Blog Post

Homeschooling My PhD: My Experience Starting a Graduate Degree in a 21st Century Pandemic

Grace Kimball | April 21, 2021

As the only new graduate student in my department for the fall quarter of 2020, I am often asked what it is like to start a PhD program during a pandemic. I certainly never imagined that I would begin the final degree of my long educational journey in quarantine. But, in fairness, there are many aspects of this road that I never would have dreamed of even a few years ago.

I had first visited UCSB for a recruitment weekend in February, long before the word pandemic was in my everyday vocabulary. I assumed if I went to UCSB that I would see the campus again in September and I tried to soak in all of the sights and sounds of university life. I attempted to envision myself on the campus. Although, even then, the picture was a little fuzzy, I felt like the mental image had real potential. I’ll admit that the snapshot in my head still remains a bit unclear of what my real campus life will look like, but it helps that I feel like I now know people that will eventually become part of my daily routine in my department.

When various parts of California began to close schools in March 2020, I was teaching English at a charter high school in Los Angeles while finishing my master’s degree at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). These organizations were part of a three-year plan that I had devised shortly after my move back to California, and I was right on schedule to continue my graduate education in the fall of 2020 at a new institution.

When CSUN closed in the middle of March, I counted myself lucky. This point was before we all started to realize how serious or how long this pandemic could go on, but I was optimistic. After all, I now had extra time to work on my graduation project in exchange for my lengthy commute. The day after CSUN went online on March 12th, my work sent the students home early so the teachers could meet about educating asynchronously until spring break. I thanked my lucky stars for my free time to catch up on grading in exchange for any social life. Time is rarely kind to teachers or students.

As March continued to roll by, some of the programs I had applied to sent me notice that they were no longer accepting anyone into their graduate programs out of fear for their budgets. I watched as fellow applicants posted online about how institutions retracted some of the offers they had been considering. My heart stopped. I realized for the first time what the pandemic could mean for my plans. After all of my careful analysis, my dreams felt like they were slipping through my fingers due to something I could not foresee or control. Obviously, things have worked out since I made it to UCSB, but I now recall March 2020 as a uniquely terrifying period that I believe only applicants from my year may genuinely understand.April, May, and June were a flash of finishing my master’s degree and saying farewell to students remotely. My master’s graduation was postponed, which I didn’t mind since I had been there less than two years. I think my mom was more upset than I was. My real concern, even in the spring, was preparing for the fall journey ahead.

A fall that would never quite come, as it turned out. As I tried to be productive over the summer, I quickly realized that my envisioned fall quarter wouldn’t be as idealistic as I had thought. I opted to stay where I had lived before rather than moving to Santa Barbara, and hunkered down for my first year in the program.

Would I make friends? Would I still feel a part of campus life? A part of my department?

The questions felt endless in a mixture of imposter syndrome and anxiety. I frantically joined nearly every Zoom meet-up offered by the graduate division before the quarter started, even though I knew most of the information from obsessively scouring the university website. I vowed to myself that I would make an effort to feel a part of campus life… even though there was none.

As I nervously began classes, all too aware that I was at a new school, the truth of starting my PhD in a pandemic slowly dawned on me. October turned into November, and Thanksgiving transformed into winter break. For all of my worry and obsessive planning, I gradually realized that it didn’t feel so different from my master’s degree.

In fact, it was the same structure of online learning I had experienced in the spring, just with a different institution. I was synchronous at some points with free time to use at my discretion for assignments and other academic work. The most significant difference was that I wasn’t balancing teaching over a hundred high school students, which I was thankful for, and dutifully transferred the time to further study.

When people ask me what it was like to start my degree in a pandemic, I often describe it as a continuation. I think we would all agree that time is a strange thing in quarantine. Once the summer was over, it felt like I naturally slid from my master’s degree into my PhD. There was never a pause, I just kept going.

I honestly can’t say if my experience was average or if I did anything uniquely different from anyone else. This first year of my PhD has gone by quickly and days have blurred. I find myself investing my hours into my coursework and professional development whenever I have the chance. I do miss social interaction, but I’m well aware that the estrangement is temporary and I’m thankful for my roommate.

I’m also extremely aware of how lucky I am to have started my program when I did. Between my March scare and my conversations with my burnt-out former colleagues from my charter school position, I feel genuinely thankful for the timing of my transition. Although things could have gone a lot more smoothly, it all could have been a lot worse.

Beginning a PhD is a journey of a lifetime, even in normal circumstances. Every day I fulfill curiosities and express myself, growing a little more confident in my opinions and scholarship. To the next set of scholars, if we should be online in the fall, I would like to let you know that you will be fine. Your journey may feel like a continuation, just like mine. After all, life is not a sprint but an ongoing marathon.

After the fall quarter was over, I decided to return my library books to campus myself and take the ninety-minute drive a few days before Christmas. It was my second time in Santa Barbara, much less on campus, and I hadn’t driven my car in weeks.

For those reading this who are not able to visit their campuses during the pandemic, allow me to tell you what it’s like. The best description I can offer is that of silence. The images that I recorded in my mind from February became that of a silent movie and it was eerie. I’ve never visited one of those wild west ghost towns before, but it’s an apt description here: haunting and ominous.

It’s a startling revision of my earlier recollections and, although I know I will make many wonderful memories to override this new image, it is one of those moments that truly alienates you from the future and normalcy that you imagined. Things are certainly looking more positive as I write this, and, like all of us, I am looking forward to a life post-pandemic and to seeing campus life revived.