Episode 1 - The Beginning
Oh. My. God.
Those were the three words going round and round and round in my head on a loop when I first found out I was being offered a PhD Studentship. It was something I had been aiming for since I first fell in love with research. I spent the summer of 2019 imagining what my PhD journey would look like… scoping out conferences, collaborating with others in my field, making friends in my PhD office. And for four months I had some of that experience. But in March 2020 everything changed. We all found ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. There had been talk for months and months about what it was, what it could mean. Lockdowns? Isolation? No one really knew. For me, it first became real when my March supervision meeting was moved online. Was this a sign of things to come?
Episode 2 - The Lockdown
The first lockdown was terrifying.
Every day I found myself doomscrolling on Twitter. Check the infection stats. Check the death stats. Check if there are any new symptoms. It was an endless cycle of worry. Were my family ok? Were my friends ok? What about colleagues?
I was mentally, emotionally and physically drained. On top of all of this, I had a PhD to do. But how do you concentrate when the world is in survival mode?
I was right in the middle of conducting a scoping review, yet I found myself reading more Covid-related tweets than journal articles. At the back of my mind I had a little voice saying to me “What if your study can’t happen now? How will you recruit? What about data collection?” It was exhausting, but I had to come to terms with the fact that this pandemic was now an intrinsic part of my PhD journey and I had to accommodate it.
Episode 3 - Trying to cope
Some days I couldn’t be a PhD student.
At first, I felt so guilty that I couldn’t be a PhD student all day, every day during lockdown. Whilst I’d see my peers on Twitter or Instagram hitting writing targets or submitting papers, there were some days I just felt stuck. Stuck in this pandemic driven world, endlessly worrying about everything and anything. I began to question if I was lazy, or maybe I was just a bad PhD student? Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this. Or maybe I was just struggling to cope with all of the stress, worry, and fear on my own.
A PhD takes a lot of support and encouragement, and this was needed even more so during the pandemic. My family and friends were a source of comfort and comic relief during those times when I felt stuck. My supervisory team were also there to offer words of encouragement and support. They made sure that we always spoke about my wellbeing and how I was coping, even sharing the ups and downs of their own lockdown journey. I found that taking time away from my PhD was also just as important as actually doing my PhD. I fell in love with reading again and increased my volunteering – both of which gave me an escape from my PhD. And on those days where everything just seemed a bit much, I’d make myself a cuppa and sit down with an episode of Friends with some biscuits.
The Finale - Thriving
So, how did PhD-ing during a pandemic help me to thrive?
I realised that a PhD needs balance and kindness.
Some days I’m Ross Geller… I might write 1000 words in an hour, finish my to-do list by 3pm and just boss academic life in general! Other days, I’m Joey Tribbiani… and on those days I need to grab coffee with friends, or just chill in my pjs with some pizza and the tv for company. I realised that it’s ok to be both and that my Joey days are just as important and valid as my Ross days.
A PhD, especially over the past few years, can be a scary and exhausting undertaking. There’s a lot of work to do in a small amount of time, but you need to make time for yourself. Take the time to recharge and de-stress as often as you need it. Doing a PhD during a global pandemic has taught me to be kind to myself and make Friends with my own mental health and wellbeing.