Ponder about tomorrow, but have a concrete plan for today

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Ponder about tomorrow, but have a concrete plan for today

At some point in our lives, many of us have experienced a natural disaster such as an earthquake, tornado, snowstorm or hurricane. In the case of hurricanes, for example, we tend to get some forewarning. This gives us time to create a plan of action, from assembling our disaster supplies kit to nailing down shutters. We usually have a fair idea of how long it will last and the damage it will leave in its wake. Very few of us, however, have experienced a global pandemic like the one we are all going through right now. It came without much warning and has been moving with such speed; no one can truly guarantee the after-effects. We are all trying to imagine the final extent of damage and what life will be like after COVID-19. How long will it last? Will it ever be over? Will we recover? Will it come back? There is mounting anxiety and streets that once teemed with activity are now eerily quiet. Right now, the only sign of life from my window is a squirrel who is busy scratching itself. 

In the midst of the mounting uncertainty, all of us are facing challenges - some shared, some unique to our individual situations. As academics, the ‘publish or perish’ aphorism and hours spent in isolation working on experiments or poring over journal articles are things we usually face daily. With this global pandemic, however, there are added personal and professional challenges. Many academics are international students stuck in isolation far away from loved ones. For some, seasonal job offers may have been affected and job searches as early-career scientists will probably become even more gruelling. For others, the high point of years of hard work will be a viva in your kitchen via Zoom. With labs shuttered to ‘non-essential’ work, data collection for observational research has ground to a halt. In a matter of days, carefully crafted timelines literally flew out the window. As a full-time mature student half-way through my doctoral training and far away from my immediate family, I speak out of my personal situation.

I will always remember Friday, March 13, 2020, and it is not because of those Friday the 13th movies. On that date, schools across Montreal (Quebec) – from daycares to universities – started closing their doors in response to directives from the government. I was in the process of recruiting preschool participants for my randomized control trial intervention. I had no idea what this lockdown meant for my data collection in particular and for my research in general. I thought that maybe, the impact would be very short-term, and schools will start functioning again in a month or two. But since there was no way to be certain, I decided to look at my situation through eyes that saw a best-case and a worst-case scenario, similar to the Scenario A and B projections released by Quebec (Canada) public health officials for the province. On March 13th, my optimistic outlook was that I could probably start data collection come September; the pessimistic – and more realistic – outlook was not for another year. So, I did what I do best – plan!

  • First - revisit my handwritten goals for the academic year.
  • Next - work out a feasible plan of action with my supervisor.
  • Then - create a little workspace in the corner by the window.

Planning and crafting out different scenarios give us a sense of structure and to some extent, control, even when we know we are not in control. I knew I was not in control of this situation, but I needed this structure for myself. I needed to put things in perspective. Otherwise, I knew I would start to focus only on the mounting uncertainties. I had a plan and I was going to create a routine and make work goals for the day. I even wrote out my plan of action and stuck it on the wall by the window. This made it more real.

Lists on workstation

Six weeks later …

My data collection is still very much on hold. That is a given. It does not seem probable that school will be back in session in the traditional sense before September 1st and even that date may very well be pure conjecture. A return to school with face-to-face contact is still a moving target. For the most part, I have been focusing on work for my dissertation that does not require data. For example, I am currently preparing a review paper that will support my dissertation and my career. I have also been lending support to my peers. I was able to complete reliability coding for one of my peers and learn from the experience. 

The impact of my data collection not starting on schedule means my completion timeline may very well have to be adjusted. However, I am hoping that by focusing all my efforts now on preparing the parts of the dissertation that do not require data, I will be able to offset the overall impact. I am hoping this trade-off will put me back on schedule to finish my doctorate within the original timeline. Of course, my supervisor and I will possibly have to come up with an alternative if observational research with a preschool population is just not possible, at least with the current research design. 

I have been using my ‘plan of action’ list as my guide; however, there are many days when I am not motivated to work. There are days when I am doing my best and trying to stick to my goals but no matter how hard I try; I am not being the least bit productive. I am learning to not chastise myself for stopping work on such occasions.

These days, it is not only my timeline to complete my doctorate that I think about but also my re-entry into the job market. As a mature student who returned full-time to graduate school a few years ago, I have added concerns of my own. The job market for early career scientists was already challenging and will no doubt be more competitive once the pandemic is over. I tell myself that I need to keep perspective. Rather than focus on the ‘what ifs’, I should focus on my demonstrable experience, my training and my transferable skills. Instead of worrying about what this pandemic this will mean for the job market tomorrow, today I will continue to hone my skills, network, search for jobs, and apply. 

It is okay to ponder what tomorrow will bring, to make projections and craft different scenarios. After all, it helps to visualize how things could possibly turn out, make it somewhat tangible, and leave us feeling less like we are being tossed about in a sea of uncertainty. It gives us something solid to grasp. Yet at the same time, we could end up spending so much time forecasting and refining our scenarios that we never truly focus on making the best of the current situation.

Like many others, I am a planner; a ‘list’ person. However, there are many things over which we do not have control, especially right now with the shifting situation and the rippling effects of the changes. I have made plans and I am working on them, but I truly do not know what tomorrow, next week, or next month will bring for my research. My goal therefore is to take it in bite-sizes and to keep doing my best. Every day, I will do what I can with what I have. My hope for myself (and my fellow researchers) is that:

  • I (we) will not give up on my (our) research.
  • I (we) will not look at the future with pessimism but will persevere.
  • I (we) will continue to push through and take a break when it is just not coming together.
  • My (our) why remains the same as yesterday. I (we) just have to adjust my (our) how and adapt to the changing situation.

Things will eventually be okay and some tomorrow in the future will see me back in my lab. The current second-year speech-language pathology students will have moved on to clinical practice and a new set of first years will be talking loudly in the corridors. I may start out with lofty ideas of spending more time with fellow lab mates before gradually shifting back into my natural habitat of more time with my research and not enough time with actual people. For now, I will keep working through my list. Some days, I know I will be productive and some days I know I will wrap myself in my bubble and watch re-runs and funny baby videos. For now, I will also celebrate those small truths - I am alive and well, I have food in the cupboard, and I have Wi-Fi so I can do my database searches for my article. Tomorrow, I may get to finally go on that hike, but for today, I will don my safety glasses, gloves, and my makeshift face mask; and wave to my fellow walker - from a very safe distance.

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*Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash


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Published on: May 03, 2020

Driven by the love for reading, passion for teaching and learning, and a desire to see all children (students) achieve their full potential
See more from Dahlia Thompson


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