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  • culmegan

Grad School During the Covid19 Pandemic

The Covid19 pandemic affected everyone's lives, and I don't think anyone could have predicted exactly how their lives would look in May when we first got notices to work-from-home-if-possible in mid-March. Personally, I first believed that we would be taking final exams in person, doubting that I would be out of the office for more than a couple of weeks. It is now early June, and I am only just starting to receive notices that people who are unable to work from home may start gradually coming back to the office, but under strict distancing and sanitary guidelines.

I believe that everyone's experiences with the pandemic are individual and important, but I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the effects I experienced, and how it changed the lives of graduate students in particular.

Many grad students are in the unique position of taking classes and holding near full-time jobs with deadlines, bosses, and project timelines. For me, the transition to online classes was the easiest part. I was enrolled in two classes, one lecture-based, one discussion-based. While there was some back-and-forth on how the discussion-based class would be affected by a virtual environment, ultimately it was fairly straightforward to move both classes to regular zoom meetings. Classes were recorded for those that might not have equal access to technology. My professors requested that we keep our cameras on so they could get feedback from our faces during class, and, for the most part, we were still able to have decent conversations. Something was definitely missing though. There was no before-and-after chats with peers about how their days were, what they were working on, or what we might do over the weekend. There were fewer casual jokes from instructors, who were instead focused on getting the media to work and communicating a message. It was easier to lose focus, pull up another screen, or even work on another project if we didn't want to focus. So while my experience with online classes was positive, I learned they require a much higher motivation to engage from the student. I cannot see online classes as an equal option compared to in-class instruction, though I have no doubt that universities will continue to increase their online offerings, likely speeding up plans to do so because of conditions forced by the pandemic.

And what of research? For a first year Master's student like myself, I still rely on the motivation, direction, and feedback from my coworkers and advisors for the projects I am working on. I am grateful and lucky that I was able to continue working on my projects with all the resources I needed from home. In one case, it actually became easier. MATLAB licenses, previously restricted to university computers and faculty, became available for all students for download on local computers. That meant that I could use MATLAB, a computationally-heavy program, on my own computer. This I could do rather than using a remote connection, sometimes unstable and usually slow, to perform modeling work for one of my projects. I certainly felt for fellow grad students who performed much of their work in labs. Some of them were able to take equipment home and set up mini-labs in their apartments. Others did their best to work with the data they had, catch up on other tasks, and plan future experiments. But there's only so much of that you can do without real hands-on work. Even I was stilted by a loss of access to equipment. I was planning to take over a setup from a coworker, but now I have no way to access his locked office. Instead I've focused on other parts of that project that I can work on remotely.

Besides the access to resources and the ability to perform work, grad students also addressed the challenge of finding ways to work independently after being taught how to be most productive in a collaborative team environment. I am in the unique position of being co-advised by two advisers who have very few students between them. So while I feel strong camaraderie with the students I share office space with, I don't necessarily feel like I am part of a particular lab. Although much of my work was already independent, I found it more challenging to stay self-motivated from home. I can only imagine that for students who worked daily side-by-side with their labmates the transition to independent work was even more challenging.

Another key impact was the rapid changes to conferences. I had colleagues who cancelled trips just days before they were scheduled to present. I myself was planning to present a poster at the IEEE PES T&D Expo in April, which was postponed to the fall, but I will be surprised if it occurs in-person as scheduled. Another conference I was planning to attend was cancelled entirely for the year. Perhaps I should have seen this one coming. As the registration officer for the PECI 2020 conference, I was in change of issuing visa letters for our authors from foreign countries. Some of them had to pull out at the last minute before the conference in February due to travel restrictions, but we made arrangements for them to pre-record talks and be available online at the time of the presentation. What I saw from this virtual format was that the audience barely engaged with the author, which makes me hesitate to engage in any future, fully virtual conferences. I think one of the key benefits to attending conference, besides publishing, is the networking that occurs. Conferences are where I've met some of the most inspirational speakers, learned about companies and schools that interest me, and made connections with people I hope might someday be my coworkers. Attending the FS-ISAC Fall Summit in 2018 showed me that for some conferences, the face-to-face networking is the key thing holding together a system of information-sharing among businesses that closely guard their IP. This sharing is hugely important in the realm of cybersecurity, and I don't think the same connections of trust can be built in a virtual format.

I fully expect that in-person conferences will resume when it is safe to do so, but I expect that some conference organizers will be hesitant to do so before there is a vaccine. What will conferences in the post-COVID world look like? Will we shake hands when we meet people? Will we be wary of talking to people we don't know? Will we be willing to go out for a drink after the last presentation of the day wraps up to solidify the connections we've made, or will we prefer to retreat to our hotel rooms, where it is safe? I certainly hope that we will not be afraid of networking in the future, but I am curious to see what changes we will see to standard procedures over the next few years.

By almost any argument, handling COVID as a domestic grad student was pretty easy compared to most jobs. Most professors were flexible as they too had to navigate rapid changes to the way they taught, did research, and interacted with the academic community. And there was a lot of support at the institution level for students lacking certain resources or looking to change the way classes their classes showed up on their transcripts. I am extremely grateful for the flexibility, as well as for the fact that I didn't have to worry about my income during this time. My experience as a domestic student is different than that of many of my peers, international students worried about families back home, about travel restrictions, about keeping jobs for visa statuses. My experience staying at my college residence was different than students who had to return to families, families that may have provided comfort, but may have provided more distractions, instability, and less control than what they are used to for school environments. There's no way that I can feel or understand what they feel, but I hope that I can be there as a friend and colleague to make this time easier in every way that I can.

I am curious, excited, and admittedly a little nervous to see what will be the temporary changes and what will be the permanent changes as a result of this pandemic. If we learn to accomplish more with fewer meetings, travel less for meetings that can be just as effective remotely, use all of the resources available for education, and take advantage of cutting edge technology that connects us to the people and resources we need then maybe will have used our time in quarantine wisely.

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