Graduate Life During COVID-19: The New Normal?

By Noa Nahmias

I am a PhD candidate in History working on modern China. Despite having followed the impact of the novel coronavirus in China, I was caught off-guard when the crisis came to Toronto. Working in my living room, now both ‘home’ and ‘office,’ I am trying to adjust to what we are being told is the new normal.

On March 10, 2020 I taught what would be my last in-person class. Many of my students are Asian and some are international students from China. We had been discussing the effects and measures taken against the spread of the virus in China, but neither my students nor I realized that we would soon find ourselves in a similar situation.

Everyone has had to shift their work habits.
(Photo by C. Dunn)

When strict physical distancing was introduced in mid-March, it seemed that my life could go on very much the same. I still had income since my class continued online and I could continue writing my dissertation. As the days went by, I realized that it wasn’t the same. It was eerily similar, but it felt worse. Financial uncertainty and employment precarity were already my reality for the past five years, as they are for most graduate students. But the regular stress of graduate student life was compounded by the feeling that things could indeed get worse. As I prepare to enter the academic job market next year, the potential impact of this crisis adds anxiety to an already stressful situation. After several weeks of working at home, I noticed that I had little motivation to make progress on my project. It became clear that being housebound, not seeing any of my friends, colleagues, or humans in-person, was taking a toll. I continued getting dressed every morning, but some days it felt fake, a show for an invisible audience that I couldn’t conjure into existence. 

Boundaries and demarcation of space are crucial to managing the different parts of myself. How can I behave like the motivated, productive, professional researcher I want to be—when I do all my work three feet from my couch, where I am my most lazy and unproductive self? What is the sense in wearing my usual “professional armour” of dress pants, dress shirt, a cardigan—if there is no one there to see?

The persona that I adopt in professional settings—conferences, the classroom, the hallways of my department—is critical to how I navigate academia. As a graduate student and as a young woman, I am not immediately seen as a legitimate academic authority, not in the same way that older, cis-hetero white men are. My ability to take up this persona is contingent on being able to create a clear boundary between the different parts of myself, which includes keeping my home life, hobbies and other parts of my identity separate from professional spaces. Working from home has challenged this separation. Many of us can no longer pretend we exist only as “brain carriers”, as our home life creeps up to disrupt the professional lives that we are forced to conduct inside our living spaces.

Take, for example, the regular Zoom meetings I have with a working group of fellow historians. While it has always been online since it includes researchers in different countries, I used to participate from my on-campus office and they from theirs. For our first post-pandemic meeting I prepared as usual. I read the articles, took notes and wrote comments. I washed my hair and dressed professionally. Ready, I sat down with my coffee, logged in and joined ten other colleagues who seemed to have put in a similar effort. The charade, however, broke down quickly when a sleepy partner of one of the participants, wearing pajamas, appeared on screen apparently en route to the kitchen. For a moment I was mortified. The meeting went on and a few minutes later it happened again to another participant. Sure enough, before our meeting ended, it happened to me as well. It felt wildly uncomfortable to have such a vulnerable part of myself be visible while trying to perform the role of the academic.

I wonder if our collective enclosure will be a way to challenge the unspoken requirement in academia that people conceal the material and emotional realities of their lives. Perhaps as we shift to a new reality where those of us who can work at home continue to do so, we can also shift our unrealistic and counter-productive expectation of academics to make invisible everything that does not fit the outdated ideal of “life of the mind”: our messy living rooms, our physical needs and abilities, our affective attachments, and our roles as caregivers. Perhaps this is an opportunity to create a more human academe.  

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Noa Nahmias is a Doctoral Candidate in History and a Graduate Associate of the York Centre for Asian Research.

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*More of our graduate associates also shared their thoughts on how this crisis is impacted their education, research, finances, home life and future. Click here to read more:

**Top image courtesy of