finishing a master's degree during a pandemic

I submitted my master's thesis (and defended it) last month. I will be turning 25 in just under a month, having two degrees under my belt, having lived in three different countries over the course of my (short) life. So in my mind, I should have a sense of accomplishment, be proud of myself, be happy and hopeful for the future, for what's to come in the next chapter of my life. (Very cheesy, I'm aware).

Yet the reality is very different. I'm very, extremely worried for my future. And although I'm proud of myself for finishing a thesis, I realise that the reason I'm proud of myself is not solely because of my academic achievement, but to do that during a pandemic. Living abroad is fun, but not when a pandemic hits.

These last 3-4 months have been some of the hardest in my life. When the virus first broke out in Europe, I was in Budapest, living in the dormitory of my university. Little did I know that this small room I had would be the only place I would spend time in for the next couple of months. Being unable to go back home to my parents, see my friends, or go to the campus library to focus on my work, my mental health collapsed. I always suffered from chronic anxiety and depression as long as I've known myself, but this time it hit different, because I usually had time to take a week off, recover, focus on different things. With my thesis deadline looming over the horizon and constant emails from the university administration about the worsening situation of the pandemic, it felt like it was impossible to shut everything out and take time to recover from my constant mental breakdowns.

I was very lucky to have a close friend (shout out to Aiza) living in the same dormitory, who was in a pretty similar situation to mine. Mid-April, I pushed my desk in the middle of my room and stole a chair from the common kitchen on my floor to transform my bedroom into a workspace. Together, we started working on our theses here, starting at 9-10AM every morning and finishing around 5-6PM every day. Looking back, I don't think it would be possible for me to finish my thesis if I did not have the support of a friend, who pushed me to have a structure of my days and essentially gave me a reason to get out of bed every day.

I know everyone talks about how hard the “grad school” is. Because it is hard. But I could never have imagined how hard it could get when I first started here. I don’t think many people realise, and I’m talking about the people outside academia (so… majority of the people) the amount of energy intellectual work requires. And I don’t mean this in a braggy, “oh look at me I’m so accomplished” sort of way. I mean it in a raw, frustrating, ugly way, because it required every bit of pure stubborn will to get through that intellectual work and complete and defend my thesis.

On top of all this, my class didn’t get to have a graduation. Or a graduation summer. Or spend our last days in the city we’ve grown to love in the past two years. I didn’t even see one of my closest friends for months and months, even though we were in the same city and physically very close to each other. And the most frustrating thing of all, I don’t think I have a right to complain. Because much, much worse things in the world happened because of this pandemic. Death, grief, not being able to live that grief to the fullest, not being able to attend to funerals, hold your family as they are grieving, people losing their jobs, homes, futures. In the midst of this all, my situation, or the situation of my many friends don’t look that bad, really.

But still, if you would ask me “so, how is finishing a master’s degree during a pandemic?”

I would say “to be honest, fucking horrible.”

x Rooby