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Advice and support for your academic journey.

COVID-19 changed the world of academia, making it even more isolating than before. Clarke shares tips and tricks for students and researchers to improve their work-life balance while working from home, including setting boundaries, sticking to routines, separating work from home, taking breaks, and keeping in touch with others.

There’s no doubt about it, COVID-19 has changed a lot of the ways in which we interact with each other.

From the moment we were introduced to the phrases ‘national lockdown’, ‘reproduction number’, and the all-too-familiar ‘social distancing’, our lives were completely altered. It was more serious than just stocking up on toilet paper or trying not to sneeze while taking the test swab; most of us didn’t see our colleagues, our friends, and even our family members for over a year. Even when we did, it was coupled with anxiety, wearing a mask, and lots of distance. What’s more, many of us lost people we love and care about, and all of us were touched by the compassion and resilience shown by our doctors and nurses, as well as the key workers and other essential people who kept our society functioning in this time of uncertainty.

In my experience, for those of us studying, the often-isolating world of academia became even more shut down and closed off. As our lectures swiftly moved online, and our social interactions quickly dissipated, our university desks were replaced by home offices, beds, couches, and that ‘spot’ near the window, where nobody would distract you. We adapted to new ways of working, new ways of engaging with our subjects, new methods of data collection, and new ways of interacting with our colleagues that were both unprecedented and not what we signed up for. Many of us had to change our research proposals entirely, which caused a great deal of continued stress and worry. As zoom meetings rapidly ate away at our days and our motivation turned to gold dust, there seemed little option but to merely grit our teeth and trudge through all the uncertainty.

We have all experienced the benefits of moving lectures online, such as allowing international students to take part from further away, and facilitating easier access to for people with disabilities. I’ll be the first to admit that stepping back into the lecture hall had caused me a certain amount of unease and dread, having avoided this face-to-face contact for some time now. Overall, I am quite thankful for the uptake in a blended/hybrid approach to university life, and I think lots of people agree with the benefits and limitations of working both online and in-person. It is here that we come to the point of my article, where I will be sharing my top tips (and struggles) related to working at home. I have opted to do this by counting down my top five tips and tricks, though I appreciate there is some overlap and that this list is not exhaustive. I also appreciate that working and studying is a highly personal endeavor, as is represented by the heterogeneity present in the articles shared across this site thus far. I merely offer my advice for things to have a go at if you’re struggling – which have been tried and tested by me!

5. Set boundaries with others in your household

This one can feel a little mean, but for those of us who live with others also working from home, it could be a necessity. I am someone who can quite easily be dragged into debates or conversations which lead to little work two hours down the line. This is harder when children are involved, but letting people know that work time is important (when it could just look like you’re surfing the net) is an important step in controlling your work-life balance. Having a dedicated time when someone (or perhaps even a screen) could entertain the kids could let you get some uninterrupted work done for an hour or so, boosting your productivity (let’s all appreciate that it really isn’t as easy as this, but wishful thinking nonetheless).

4. Routines can be even more important.

Specifically, setting a waking up routine is vital to getting work done. Doing a PhD from home means that those late mornings can get away from you, and its sometimes hard to be self-disciplined when your deadlines aren’t imminent. Nonetheless, waking up and starting your day at a reasonable time is paramount to your productivity. Becoming a night-owl is a slippery slope, and one which can isolate you from the rest of your social life, so do try to avoid it.

3. Separate work from home.

This isn’t easy. We don’t all have the room or money to physically separate out our workspace from our living space. If you can do it, then great. Having a dedicated room to work in is wonderful, but don’t be afraid to change it up occasionally and allow yourself to sit somewhere else or go into the office. If you don’t have a dedicated workspace, then I might have a good idea for you to try. Having worked in my bedroom before, I have found that going for a 5- or 10-minute walk before starting your research is a great way to mimic this separation. You could even pretend that you’re walking to university. This is a tried-and-tested method which was unearthed to me by a friend – and it works.

2. Take regular breaks.

I mean proper breaks. Scheduled in. Or not scheduled in. Don’t fall prey to fatigue. Resting can do just as much for your research as writing. Our brains tick on – and it could happen that some of your best ideas appear to come to you while relaxing, so it is sometimes useful to have a random notepad at the ready around the house, just in case.

1. Keep talking.

This is the most important one. Doing a PhD can be lonely and working from home can make it even more isolating. At the height of the pandemic (when our social interactions were at their most limited) a close friend of mine would call me daily so we could work together on-screen. We would have a brief chat and a catch-up, but mostly we would work in silence. Even though we only spoke for a very limited amount of the call, it helped to know that someone was there, and that they were also going through the same thing. Even now that we are allowed to interact in person, many of your academic colleagues are probably still feeling isolated in their studies. Reach out to them. Ask them how its going. There are also online writing groups full of friends ready to be made. Or reach out by engaging with the boundless depths of academic Twitter, the possibilities are endless!

Well, academics, there we have it! These are my top five tips to successfully navigate working from home. I won’t lie and tell you that I manage to do so without fault – imposter syndrome, loneliness, and bouts of unproductive procrastination maintain a strong presence in my life, but recognizing, appreciating, and working to overcome these problems are all part and parcel of the PhD experience. Being kind to yourself is therefore the crucial, all-encompassing (and sixth) rule to success).

With much of the world getting back to its pre-pandemic normality, many of us researchers still find ourselves isolated by new habits and ways of working. Even now, I still haven’t met my primary PhD supervisor in person and meeting him looks very unlikely. Academia is still evolving from the events of the past few years, and as our academic bubbles settle into a new ‘normal’, it’s important that we look out for one another and keep in touch. Don’t be afraid to reach out, ask others about their research, or even suggesting going for a coffee. Chances are that they are feeling the same as you, and who knows, you might just make a new friend!

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