I’m sure nobody expected 2020 to pan out the way it has. It’s late-March and currently around 20% of the population are in some form of lockdown because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The start of this year marked the final months of my PhD in the area of drug development. Last Christmas, I finished my chemistry experiments and moved 500 miles north from Brighton to my hometown, Perth, to finish writing my thesis and save the last of my stipend. I’m so glad I did.
It was quite surreal seeing the first UK COVID-19 cases in Brighton where I had just left. Two of the GP practices that I had used closed for deep cleaning and I closely followed the communications from my university. At that time, I was still able to focus on my work and plough on from afar because it all felt very far away.
I was trying to finish editing the first draft of my last chapter when the UK Government advice stepped up. My productivity slumped. I was concerned for my family, my friends, the people who were ignoring the preventative measures and suddenly my thesis didn’t seem that important in the grand scheme of things.
During the week before the UK “lockdown” there was a lot of uncertainty about how and when my submission and defence would take place. Reflecting on that week, I realise I was being rather impatient. My university had only just decided to move to online teaching and suspend non-essential activities.
I got conflicting advice from Skyping various members of staff. Some thought I should still print my thesis and post it to the university and that my viva would probably be delayed rather changed to a conference call.
Eventually some concrete advice came from our head of doctoral studies. Theses should be submitted electronically and vivas, in the short-term, would happen virtually. I asked my supervisor if we could forget about the pencilled in viva date and just let me focus on getting the thesis finished and he agreed. This gave me the assurance I needed to start working again.
I’m gutted that I won’t get to experience the glorious moment of handing in my first draft in person but I was relieved that I wouldn’t be expected to travel to Brighton in the midst of a pandemic. Similarly, a virtual viva is disappointing in that I won’t have the support of my colleagues in the room for the presentation part and my hypothetical celebration afterwards will be with my parents in the kitchen next door and not in the offices I worked in for three years.
While there is the option having the viva later when this has all blown over, I’ve been mentally “done” with my project for about two years and I’m very much ready to move on with my life. So is my supervisor.
He moved university not long into my degree and for various reasons it made sense for me to stay put because of the nature of my project. It means I’ve been remotely supervised for the majority of my project. I guess I have the advantage in these times in that there’s been no change in that regard with the regime change that many other students have experienced. Once I am out of the system, he has no other students connected to my institution so its beneficial for us both to get the viva done and dusted.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have experienced disruption to my PhD. I had to delay starting my degree by a few months because of a thyroid cancer diagnosis – particularly ironic as my project has some applications in cancer research. Luckily this type of cancer is very treatable, and I was able to start my PhD not long after my surgeries and radiotherapy were finished, and I continue to be in remission. From a mental health perspective, it was very useful moving to the other end of the country post-treatment to start my PhD. Now I’m back home and expected to keep a low profile, it feels very similar to a few years ago.
I can definitely say I have learned resilience these past few years which is helping me just now. Through the difficult times I have learned to be kind to myself; to not get too worked up over unproductive days. At the best of times, I find I can’t be “super productive” two days in a row so I reserve what I call “zero brain” tasks like formatting and admin for days in between solid writing sessions.
Short to-do lists and scheduled time off have also helped me to remain focused. As many teachers are communicating to their pupils and their families at the moment, this is not normal. You shouldn’t be expected to be doing the same amount of active learning and productive work in the midst of a global pandemic. We can only do what we can to get by and knowing the rest of the country is in the same position can bring comfort when your brain is cloudy and can’t deal with writing.
I’m lucky that I’m at this point in my PhD where I was technically practising “social distancing” for months already in my solitary writing cave. I’d have been devastated if this had occurred a few months ago when I was finishing off key experiments to fill gaps in my research story. But I imagine (and hope) that examiners over the next few years will take into account that a lot of work was interrupted by this pandemic.
PhD students are resilient, resourceful and used to self-motivation. Do what you can during these times and hopefully we’ll be able to get back to some sort of normality soon. I reckon I’m still on track to submit around Easter and defend before the summer. Wish me luck! We can do this!
Today’s post is courtesy of Fiona, who can be found in the following places:
Twitter – @fi0n0
Instagram – @thechemistryofaphd
Blog – www.thechemistryofaphd.com