Graduate School Prepared Me to Self-Quarantine

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By Ariel Sophia Bardi

As I write, I am looking out onto a sea of rooftops in Rome, much of it eerily empty. But above the forlorn streets, on balconies and rooftops, restless Italians are pacing under patches of mid-day sun, doing bootcamp-style jumping jacks, tending to plants, or pushing prams around in cramped figure eights.

We are entering our third week of national quarantine here in Italy, the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Week after week, the government has been ratcheting up containment measures. Per the most recent decree, we are still not allowed out, save for quick grocery runs or to queue for prescriptions at the local pharmacy (good luck finding face masks!) — and that’s only with signed authorization slips that are checked by police.

Inevitably, the days have begun to blur. And there’s no clear end in sight.

Here in Italy, we have an unwelcome seniority in dealing with lockdown measures that the rest of the world, including the United States and Britain, is now adopting to varying degrees. As a Ph.D. from an American university, and now a journalist and consultant based in Rome, I’d like to offer U.S. academics a few suggestions for surviving your time in quarantine, gleaned from what might seem like a surprising source: graduate school.

Academics and writers are often irrepressibly mobile — traveling to campuses, conferences, field sites — making lockdown measures feel like a prison sentence. However, we are also no strangers to self-isolation. Particularly during the dissertation-writing phase of our doctoral programs, we soldier through long, panicky months of homebound solitude. We began social distancing and sheltering in place long before those terms entered the world’s post-pandemic lexicon.

When Italy’s lockdown was first announced, I found myself desperately drawing on that reserve of experiences to quell the animal terror of indefinite lockup. Remembering how I once managed tedium, anxiety, and loneliness with mastered aplomb, I realized that I was already fairly well-prepared to handle self-quarantine — and so, for that matter, are you. Here’s how.

Lean into new routines. The first few years of your doctoral program are packed with courses and/or teaching assistantships. Added to that are graduate-student mixers, group presentations, or the odd extracurricular, making those early years feel — at least at the best of times — like an extension of busier and buzzier undergraduate years.

However, undergraduate camaraderie continues through a collective graduation day. Graduate students complete their degrees on different timelines, atomized and often alone. I watched many people flounder as they entered their dissertation-writing years, aghast at finding themselves standing alone after all that scholarly scaffolding suddenly fell away. Similarly, those used to structured work days may feel lost within the sudden vacuum that quarantine presents.

In both cases, a good remedy for any horror vacui is to establish new day-to-day rhythms. To steel myself against my own dissertation abyss, I duly added my own scaffolding to otherwise unstructured days. I woke up early, exercised, went for walks, and relished early bedtimes. Surprisingly, at times, I felt more grounded than I had careening through the coursework years.

It is harder to structure your time when you’re literally locked inside, but I still apply more or less the same DIY timetable to my quarantine days. My cooped-up neighborhood in Rome has also recognized the value of new routines. Every night before sunset, they gather on their balconies to clap, wave, and sing.

Break big tasks into manageable achievements. From the first day of graduate school, the dissertation looms ahead — an almost unfathomably gargantuan undertaking. Filled with trepidation as I finally got a prospectus approved, I could hardly conceive of researching and writing a book-length manuscript. The very thought was enough to induce a cold sweat — and if my woeful conversations with other graduate students were any indication, I wasn’t alone.

The advice we receive at that point is to think of the dissertation as a collection of seminar papers, thus breaking up the terrifying size of the final product into less intimidating mini-projects. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor will Italy recover in a day (forgive the cliché — that’s what two weeks of lockdown does to a person.) The point is, rather than contemplate the unfathomable length of time you may spend in quarantine, focus on a more manageable goal: surviving another day.

By grounding ourselves in the present moment, and not contemplating the bleaker existential picture (nor galloping, terror-stricken, toward an unknown end point), we can even begin to enjoy the simple pleasures afforded by so much time at home, without a writing quota we need to hit every day in order to meet dissertation deadlines.

Rely on a cohort for support. The 356-page dissertation I eventually submitted was prefaced by a heartfelt acknowledgment, thanking my fellow dissertation writers for their humor, support, and encouragement. I probably would have gotten through my final years of graduate school without them, but it sure wouldn’t have been as much fun.

I tapped one friend with whom I shared the same submission deadline as my "dissertation buddy." We scheduled weekly lunches and regular check-ins by text or phone call. During those meals, we often stared dejectedly at each other across a cafe table, broken and exhausted; other times, we erupted into giggle fits. Finally, on submission day, we marched to the campus practically arm in arm, our printed tomes in hand.

Similarly, while I know many people in parallel lockdown situations, I have turned to one friend in particular as my personal "quarantine buddy." Together, we have found moments of joy and levity during an otherwise grueling and devastating global crisis.

One person obviously isn’t enough — it takes a village to get through quarantine — but having at least one designated check-in partner can make the experience of self-isolation altogether less isolating.

Hacks will only get you so far, and that’s OK, too. Whether you’re writing a dissertation or climbing up the walls during quarantine, coping strategies no doubt help — but they’re not always enough.

During the final years of my graduate program, I suffered frequent bouts of burnout. I felt alienated, walled off from what felt like normal human interactions after so many months living inside a perilously niche research topic. I wondered when, and how, the next phase of life might begin.

Here in quarantine, I have moments and even whole days of frustration and despair. I’ve watched Italy’s death toll rise, and decried what felt like lackluster containment measures. I’ve wondered what kind of world will greet us when we finally venture outside again — and I ask myself, time and again, when that will be.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you are still left with bad days. Resisting the fear, anxiety, or just plain boredom isn’t always the best solution. Sometimes, when you’re able to accept what a uniquely sad and difficult experience this is, then you can begin to tap into an even deeper level of coping reserves.

Ultimately, whether the days are good or bad, they, too, shall pass. And in the future, if we’re lucky, we will get to look back on this whole planetary crisis as yet another fount of strength, and a new lesson learned.

Ariel Sophia Bardi is a journalist and consultant. She earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale University in 2015. Find her on Twitter @arielsophia_b .


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