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Adapting to changes in research plans is an important skill for all researchers. Karl Miller writes about the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, including working from home, the inability to access equipment, and the need to redesign studies. However, online data collection provided new opportunities for learning and developing new skills.

My name is Karl Miller, I’m a 3rd year PhD student in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham. Broadly my research area is the psychology of driving, with my specific PhD research focusing on cultural differences in drivers’ visual attention.

I became interested in this topic and started thinking about the research questions for my PhD towards the end of my undergraduate degree, and sat on these ideas for 2 years before starting my PhD. Once I got started in October 2019 I was so excited to do this research, design my studies, and start collecting my data. But only 6 months after starting, we were told to work from home as the UK entered its first national lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lockdown and restrictions had a huge impact on everyone’s daily lives, and there was a particular impact for so many PhD students. This is a short summary of my own experience of working on my PhD during the pandemic, the challenges faced, and what I have taken away from this going forward with my research.

The first challenge I faced was having to adapt to working from home for a prolonged period of time. Typically I like to go to the university to work, I have a better set up with a desk and suitable computer, I’m surrounded by other PhD students, I have access to equipment, and I have a clear distinction between work and home. Going from this to working in my flat full time was quite challenging. The biggest part of this for me was the inability to separate work from home, I definitely found myself getting distracted (thanks Netflix) and then working at times I wouldn’t normally work. Plus, working from the dining table or the sofa on a small laptop just wasn’t the same as working in my office. This was all combined with the general stress and fatigue we all experienced from seeing the news whilst being in lockdown and not leaving home for prolonged periods of time.

The isolation from working at home also made work a bit more difficult, one of the big benefits to working in an office or being in your department is that you are surrounded by other PhD students, suddenly little problems become much easier to solve if you can just ask someone their thoughts whilst you’re making a cup of tea. But working from home these impromptu chats were much more difficult to come by (now that we’re back to being able to come into the office full time I’m definitely making the most of my networks again).

All of this had an impact on my motivation to work during lockdowns, and I felt that I wasn’t getting nearly as much done as I would if I was in a normal working environment. I found that scheduling my time properly and breaking up my work into smaller achievable tasks helped a lot with this and allowed me to be more productive when I needed to be. A trip to IKEA to get a better set up for working also helped me to separate my home and work life in a better way.

Whilst working from home, suddenly my research came to a halt. The studies I had planned involved using specific equipment (a high-fidelity driving simulator and eye tracking) which was suddenly inaccessible during lockdown. When I couldn’t access this or actually test participants, there was uncertainty about how I would collect this data for my PhD. This was a big issue for so many PhD students, after a long time planning and designing studies, setting up equipment, developing procedures, and even starting data collection, we were told this had to stop and we should think of alternative ways to collect data or redesign the studies we were running in our PhDs. Talking to other PhD students online and seeing how other people were (and in many cases still are) dealing with this gave me a real insight into the variety of research and methods used by PhD researchers even within my own department and research group.

This was of course very frustrating and challenging, but the solution to this that I and so many other PhD students used, was collecting some form of data online. Moving my testing online did involve making some changes to my research questions alongside some major changes to my methods, but it ended up being incredibly useful. One of the biggest benefits to moving data collection online was that I was able to access a wider sample of participants to take part in online studies. This was particularly convenient for my cross-cultural comparisons as I was suddenly able to collect data from a larger number of participants in their home countries who otherwise would not have taken part in my research. Looking back at this, I think this was the biggest strength of online data collection, and although trying to recruit participants in this new way took a considerable amount of time and effort, I would say it was much less demanding and time-consuming than recruiting for an in-person study.

Another benefit of moving my work online during lockdowns was being able to develop new skills. Although my first online study was mostly questionnaire based, a second online study saw me using (a tool I can highly recommend to any cognitive psychologists!) to run a more complex cognitive task. Even now as in-person testing is happening again, I still plan on using these online methods for follow up studies, and any future work where online data collection might be beneficial.

I came into my PhD very attached to my topic and the studies I thought I would be running. At the start of the pandemic, I was very cautious about having to adapt my research and change my plans. Now as I move towards the end of my PhD I can appreciate how all research is subject to change. You can’t expect everything to go exactly to plan and being open to making changes and adapting throughout your research is an incredibly valuable skill.

From all of this I think there are a few tips that other PhD students might find useful (and things I wish I’d considered when I started my research):

Try to make a distinction between your home and work environments. I find this particularly useful, but even if you enjoy working from home it will be useful to make a distinction between working from home and doing things you enjoy at home. Try sitting somewhere else, put work away at the end of the day, and still make time for things you enjoy at home outside of your PhD work.

Make use of your networks during your PhD. This might be other PhD students, your research group, supervisors, or other groups within the university. All of these networks are going to be helpful at various points throughout your PhD.

Every PhD will involve changes in some form or another (although hopefully this won’t be as extreme as a global pandemic). It’s great to have a solid idea for the progression of your PhD research, but try being open to small changes and have some amount of flexibility in your plans. Research never goes exactly as you want it to.

Be open to new methods or ideas that you may not have considered at the start of your PhD. These new ideas will most likely emerge in the early stages of your PhD from reviewing the literature etc, but it’s worth still being open to them in later stages of your research too. With that, I also think it’s useful to be open to collecting some data online where this is possible.

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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