Expectancy Amid Uncertainty

My life was full of expectation. After hitting “send” on my written comprehensive exams, my focus had begun shifting to grand plans for my dissertation. And four days after that submission, my boyfriend got down on one knee and we quickly started anticipating planning a wedding and the rest of our lives together. It’s strange now to look back on how certain everything felt then, only two months ago.

As graduate students, periods of uncertainty clearly are not limited to global pandemics. We face waiting and questioning as a regular part of our lives: awaiting program acceptances and funding decisions, sweating out peer-review periods on our manuscripts, conducting time-consuming research studies with no guarantee of positive results and entering a job market that may never lead to our dream position. The current impacts of COVID-19 layer on additional financial worries, research and teaching disruptions, and potential delays of program achievements. Whatever the reason may be, we are often tasked with balancing our expectations with our uncertainties.

I am a planner at heart. I love the feeling of making a to-do list and systematically checking things off until the goal is met. But the world isn’t always so predictable. Sometimes my plans don’t pan out, and my meticulous blueprint for life unfortunately cannot prevent the unexpected. If my previous experiences with rejections, job loss and failure had not already made that abundantly clear at an individual level, our collective experience with this pandemic is certainly driving the point home today. I anticipate that these feelings are familiar to many of my achievement-oriented, hyperorganized graduate student counterparts.

When uncertainty takes the form of waiting, it can be tempting to sit still and not make progress. We can fall victim to waiting passively for things to go back to “normal,” or for someone else to make a decision. But in these times, I try to remind myself that the world hasn’t stopped. It may have changed, but it hasn’t stopped. The old advice to “do what you can, with what you have, where you are” rings so true in these moments. In the current climate, we are all impacted in disparate ways, so what you can do or what you have is probably different than me or your colleagues. Pause to take inventory of where you are and what you’re working with and decide how you can continue to move forward, at whatever pace and in whatever direction is feasible. I have found that monotasking, focusing exclusively on only one thing for a period of time, helps me feel most productive amid the chaos of the world. If you are specifically struggling with being on the job market during COVID-19, this webinar offers practical action steps to keep moving forward. It might require shifting your focus or reframing your goals, but building resilience is key to coming out of a waiting period better on the other side.

In working to stay present in the current moment, we also must grapple with the uncertainty of what’s still to come. It can seem like there is no future to look forward to when it is so unclear what that future may look like. But looking ahead has always been important for my mental and emotional well-being, even when I have to do it in an adjusted way. With the long-range outlook of restrictions on gathering and travel so up in the air, I don’t know exactly how my wedding will look months from now. What I can look forward to, though, is being married and building a life together with my husband-to-be. Likewise, some of my dissertation plans may not pan out exactly as I had envisioned them (and not necessarily for pandemic-related reasons), but my committee and I are confident I will finish and earn my degree. Many of us are certainly grieving previously held expectations, but there’s value in remaining hopeful for the celebrations ahead. Whatever the milestone may be for you, I encourage you to keep looking forward to your goal while working to accept that some of the steps along the way may be different than you had planned.

Maintaining positive expectancy while simultaneously accepting uncertainty is no small feat. In both the ordinary challenges of graduate school and the current realities of the world, I don’t know exactly what you can do, or where you are, or what you have. But I hope somehow, in the way that’s right for you, you can keep moving forward and keep looking ahead to brighter tomorrows.