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Robert Neubecker

To get through a personal crisis, I found a surprising source of comfort: work

I never imagined my graduate school experience would be so heavily impacted by a personal crisis. Yet, during the second year of my Ph.D. program, the COVID-19 pandemic marked the beginning of the most difficult chapter of my life. My university shut down, I moved out of my roommate-filled house to protect my immunocompromised partner, and I lost my older brother to suicide. As the dust started to settle, I went through an unexpected breakup: My partner was going to Alaska, where I had planned to join him for the summer, and he ended our relationship days before his departure. Within a span of 2 months, my life had become nearly unrecognizable.

I was overwhelmed by heartbreak and the feeling that my world had fallen apart. My sense of time all but disappeared, and my mind went into overdrive to process the rapid succession of losses. To make matters worse, I didn’t even have the comfort of friends from closer than 6 feet.

My adviser told me to take the personal time I needed, and other graduate students took over my teaching responsibilities for the rest of the semester. I visited my family in the immediate aftermath of my brother’s death. I also met regularly with my therapist and, in the weeks that followed, I gave myself time to process my grief in other ways, such as by regularly calling friends and family and going on long runs and bike rides.

Well-meaning friends and family suggested I take a leave of absence from my Ph.D. program. But I didn’t think that was a good idea. I feared that too much unstructured time would cause me to dwell on past events outside of my control, which would not be good for my mental health. On a more practical level, I needed my graduate stipend, and the last thing I wanted was to add financial instability to my worries.

So I stuck with my program, taking each day as it came. At first, I attempted to work on my dissertation. But preparing for qualifying exams and planning an international field season that—given the pandemic—might not even happen felt overwhelming. Through a process of trial and error, I found small projects, unrelated to my research, that consumed me and gave me a sense of moving forward without driving me to burnout. I sat down and wrote science communication pieces that I had been meaning to tackle for the past 2 years. I reached out to old connections and potential collaborators to strengthen my professional network. And I took an online course that taught me how to learn more effectively.

Some may argue that if I could work on side projects, then I could also work on my dissertation. Logically, I can’t disagree. But grieving and healing are not logical processes so much as intuitive ones.

For me, goal setting and task completion are forms of self-care.

Each time I thought about diving back into my research, it filled me with panic—not how I want to feel about the work I love so much. So, I gave myself permission to wait and try again in a few days. In the meantime, my small projects reassured me that I was capable of setting and achieving goals. They also helped me see my own creativity and resilience in a time of crisis—skills that I had worked hard to develop during my first year of grad school, when I struggled with depression.

Nearly 4 months have passed since my brother’s death, and I still break down at certain reminders of him. Yet, with the help of an incredible support network, I am moving through the grief of his passing and my other losses. Slowly but surely, I’m also developing the mental space to work on my core grad school tasks. I’m now spending the bulk of my workdays studying for my qualifying exams, which I’m slated to take in September.

In the midst of a crisis, it can be difficult to disentangle what you think you need from what you actually need. “Do what you need to take care of yourself” is a nice sentiment, but it didn’t help me. I needed a program. My crisis taught me that I benefit from daily doses of healthy distractions— and that, for me, goal setting and task completion are forms of self-care. Yet I’m grateful I had a chance to find my own way forward without the pressure of a predetermined timeline. I hope other students dealing with crises can be given the same freedom.

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