By Jennifer Brown Jones

What Writing a Dissertation Taught Me About Making Life Work During the Pandemic

I don’t know what I expected, but sheer exhaustion and a bone-deep certainty that the toughest part was yet to come wasn’t it. I may have joked with my non-academic friends that being ABD meant I was “all but done” rather than “all but dissertation,” but I was fully aware that it was a huge but.

After my coursework, I moved almost 2,000 miles away from my academic community. I lost the vast majority of my academic contact—no more coffees with colleagues talking about recent research; no more lunches where I could sift through data with my friends and get another perspective; no more meetings in my advisor's office to try and sort through a thorny problem. Even for an introvert it took a toll.

Change started with pausing to regroup and come up with some strategies for rhythms, spiritual growth and connection. What I’m realizing in the middle of this pandemic is that the strategies that I used to not only survive my dissertation but to actually thrive in the process can help me now, as we make it through yet another week of social distancing.

Find a new normal for our routines.

You’ve probably read about the importance of maintaining our sleep schedules and getting dressed every day. Just because these routines can help maintain a sense of normalcy, though, doesn’t mean we have to be rigid. We may also need to reevaluate our goals and to-do lists; it is likely that something will have to give. It’s time to find a “new normal,” even if it’s something we’d never try in typical circumstances. 

While I was working on my dissertation, I started getting up at 4:00 am. In retrospect it sounds absolutely insane. Actually, though, it was a practice that developed over time. I started out getting up at 5:00 and worked my way earlier because I found I wasn’t getting the time with God that my soul desperately needed. 

I haven’t stuck with that practice since I finished writing. But I know that my best working time is in the morning, so in the middle of Covid-19 I’ve looked for ways to make room in my schedule for essential work early in the day. I started getting up a bit earlier, but I also tweaked my son’s schedule and am actually letting him go to bed later and get up later than usual so that I can get a bit more done first thing. 

Cultivate our relationship with God.

Relationships take time. When the normal structures of life are thrown into chaos, time with God can be one of the casualties — but it doesn’t have to be. Starting out my day in God’s presence has always been important, but never more so than in trying times. 

As I came into the final stretch of my PhD program, I started observing a Sabbath with my family in addition to my quiet time. Practicing Sabbath started as a step of obedience that reflected my belief that obeying God’s prompting was important. But practicing it has shaped me. 

Right now, Sabbath is the one day that things are different. Without leaving home for school or work, our days tend to run into one another. Sabbath is an island in a jumble of sameness. Its very difference makes it the focal point of my week — a day in which I focus my eyes even more intentionally on God. Sabbath invites all of us to remember and to focus on God as both creator (Exodus 20:8-11) and deliverer (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). It calls us to rest in his love, provision, and sovereignty instead of in our ability to structure and order our worlds. 

Sabbath also reminds me of my finitude. I’m limited in time, in space, in knowledge, in resources, in ability. Most of us are acutely aware of our limits right now. For many of us, it has been a rude awakening or a brutal reminder. Sabbath, though, turns our eyes to the God who isn’t limited. It is a weekly reminder that there is more to reality than this present world and the material things we can see and touch. It turns us to God and his ways, which are beyond our understanding. 

Connect with others.

If you weren’t already using video conferencing, you’ve probably become much more familiar with it over the past few weeks. It has been my lifeline for several years.

As I dove into my dissertation, I built up a rotation of friends and colleagues around the world with whom I somewhat regularly connect for what I call my “coffee Skypes.” Seeing a friend’s face has helped me to feel more connected than hours on social media, a text conversation, or even a phone call ever have. 

I’m leaning into this again. These calls aren’t about being productive, though. They’re about building relationships and they might look a little different for each of us. Let’s get creative. Share a meal or coffee. Play a game. Sing some songs. Pray together. What we do isn’t as important as the fact that we’re doing it.

These are just a few top-level ideas to get you thinking. I’d love to hear what steps you’ve taken, what practices you’re adopting, or even how these practices shape your walk with Jesus and his body. For now, though, I’m praying that you will experience a fresh working of the Spirit in your life and that our gracious Father will pour out his love into your heart so that you may share it with others. May each of us walk out the other side of this storm with a deeper relationship with Jesus and a deeper love for his church.

About the Author

Jen is an Adjunct Professor of Old Testament with Ecclesia College. After finishing her PhD coursework, she and her husband Casey moved to the mountains of Utah to provide more opportunities for their special needs son. Their whole family enjoys the year-round outdoor opportunities in their area, especially hiking and downhill skiing. Because of Jen's and Casey's commitment to supporting their son, Jen primarily works from home, serving the church through her online teaching and her blog.

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