Graham School News

Graduate Student-at-Large Patrick Griffin Offers Insights on Remote Study

Patrick Griffin with his workstation setup

Hi my name is Patrick Griffin, I’m 24 years old, and since the Autumn Quarter I’ve been pursuing some of the undergrad physics curriculum as part of the Graduate Student-at-Large program. By training, I have a master’s degree in architecture (University of Kansas). 

Before the virus, I worked full time at a very large architecture firm in the loop, where I would do strategy and master planning for healthcare facilities. Back then, I had been driving down to Hyde Park from Lakeview at the beginning of my day to take math and physics classes and then driving into the office and working late.

How has it been transitioning to remote study and virtual classes?

I would venture to guess my transition was a little rockier than most.

Before the remote transition, I simply didn’t have the time I needed. Who ever does? But two courses and forty (or more) hours of professional work in a week don’t leave much time left over. To this end, just before transitioning to remote work, I actually had to make the tough decision of not taking courses during the Spring Quarter. 

Theoretically, transitioning to remote work should have made more time available to me so that I could take my courses—but in practice this was not the case. As it turns out, the commute was a necessary barrier that broke up my day into segments, and without it work blurred into my personal life. The first four weeks of working remotely without coursework, my weeks were in excess of sixty hours and less productive than before, despite near-constant focus. 

I was laid off during week two of the quarter. 

So were many others. We’re not an exclusive club, but I hope you don’t join us.

Fortunately, by week three I had enrolled in two classes and started helping on a lecture series about physics in contemporary architecture. All of the lectures from the first three weeks were recorded, making it smooth for me to learn the content. Additionally, the teachers have been exceedingly accommodating both with the virtual nature of the courses and with the logistics of getting scanned assignments to them.

All in all, I don’t mind the virtual classes, but I do get more out of going to a place and sitting in a physical classroom.

What does your workstation look like?

My workstation has evolved (and moved) along with the work that I’ve been doing. I started working in my basement so that I could be hard-wired into my internet modem. But now that I’m not in architectural models all day, I work in my attic and largely on paper. My current desk includes: 

  • A stack of my personal sketchbooks
  • 2012 Macbook Pro—covered in stickers (my desktop computer)
  • 2019 Macbook Air—not covered in stickers (used for video calls)
  • A TI-84 from high school that barely works
  • Several stacks of binders and textbooks
  • One University of Chicago mug (for pens)
  • Too many hard-drives (eight)
  • A few silly photos from a night out with my friends
  • Hand sanitizer (Emergency Alcohol #1)
  • A bottle of Lagavulin (Emergency Alcohol #2)

As for some things that aren’t on my desk—as soon as we started working this way, I invested in an ultrawide 34” monitor and an adjustable arm to float it above my desk. This was something I had in the office and really wanted at home. As someone that needs to spread things out before I see the big picture, this has been a critical asset for me. Additionally, I upgraded my internet and WiFi to the fastest speed available from RCN (I highly recommend them).

Wide shot of Patrick's workstation

How do you spend your day?

I make a lot of phone calls. These calls largely consist of following job leads, building relationships with people to get my foot in the door, coordinating a fundraiser for a nonprofit, or speculating about a tech start-up. After my first round of calls, I jump into a lecture and then break for lunch. During this break, I use my treadmill for a couple quick miles and walk the dog. Following this, I’ll jump back into academic work (upcoming homework and recorded lectures) or I turn a few of the irons I have in the fire and work on my portfolio. 

This loosely parallels my former office schedule. I try to schedule meetings in the morning, and then leave the afternoons for production-heavy tasks that can run late into the night if they have to. I’m a night owl, it’s when I focus best.

There was a brief stint where my house flooded. Other times, I’ll be helping to develop lab exercises for a class of students. Frequently, I’ll run errands in the middle of the day for my immunocompromised roommate. My schedule changes often. We adapt.

How do you relax when class is over?

Normally I would have hit the swimming pool, done a boxing workout, or hopped on a boat after work to go sailing. Given that neither of those outlets are available to me, I’ve had to get creative.

I play the piano and guitar, which have been critical outlets. I’ve also just tried to put 10–15 minutes aside per day to sit and decompress before I eat dinner. Some might call this meditation, I just call it zoning-out; but I’m clearing my mind and focusing on my breathing. 

Also, my roommates and I are on season thirteen of Survivor (the CBS show). We started with the first season, and season forty just aired (during quarantine). It’s safe to say that we shouldn’t run out of content before quarantine ends. 

Do you have any tips you would like to share about doing course work remotely?

Given that we all have the same amount of experience with quarantine, I’m not sure I have any insights that most people don’t already have. If I were to proffer advice, it would be as follows:

Dedicate a space to work (and only work)

We are spatial creatures. We associate spaces with memory, emotion, and most of all—behavior. The home and office are separate functional spaces for purposes of collaborative proximity, but also for mindset and focus. So find a new place (shake off your old routine, rearrange) where you can work, and use that place for work only. A permanent location in space for you to associate with a mental state of total focus. When you walk over to that space, it’s your new commute, an opportunity to get in the headspace of work.

Limit your work time, take breaks

For the last two years, I worked at a place that pushed the open-office, and I just want to say I’m sorry. Aside from making everyone interruption-prone, it stigmatizes having an empty desk. When you’re away, it’s visible to everyone in an open office. Not only is it okay to get up, but it’s part of the normal rhythm to need a break. I get up after two hours or so to take a walk and do a little “shut-down shuffle” (like a hoola-dance) just to get my back and hips loosened up. So every two hours set a timer on your phone to get up and move, just don’t be away more than you’re around.

Make time to connect

Similarly to when our friends moved away after undergrad ended, we had to make time to stay in touch. Right now, it’s like everyone just moved away. My method after college ended was to keep a four-week calendar and contact people on the same day every four weeks during my commute home. My schedule is still rolling right now. Additionally, I have a happy hour on Fridays with people I’d normally see in person.

Don’t pretend to have it figured out

My experience with corporate life is that it breeds a bit of an agreeable façade. This is a functional necessity—being negative or disagreeing takes time, disrupts team flow, and negative energy can challenge mobility at a social office. The indirect outcome is that we often pretend to be more open or okay with situations than we actually are. Like when your company asked you to give up your assigned desk so that everyone could be seated flexibly on a daily basis; you were open to it, but we all knew it wasn’t working.

Being open to things doesn’t mean you have to like them. Adapting doesn’t happen fast. If things aren’t a problem, they don’t need a solution. So if everyone pretends to be adapted, we’re all forgoing an actual resolution and making it harder to connect with one another.

Find something to be excited about

That last tip was a bit of a downer… and we have enough to be upset about already. So here’s my most important piece of advice. Find something that makes you happy, right now.

I’ve been dreaming about going on a road trip. As soon as this is over, I’m going to plan a night with my friends out at our favorite bar. These are things that I’m going to do. But I need fuel in the tank today.

Last week I bought some new running shoes. They have separate space for each toe. Because of the design of the shoe (which doesn’t have a big cushion in the heel) I’ve been working on adapting my stride so that I land on the ball of my foot. They’ve made me look at something I do frequently in a new way and provided a challenge that I get to address over many weeks as I get used to them. I’m more excited to run because it’s not the same old schtick.

This is not a call to go buy something, but rather find something new to focus on for the next few weeks—something that you actually want to do. You could learn a new language. Maybe you dust off your high school language classes by reading a book in Spanish. Have you ever tried painting?

Do something on a daily basis that brings you joy or fulfillment. Give yourself something to look forward to. Corporate life made me think that life was just a thing that sometimes happened between my work days. Quarantine has shown me that life is constant, work just rests on top sometimes.