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Graduate Nursing Student Tells of Challenges to Pursuing Doctoral Degree during COVID-19

Cmdr. Troncoso working at her desk
By Zachary Willis

For Navy Cmdr. Melissa Troncoso, a Graduate School of Nursing student pursuing a doctoral degree in Nursing Science at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), closing the campus and moving to a virtual environment has presented challenges to her ability to complete her dissertation.  Although graduate work is done independently, much of it requires in-person collaboration and data collection, presenting Cmdr. Troncoso with a number of obstacles to face and overcome during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

1. How does the way you're tackling your dissertation in quarantine differ from how you would normally carry out your studies?

The current quarantine situation has impacted how I engage in my dissertation in several ways,  most notably in participant recruitment, data collection, workflow, and personal expectations. I am conducting a qualitative research study using ethnography to explore the eating behaviors of junior enlisted sailors, and observations and interviews are an essential component of data collection. Since sailors are not eating in public places and we are all sheltering in places, I’ve had to put the observation component of my data collection on hold. Ideally, the semi-structured interviews with participants are conducted in person; however, since quarantine, I have been conducting all interviews via phone. Thankfully, I included telephone and videoconference as options for interviews in my Institutional Review Board protocol. I have watched webinars presented by qualitative researchers experiencing the same struggle of conducting fieldwork during quarantine. I have not been able to recruit face-to-face and have had to rely on leaders and “gatekeepers” who are working with my population to spread the word about my study. While I am grateful to have the support of leaders to spread the word, there is nothing like connecting with individuals face-to-face. The Commanding Officer of one location placed my research efforts on hold, so I cannot recruit or collect data (even telephone interviews) at that location.
A photo of Cmdr. Troncoso in uniform.
Cmdr. Troncoso is a family practitioner
pursuing her PhD in Nursing Science.
(Courtesy photo)

Pre-quarantine, I had several hours during the day to read, write, and think. I no longer have the luxury of this time to focus on my dissertation. I am juggling guiding distance learning for my six-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter, nonstop housework (cooking and cleaning), Zoom meetings, listening/counseling friends and family in distress, and fighting for quiet time with my husband. Instead of having a consistent routine and schedule, I may have a new schedule every other day as situations change. I find that spending time to reflect at the end of the day on what I accomplished, what went well, what didn’t go well, and then adjusting course for the next day helps tremendously.

Finally, I am constantly readjusting my expectations. I like feeling productive and checking items off of my “to do” list. It’s disappointing and demotivating to check off fewer and fewer items on the list or to see the same items carried forward for weeks. This has caused me to strategically think about my priorities and what truly needs to be done. I now try to limit the items on my list to three or fewer important items that can reasonably be completed with the time that I have. I remind myself that I should not try to maintain the same level of productivity that I did pre-quarantine. I limit the amount of times I check emails and turn off some notifications so that I am not tempted to respond to pings and red dots every minute.

2. Have you had any issues accessing necessary resources/data? How do you go about finding research materials?

I have not had any issues accessing resources and data, other than participant data mentioned earlier. The USU Learning Resource Center and IT staff have been tremendously helpful, whether that be responding to my emails or reaching out via Google Hangout calls.  Big thanks to Ms. Rhonda Allard (LRC), Dr. Longenecker (IRB), and James Gilbert (IT)!!! 

3. Do you have any tips for people on how to successfully navigate your day while in quarantine?

  • Be selective in your intake of news and social media. Don’t waste valuable time scrolling through useless information that may create more anxiety and rob you of cognitive energy. 
  • Acknowledge and name your feelings without judgment, and then identify ways that you can address them, and move on. 
  • Schedule breaks that include silence, physical activity (a walk around the block or 10 push-ups), relational activity (sending a positive text or fun photo to a friend), and fun (playing games or watching a silly YouTube video). 
  • Keep a “to-done” list - at the end of the day, mentally, or physically write out everything you accomplished (prayer, meditation, making lunch for the kids, etc.). Just counting up the big items can make it seem like you didn’t do much of anything. 
  • Aim for some routine but be flexible. 
  • Don’t try to keep everything “as it was.” This can lead to feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. Somethings may no longer need to be done, even in a modified version. 
  • Plan writing dates. These are a triple hitter for me as I am productive, motivated, and socially connected. I’ve been doing writing dates before quarantine and I love them. My writing dates are typically one-on-one with a friend/colleague. We schedule 30 min to 2 hours (whatever we have available) and connect via google hangout. We briefly share what we intend to work on and then work using the Pomodoro method (30 min of focused writing - and a 5-minute break to reconnect). Since quarantine, I have added in coding dates to do the same type of work with a colleague who is also doing qualitative research. You’re less likely to quit in the middle of work and it is nice having someone on the other side of the screen in the struggle with you. 
  • Say No. Saying yes to one thing, means saying no to something else. If you’re not required to attend a virtual meeting or complete an activity, count the cost of engagement. 
  • Keep a gratitude journal or simply remind yourself of things that you are grateful for (be specific).
  • Ask for help. There is no need to struggle in silence or take on more responsibility than necessary. Ask your children to do more around the house. This may require additional work upfront, but taking small tasks off your plate can pay great dividends in the long run. Ask faculty, administrators, and staff for assistance earlier rather than later, you may get an answer in two minutes that you would have otherwise taken you two days to find (or simply avoid unnecessary work). Reach out to your classmates and colleagues who are a step or two ahead of you. They can be great resources for navigating processes or procedures and identifying templates or “go-bys.”
  • Look for opportunities to use your strengths, gifts, or talents to help others in small, but meaningful ways. Taking the focus off of your own problems can remind you of what’s still good in the world and how you personally make a positive difference.
Cmdr. Troncoso sitting at her desk.
Graduate work often requires in-person collaboration, which has become
a major obstacle during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

4. Do you have any words of encouragement for your fellow nurses during this time?

You are stronger, smarter, and more resourceful than you think you are.  It is during challenging times that we can grow in ways that matter most (kindness, compassion, patience, leadership, etc.).  Do your best to live in the present and focus on what you can control today.  As John Maxwell said, "The secret of your success is determined in your daily agenda...We over-exaggerate yesterday, we overestimate tomorrow, and we underestimate today...The only adequate preparation for tomorrow is the right use of today."