news. Set limits on where you get your news and how often you check it (e.g., something like: “I will only check X sites, and I will only do that for 15 minutes four times a day” or “I will not check social media or news within 1 hour of bedtime”.) If you feel you check the news in ways that harm your mental health or productivity, and need an external boundary, try using “website blockers” on PC/Mac, and/or one of the many iPhone/Android apps. Some examples: WebsiteBlocker, ColdTurkey, HeyFocus.

If a partner / housemate is staying with you at home, make sure to respect each other’s work time and routine. Try to get a break from time to time – by sitting in another room or, contrary to that, arranging fun games together to reduce the working stress. Being together more than you’re used to might cause stress and tension. 

Coming back to a common theme: we’re all trying to figure out new ways of working and living. Be kind, be compassionate, and communicate clearly and regularly.

Find an accountability partner – someone you “promise” to show measurable progress of work to, and who will nudge you gently in the right direction if you’re not holding up to your promises.

This may be a lab mate or a friend or someone else in your grad program or a colleague or a mentor. At first, it might help to check in pretty frequently – maybe three times a week or every week day. Keep the check in format short. One that Meghan has used (modified from resources from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity) has: 1) My goals for yesterday were ; 2) I accomplished ; 3) My goals for today are . Depending on who you are checking in with, it might also make sense to explicitly check in about non-work stuff (e.g., are you maintaining connections with folks? Taking breaks from work? Getting sleep and exercise?)

If progress on a project is paused or delayed because you’re unable to collect data / run studies in the lab etc., try to think of all the things you can do otherwise – literature review, writing introduction of a paper, ideation for another paper etc. 

In Meghan’s group, as of last week, the only lab work going on is: 1) maintaining cultures (which cannot be frozen, unfortunately) and, 2) finishing up one experiment (the last block of an experiment that is the last chapter of the dissertation of a student who is finishing this summer). Everything else is on hold, and all but three people in the lab have been told to work from home, and we’ve discussed how even those two things that are currently going on might need to stop. The folks staying at home are analyzing data, planning for future experiments, and working on literature reviews and meta-analyses. It will be interesting to see if there’s a notable increase in lit reviews & meta-analyses in the next year! 

For the PIs/advisors/mentors, some things to keep in mind as you think about where people should work should include things like how they would get there (e.g., would they need to take public transit?), what other responsibilities they have (remember that many schools are closed now), their health, their comfort levels with being out (some people will not feel safe coming in and that should be respected), and possible impacts on their careers. For the last one, though, the bar has to be in a different place than it normally would – productivity is going to be impacted by this. 

We were really impressed with the leadership shown by Tom Finholt, the Dean of UMichigan’s School of Information, as summarized here:

Communicate clearly and regularly

Information vacuums cause a lot of stress. Do your best to avoid them. 

For the advisors: make sure you are in regular contact with everyone in your lab. Check on them. Keep them up to date on the status of things. Make sure they have opportunities for informal conversations where they can ask questions. You should be in touch with your lab several times a week (but also should allow for them to be on their own schedules – everyone’s solution to the current situation is going to be different!)

One idea Meghan heard that she liked is to set up frequent (three times a week or more) virtual lab hours where people from the lab can gather online to check in and chat with each other. Bonus: this increases the number of opportunities for seeing everyone’s pets! 

For the students: If possible, update your advisers and co-authors more than you are used to. Schedule weekly meetings – even short ones – as much as possible, while recognizing that they have other things to focus on, too. Find measurable results of analyses / writing to present each time. Send short email updates to them, with small chunks of your progress. If things are requested from them, make sure to allow extra flexibility, and find things that you can do even without their feedback, so that they won’t feel obliged to respond if unable to. For example: “Hi, I did these analyses. Below you may find the results, and a draft of the text I will put in the manuscript. I would love to hear your feedback whenever you have time. However, no rush. I understand things might be busy on your side too. Therefore, meanwhile, I will be working on the literature review for the other part of the paper. “

For everyone: It is especially important to keep up with regular check-ins right now! 

Schedule meetings with people you wanted to meet offline / online anyways – such as fellow PhD students / faculty from other places. Many conferences are cancelled (and more cancellations are surely coming), and networking will be lacking. Try being proactive in fixing this. Example: email seminar speakers who were supposed to come, or people you hoped to meet in (now cancelled) conferences, and ask to meet them online instead. 

Some people will be too busy with childcare, moving courses online, etc., but others will be excited to have a chance to connect and to have a welcome distraction from all the other chaos!

Take advantage of the reduced commute time, and learn something fun and new cooking, art, meditation…whatever can be done indoors (or away from others) in a healthy, respectful way.

Yes, for some people, just getting the bare minimum done will be all they can manage. But also consider whether this is an opportunity to try something new. Maybe it’s time to pick up a long neglected instrument, or to finally download that meditation app you’ve been considering, or to perfect your croissant-making techniques. (Meghan admits to having been tempted to finally get a new dog, but, sadly, concluded this is not the time.)

Recognize that people are making hard choices, dealing with difficult circumstances, and doing the best they can.

Your advisers, peers and colleagues might not be as responsive as you’d like. This will likely be even more so if they face health concerns or familial obligations. Remember that lots of people have things going on right now, some of which you will not know about (e.g., worrying about loved ones who are far away). Try to be understanding, and find other routes of support, as needed. Everyone is adjusting to a new situation, and lots of folks are extremely stressed and anxious right now. 

Your work matters, even if it isn’t directly linked to coronavirus or health.

People who are not doing research directly linked to epidemiology, medicine, or something that feels pretty close to the pandemic might feel a sense of unworthiness. However, once things settle down, the impact of that work will become clear again!

Again, remember that the wellbeing of you and your loved ones comes first. Some people are talking about how productive they will be because of this, ignoring that people will be sick and worried and that some people have family responsibilities that need to come first.

There have been waaaaaay too many tweets noting how much Newton did in the year he was isolated as a result of the plague. This is our favorite take on those:

Work isn’t going to be perfect, parenting isn’t going to be perfect. Again, we need to be compassionate (with ourselves and others) and be flexible.

But what to do? One common suggestion has been to set a routine. (Meghan’s 4 year old helpfully set an alarm for 6AM – perhaps he is trying to keep us on schedule? Dana, on the other hand, hopes her toddlers won’t wake her up before 6AM.) This schedule has been going around social media:

schedule of different things to do during a typical day, from waking to bedtime

That particular routine might not work for you & your family, but trying some sort of routine seems like a good plan. (And, for those who do follow it, here’s hoping for lots of days where the kids earn 9PM bedtimes!)

If you have a partner who is also working from home, discuss your plans for sharing the load – for example, maybe one person takes the lead on childcare/homeschooling in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Another option is 3 days for one, 3 days for the other. 

Your children’s school may have given some assignments for the coming weeks. If not (or if you want to supplement), other resources are available, such as Khan Academy and Scholastic Learn at Home. For more, here’s a list of education companies offering free subscriptions due to school closings. 

Finally, Amy Cohn (a UMich Engineering Prof & the Associate Director of the Center for Healthcare Engineering & Patient Safety) shared her thoughts in this twitter thread:

Which ends with this advice:

We’re interested in your thoughts, too! What advice would you give? What have you been doing that’s been helping? What are you trying to figure out? We’re hoping people will share their thoughts, questions, and experiences in the comments!


About the authors
Dana is a PhD student in Quantitative Marketing at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where she is also the wellbeing and research productivity chair in their PhD forum. Meghan, as regular readers of the blog know, is a Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Michigan and Chair of the Rackham Graduate School’s Task Force on Graduate Student Mental Health. 


Additional resources that might be of interest (please share others in the comments!):

From Active Minds: Coping and Staying Emotionally Well During covid-19 related school closures

From Gina Baucom & her lab: How to Science During a Pandemic

From UMich’s Center for Academic Innovation: Adjusting your study habits during COVID, which includes these tips for working with a group or team:

3 thoughts on “Some Advice for PhD Students and Their Mentors in the Time of Coronavirus

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