Experience and Tips for Studying and Researching During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Rodrigo Curty Pereira
August 5, 2021
When the COVID-19 pandemic was officialised by the World Health Organization, I wasn’t even a student yet at the University of Waterloo. Back in March 2020, I was an undergraduate student in Brazil, trying to finish my final year thesis. At the time, I was balancing work and personal life while waiting for my English proficiency results so that I could finally know if I was getting admitted at UW for the master’s program in Geography. As boarders were getting closed worldwide, not only was I uncertain about the future of the world, but I had no clue of what was going to happen with my plans on coming to Canada. Similar to the condition of every aspiring UW international student, the next few months were hard for me. I was laid of from my internship, and so were all the other interns in the organization I worked for. I was also worried about the health of my eldest relatives and friends. Managing the financial needs of my family added an additional pressure on me too. However, my biggest fear was the thought of needing to cancel or make changes to my graduate school plans in Canada. In the end, it did last a long time, and I did have to alter some of my plans.
Changes happened quite quickly thereafter. I was excited to receive my acceptance letter from UW. Because of the free time I had from being laid off, I was able to focus on my undergraduate thesis and met all the requirements to graduate from my bachelor’s. Due to the pandemic, everything moved online, and the University made sure that students could take classes from all over the world. However, there were still many uncertainties. The consulate was not issuing study visas and I couldn’t access funding because I didn’t have a SIN number. My mind was constantly asking the same questions: How would I pay for tuition? How would I do research if in-person activities were suspended? How could I invest so much into something that was so uncertain? WHAT IF THIS UNCERTAINTY GOES ON FOREVER?! The inconsistency in the situation put me under a lot of stress all the while staying in my hometown and attending online classes.
Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was. I didn’t lose any close friends or family members due to COVID-19. My family was able to bounce back financially, pay rent and buy food all these times. And I was able to initiate my Master’s, albeit under a lot of stress. My supervisor was an angel and made sure my tuition fees were paid. As Canada slowly opened its borders for international students, she helped me with my quarantine plan and even made sure I had some wine to keep me warm during the holidays. I spent the last days of December 2020 in quarantine and saw my first white Christmas in Canada. I couldn’t say goodbye to my friends and family and was alone in a cold and lockdown restricted Waterloo for most of the Winter. Slowly, things started to get better in my personal bubble. The majority of the relatives I worried about got vaccinated, and so did I. By coming to Canada, I could finally access my scholarships, and was even able to send some money back home to help my family. And as per my research, I can happily say that I’m almost done analyzing the data that I collected virtually during those cold and dark months.
Now that the story has been told, I’d like to reflect on some strategies I had to develop to keep studying and doing research during the pandemic. I hope that these can resonate with many of you as international graduate students.
When you’re studying, sleeping, having zoom parties, doing therapy, exercising, and doing everything in the same room, it can get pretty difficult to concentrate. It gets hard to relax too, since your mind is never fully on work mode and yet never 100% unplugged to relax. That definitely affected my capacity to focus. And to be honest, it still does. However, some small strategies help me make sure that I stay on track of my responsibilities:
- Find your productivity peaks and valleys: it’s not easy to work at a time of the day when you just feel like doing nothing. To me, it’s generally the afternoons. After lunch, my body becomes Spanish because all it wants to do is to take a siesta. Every body is different and has its own time of productivity. If we accept that and understand what times of the day work better for us, it becomes a lot less complicated to remain focused. I found that I can do a full day of work in 2 hours after the sun sets. So, I save some energy for the end of the day and allow myself to rest or exercise in the afternoon.
- When it’s not happening in the room, it might happen somewhere else Sometimes, it’s feng shui, sometimes it’s just your mind that can’t ignore the bed in the corner of your field of vision. Either way, working somewhere else in the house might help. I swear that I have even worked in the laundry room, and it has worked for days when I just can’t focus.
I’m sure all of us in a research-based program have daydreamed about fieldwork. Be it collecting samples somewhere in the Arctic, or conducting interviews in the streets of Mumbai, in my opinion, fieldwork is the most alluring part of research. The pandemic has affected us in one way or another interrupting the field research activities. However, there’s still a lot that can be done from the comfort of our own sofas.
- In social sciences, data usually comes from human interaction. In my case, I was originally going to interview low-income families in Rio de Janeiro. However, that would be too great of a risk for them and for myself during the pandemic. I had to switch to an online version of it, but most of my targeted public didn’t have access to good quality internet. Again, my supervisor came up with a plan: to interview leaders of civil society organizations that work and know these families. Of course, it’d be better to gather data from the primary source, but this was a good enough solution for my research during these hard times.
- In physical sciences, it might be a little harder. A lot of the work has to be done in person (I know, I’m also a Chemist). However, there’s a world of possibilities in literature review. During the pandemic, UW library made a huge part of its collection available online, and I could see that as a great opportunity for literature reviews of all types. In fact, I took advantage of that myself, and so did my lab colleagues, since we all were able to simultaneously access books that would normally only have one or two copies. Reading books doesn’t sound as appealing as doing experiments but it’s certainly as important.
Relax. Take it easy.
When all the above is taken care of, it’s time to relax. There’s no way you can expect to give the best of you to your studies when you don’t give yourself the best. Some lessons I’ve learned might help you:
- Weekends still exist. It’s not a rumour. We just have to respect them. I found myself working seven days a week during the pandemic. Mostly because I always felt like I was underachieving. That’s when I realized that there will always be more work to be done. So, we shouldn’t completely sacrifice our weekends to work more. It has made wonders to my energy levels. Of course, I still do some things on Saturdays and Sundays, but it’s mostly light chores that I actually enjoy doing, like taking care of the house or studying French. Just make sure to reserve at least one day to do absolutely nothing related to work. It’s liberating.
- Hobbies might become chores. Watch out for them. When this all started, a lot of us had a whole bunch of projects. Doing yoga, painting, reading, watching all the movies on Netflix etc. were soothing our lives. These are great but also tiresome at times. If you’re doing something for leisure, make sure that it’s not a burden. It’s ok to skip a day! And it’s also necessary to understand that we cannot possibly do everything. Pick one or two things, evaluate how much time you can dedicate to them and try it out. You don’t want to fear the Duolingo owl just because you’re studying 17 languages.
My intention for sharing these reflections was not to romanticize the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m fully aware that it is still a huge threat to the lives of many people in the world, especially in low-income countries. However, I’m sure that we all learned how to be strong and resilient all throughout this time. Sometimes, it’s enough to just make it through the day and find meaning in taking care of yourself. I hope my experiences will help you accept that and maybe take a step further to work on the things that you dream for yourself.
About the Author:
Rodrigo Curty Pereira (he/him) is a PhD student in Geography. His research is on the impacts of COVID-19 on populations that have limited access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. He’s a proud member of the Geographies of Health in Place (GoHelP) lab. Rodrigo is also an activist for LGBTQIA+ lives and rights and he loves nature. Reach out to him on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/rodrigocurty.