Staying Grounded & Connected to Academic Work in the Time of COVID-19

March 25, 2020

When we imagined the world in 2020, we didn’t conceive of this very strange and frightening reality of COVID-19. But here we are, living in some kind of dystopian existence, where our world has been turned upside down by a global pandemic.

Just a little while ago, we were unfamiliar with terms like social distancing, shelter in place, safer at home, or flattening the curve. Few of us have ever experienced empty supermarket shelves, toilet paper and hand sanitizer shortages, or scrambling to recalibrate our lives to work online. Many of us are having to make countless small and large adjustments. You may be teaching online, changing your routines and suddenly coworking with others, becoming homeschool teachers overnight while schools are shut down, or caring for others who cannot leave their homes at all.

Even in the face of our new reality, we know it is important to maintain some sense of routine and normality. We also know that many of you still want to make progress on the path to earning a graduate degree. We are all needing a way to manage the stress and uncertainty of our new reality, yet still be able to focus, concentrate, and complete academic tasks. To that end, we want to offer you a few ideas of how you can support yourself to stay grounded, productive, and connected to your academic work during this unprecedented time.


To start, it can make a big difference to clarify your priorities. In terms of your academic work, we encourage you to consider what deadlines you have or goals are you seeking to meet. What work would it feel really good to (realistically and humanely) accomplish today, this week, this month? Take into account what can reasonably be accomplished given what is happening in your household, changes to your work or childcare responsibilities, and the stress of living through this pandemic.  We recommend writing down the academic and life priorities you have over the next few weeks to set the stage for making progress and being able to care for yourself and loved ones. Each evening, write out your priorities for the next day and give yourself specific writing or other research tasks that can be completed in shorter intervals of time. For example, instead of a directive to “write chapter 2,” it may be more helpful to identify small subsections in chapter 2 to write in a given day.


A great way to feel connected to your work is to set up a structure for your day that includes some academic zones, periods of time when you will commit to only doing academic tasks (and truly take a break from your phone, email, social media, and the news). This is especially important if you are not used to working from home. It can be very helpful to map out a plan for the day that includes when you are writing or doing other academic tasks, when you are exercising, and when you are managing other work and personal responsibilities with space to unwind and even do nothing. Alison closes out each work day by mapping out the next day  on a yellow pad of paper and uses that written plan as a roadmap for how to move through her day including her own writing projects, phone calls and meetings, administrative tasks,etc. She often plans 1-2 hour blocks of phone and email free time for writing projects. Alison has learned from experience how vital it is to build in time to rest, eat, connect with her family and unwind so she can better focus and concentrate when it is time to work. Inside your academic work zones, you may find it especially helpful to use the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in 25 minute increments (check out Spotify’s Pomodoro Playlist) or virtually co-work with others via Skype or Zoom.


Virtually coworking with others can be a great way to feel more accountable and supported while also reducing the isolation of only being able to work at home. We offer virtual writing boot camps for our clients and many of them tell us that coworking is the only way they can focus and make meaningful progress during this pandemic. Coworking can make a surprising difference in your productivity. Here is a suggested coworking strategy:

  •  Find one or more people to schedule a coworking call. Open the call with a 5-10 minute meeting to get connected and declare your work goals for the first work session. We find that using Skype or Zoom with video can be very helpful.
  • Agree to a set amount of time you will all work and then turn off the video and sound during the work session. Set an alarm or timer so you know when to return to the call at the agreed upon time.
  • Take a 5-10 minute break and share what you were able to accomplish. Support and encourage each other as needed and declare your goals for the next work session. Alison typically co-works with others for 1.5 to 2 hour blocks of time, checking in about every 40 minutes or so. Other people prefer the pomodoro method mentioned above, where they work for 25 minutes and check in for 5, doing between 2 and 4 pomodoros in a row.
  • Close out the co-working session by acknowledging your accomplishments and anything you want to do to make future work sessions more effective. Schedule another coworking session.


We are all facing challenges and uncertainty at this time. Many of us are experiencing that our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol leaving us in a chronic flight, fight, or freeze state. You may be losing track of time and feel like your brain is not fully functioning. If you feel like your IQ has dropped or you are struggling to remember, think, or write clearly, you are not alone. What we are experiencing with COVID-19 is pushing us into survival consciousness where the reptilian brain (more primitive part of the brain) takes charge, and the neocortex (where higher order functioning takes place) gets limited to rehashing the past or trying to control the future. Thus it becomes harder to think clearly and make thoughtful, conscious choices. We are more likely to be in a reactive mode. So please be gentle with yourself and keep focusing on what is in your control. None of us can control how long this pandemic will last, whether others will practice social distancing, or when life will feel more normal again. Yet we can all practice being kind and compassionate toward ourselves and others. We can stay informed while also maintaining a healthy boundary with news and social media, find enjoyable activities and do things like connect with loved ones virtually, engage in activities that help us unwind from stress, and practice social distancing and other recommended behavior. Believe it or not, some of you may find working on your dissertation to be a helpful refuge from the world. Also, don’t forget to take time to create a peaceful, organized workspace so you have an environment that feels good and is conducive to productivity..


Some of you may work in healthcare or other fields that are seriously impacted by COVID-19 or now have children at home who require your attention and care. If your professional or parenting responsibilities are making it very difficult to meet external deadlines, we encourage you to be in communication sooner rather than later. Most likely, faculty and administration will be flexible and grant extensions to students given this pandemic. Communicate this message in a positive way that demonstrates your commitment to meet existing deadlines with an alert that you may need to ask for an extension. In our experience, it is better to communicate early and provide a proactive warning that you may not be able to meet deadlines .

We are here rooting for you to put one foot in front of the other, taking it one day at a time, maybe one hour at a time. From all of us at The Dissertation Coach, we hope you and your loved ones stay healthy and safe.