Finishing Ph.D. During the Pandemic: My Story
Dr. Selahattin Yilmaz
Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL
Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, US
Hi, AAAL Grads!
As we are living through this pandemic, we still have to keep moving forward as graduate students. Some of you are maybe applying for PhD programs, and others might be working on job applications. In this series of blog posts, AAAL GSC invited several fellow graduate students to share their advice and tips for moving forward and transitioning to the next stages. In the second blog post of this series, Dr. Selahattin Yilmaz shares his inspirational and motivational experiences of dissertation writing and successful graduation.
Finishing Ph.D. During the Pandemic: My Story
Setting the scene
It is a well-known fact that graduate students face a multitude of challenges during their studies. However, 2020 has been a special year in this regard for most of us due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already been documented in a fast-increasing number of research studies (e.g., Bal, Arslan, Mao, Novak, & Muljana, 2020; Chirikov, Soria, Horgos, & Jones-White, 2020; Chirikov & Soria, 2020; Pardo, Ramon, Stefanelli-Silva, Elegbede, Lima, & Principe, 2020; Trout & Alsandor, 2020; Woolston 2020). In this post that I was kindly invited to write for the AAAL-GSC blog, I share my personal experience of dissertation writing during the early days of the pandemic by focusing on what went well and what could have gone better for me.
According to my initial plan, the spring of this year was going to be my last semester; so, I was working on finishing my data analysis in March when the quarantine measures were largely introduced. At the time, I was also lucky to have been awarded the Provost's Dissertation Fellowship by Georgia State University, which meant that, unlike my previous semesters, I did not have to work as a graduate assistant for financial support. This was an excellent opportunity for many reasons, the most important being the chance to devote most of my time to my dissertation. However, as much as several research-related issues caused major delays in my plans despite this opportunity, the pandemic also became a significant source of stress and uncertainties. As an international student, I was following the news both in the US and Turkey, my home country, while also worrying about the changing job market and its impact on my future career plans.
Eventually, I defended and submitted my dissertation in August and flew back to my home country in September. After months of job applications, I also found a job as a lecturer about a week ago. Now that I feel this tough period is behind me, I think I can now reflect on the past seven months a little better. I would, however, also like to add that I am aware of my advantages during this time, and I cannot compare myself to those that experienced devastating losses by any means. I just hope that you find this very personal account of my experience relatable, and that it helps you get through the pandemic-related issues you may be handling in some way.
Looking back: What went well?
As I look back at the time between March and September, I am now able to identify a few factors that helped me get through that difficult period. Among these factors, what helped me the most, I must say, was the support of my advisor, Dr. Ute Römer. While she had already been quite supportive and understanding as an advisor before the pandemic, she was also extremely patient with and understanding about all the delays in my work caused mainly by my increased levels of stress and anxiety with the pandemic. She kept encouraging me to finish my work and continue job applications by offering help and feedback at a busy time also for her.
As for my life, I am glad to have had a daily routine that helped me stay on track. I continued cooking and exercising regularly. I love cooking in general, so that was not a problem at all. About a year before the pandemic started, I started going to a local gym near my apartment almost six days a week for 45-minute classes in small groups. The early-morning classes I was taking helped me feel energized enough to kick-start my day and feel less guilty about being inactive while working from home. And I continued my exercise routine during the pandemic except for April when my gym closed temporarily. I tried exercising outdoors at that time, but my enthusiasm did not last long. Instead, I started walking to and from the grocery store. I also met friends outdoors a few times. Those small gatherings were quite therapeutic as these friends were also Ph.D. students both in my program and programs in different disciplines. It was crucial to share experiences, feelings, and coping mechanisms we developed to not feel alone.
Along with being in touch with friends, staying connected with academics worldwide through social media is something I have been slowly getting used to for a few years now. Twitter, in particular, has been an essential source of news from the field, as well as peer support for me. Once I started following acquaintances and accounts relevant to my research, I started to explore other accounts relevant to my interests. This is how I also started following many academics writing about issues related to the challenges of graduate school, such as mental health, financial difficulties, competitive job markets, and extreme workloads. As I had more time and curiosity to check Twitter when the lockdown started, I got to learn about the impact of the pandemic on academia and the lives of academics around the world.
Overall, I think these are the three factors that contributed to my dissertation writing process quite positively. However, having an experience like this for the first time in my life and being in the initial adaptation phase, I also feel now that certain things could have gone differently.
Looking back: What could have gone differently?
I do not think I understood how severe and long-lasting the pandemic's impacts were going to be for quite a while. Everything from dissertation writing to the academic job market in the US was new for me. Just as I was learning to cope, things were changing with the pandemic. Therefore, now I think that the different sources of stress and uncertainty at the time required certain actions I should have taken to control the situation better.
As I wrote in the previous section, I had a sustainable daily routine that I liked. Still, I dedicated most of my time to dissertation writing, some ongoing research collaborations, and applying for tenure-track jobs. I think I would have benefitted from a careful analysis of the changing dynamics in academia by also looking into alternative career paths and communicating with colleagues from the discipline more often. For instance, I did not know much about the job opportunities other than the positions of tenure-track professorships. Although I used technological tools in my teaching and research, most of my professional communication was in person until the pandemic started. With the dissertation writing keeping me busy and not having an assistantship for which I had to follow the changing university policies, I ended up isolating myself from my professional circles. Similarly, almost every day's unpredictable developments led me to more of a consumer rather than an active and engaged participant on academic Twitter.
Considering how I look at that period of my life now, I believe I would have benefitted from a more proactive stance. I would have definitely come up with a couple of contingency plans for life after my Ph.D. studies and stayed in touch with my professional network more closely. Most importantly, the stress I dealt with on my own now feels like a pretty natural reaction to an extraordinary series of life-changing events. This is why I regret not having sought the professional help of a therapist or support group that could have helped me comprehensively interpret the situation and urge me to adapt my action plan continually.
I believe that the lessons I learned from writing my dissertation during the pandemic could guide any of you in a similar career stage somehow. You may understandably feel overwhelmed regardless of your situation and context. I suggest everyone reach out and seek support from sources and people around you or in the field and look for ways to adapt to the 'new normal'. I would also be happy to learn about your experiences, so feel free to contact me via email. For now, until we leave behind this very difficult time (hopefully very soon), I wish you all a pleasant graduate school journey that is affected by the pandemic as little as possible.
About the author
Selahattin Yilmaz has recently finished his Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics at Georgia State University. His research focuses primarily on corpus-based explorations of phraseological patterns in academic writing from an English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) perspective. He is also interested in ELF-aware approaches to L2 writing pedagogy and language teacher education.
Bal, I. A., Arslan, O., Budhrani, K., Mao, Z., Novak, K., & Muljana, P. S. (2020). The balance of roles: Graduate student perspectives during the COVID-19 pandemic. TechTrends, 1-3.
Chirikov, I., Soria, K. M, Horgos, B., & Jones-White, D. (2020). Undergraduate and graduate students' mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. UC Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/80k5d5hw.
Chirikov, I., & Soria, K. M. (2020). International students' experiences and concerns during the pandemic. SERU Consortium, University of California - Berkeley and University of Minnesota. https://cshe.berkeley.edu/seru-covid-survey-reports.
Pardo, J. C. F., Ramon, D., Stefanelli-Silva, G., Elegbede, I., Lima, L. S., & Principe, S. C. (2020). Advancing through the pandemic from the perspective of marine graduate researchers: Challenges, solutions, and opportunities. Frontiers in Marine Science, 7(528), 1-7.
Trout, I. Y., & Alsandor, D. J. (2020). Graduate student well-being: Learning and living in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Multidisciplinary Perspectives in Higher Education, 5(1), 150-155.
Woolston, C. (2020). Signs of depression and anxiety soar among US graduate students during pandemic. Nature, 147-148.