Thriving in Graduate Degree Programs During a Pandemic

by Tobin Perry

In the fall of 2020, Sophie Cook, M.A. ’22, could have chosen to put off her graduate school dreams until another time. A global pandemic had upended daily life. Graduate degree programs take time and energy that seemed in shorter supply.

But, as a designer, Cook recognized that while she was developing the technical skills she needed in her field, she wanted to strengthen her teamwork, collaboration, and skills as a leader. Pursuing a Master of Arts in Leadership at Azusa Pacific University was an ideal way to get that necessary training. She won’t let a pandemic get in the way.

“My mother, an immigrant from Colombia, always taught me the riches that education holds,” Cook said. “Although she grew up in deep poverty, she always knew that education was a means to improve her situation, ultimately paying her own way to complete her bachelor’s at Azusa Pacific University. She never let hardship deter her from getting wisdom or knowledge. She is an inspiration to me and one of the reasons I am starting grad school this fall.”

Starting or continuing in graduate degree programs during a pandemic requires adaptability, but it need not be overwhelming. In fact, this might be an ideal time to refresh your skills during a historic shift in the job market. In the spring, many companies had to adapt to remote work. And as the economy changes, industries are evolving and new roles are developing. Pursuing a graduate degree can help you develop the skills needed to succeed in a work-from-home environment—and it can help you seize new opportunities.

4 Tips for Navigating Graduate School Programs During a Pandemic

Yes, enrolling or staying in grad school during a pandemic is a big commitment, but you can do this! Follow these tips and you won’t just survive graduate school—you’ll thrive.

  1. Settle on a routine. You may be surprised at how grounding a solid routine can be. Try to settle issues like when and where you’ll study. Keep up habits like spiritual disciplines, church attendance, and exercise routines. You’ll likely be tempted to ditch these routines as plans shift around you, but resist that urge and stay consistent. The routines you can control will help you deal with the changes you can’t control.

  2. Learn to prioritize well. You’ll hear this early and often in graduate degree programs—even in normal circumstances. Juggling work, school, and family responsibilities means you’ll need to say no to certain requests that pull you from your priorities. Don’t feel guilty about this.

    “Prioritizing means realizing that the seemingly urgent things are not always the important things and that sometimes it really is OK to say no to some things that compete for our time and attention,” said Matt Browning, Ed.D., director of graduate and professional student engagement at APU.

  3. Set clearly defined goals. When you are creating daily, weekly, and long-term goals for yourself, make sure they are clearly stated and, most importantly, attainable, says Heather Hoshiko, Psy.D., assistant professor and director for the psychology programs at APU’s San Diego and Murrieta campuses. She advises that students apply the SMART concept from the field of industrial-organizational psychology, which states that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

    “The reason that many individuals do not accomplish their projected goals is that they lack definition,” Hoshiko said. “By answering these questions realistically, success is more likely. If your goals are too difficult or too simple, you can adjust them as needed.”

    Hoshiko provided an example of setting a SMART thesis-writing goal in grad school:

    • Specific: I will work on the Results section of my thesis.
    • Measurable: I will spend a minimum of four hours weekly on this goal.
    • Achievable: I will spread the four hours over the course of the week.
    • Relevant: I need to finish this portion in order to move on to my Discussion section.
    • Time-Bound: I will do this over the span of one month and evaluate where my goal is.
  4. Find your anchor points. “A popular study conducted by Lally demonstrated that it takes 66 days to form a new habit,” said Hoshiko. “However, author and social scientist B.J. Fogg posits in his New York Times bestseller, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, that it can be done in less than a week by the creation of an anchor.”

    An anchor is a cue—something you perform daily. By tying a new habit that relates to your graduate school study goals to one that you are already accustomed to, the new element also becomes routine.

    “If you are a morning coffee drinker, perhaps pair it with re-reading your notes from class the day before,” says Hoshiko, “especially since research on rehearsing notes shows that you can increase your memory by as much as 70 percent if you do so within 24 hours.”

Resources at APU to Support Your Learning

The staff and faculty at APU understand the unique challenges facing students in this period and are ready to help. Students can lean on an assortment of resources to help them through their graduate school experience.

  • APU Faculty: Browning recommends talking with faculty early if you struggle with graduate school demands. “I can’t encourage students enough to communicate well with their professors,” he said. “They can and will give guidance on assignments, resources, content expertise, and more, but it’s a two-way street and students should reach out.”
  • APU Telehealth: Graduate students have access to medical, mental health, and health coaching support at no cost through APU Telehealth. Any enrolled graduate student can use APU Telehealth for a virtual visit with a student-focused physician or counselor.
  • Together APU: APU developed this website to help students find encouragement, hope, and strength during this time. It includes everything from opportunities to get exercise to mental health resources to career advice.

Want more information about how APU can support your graduate school experience? Check out the Office of Graduate and Professional Student Engagement.