• Ellie Atayee-Bennett

Starting a Phd in lockdown

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Covid-19 entered our lives at the beginning of this year and has caused considerable chaos and change. The world as we knew it only a few months ago now looks entirely different. We’ve been confined to our houses, kept apart from our family and friends, and forced to adapt to technology, wear masks, and socially distance. Many have lost jobs or businesses, many are struggling financially and mentally, and many are anxious about what the future has in store.

In this blog post, I wish to discuss my own experiences of Covid-19, in particular what it was like starting a PhD in the Covid age. Now I write this in the midst of the second national lockdown, that’s almost 8 months after the first lockdown began, and almost 8 months after I began my PhD at the end of March. Starting a PhD in the middle of the academic year is never easy- you miss out on inductions and social events aimed at new starters, and your study timeline is different to everyone else’s. But what additional difficulties did Covid-19 create for me?

Doing a PhD is hard in itself so being able to see others and share experiences becomes a key managing strategy. Studies have shown that PhD students are especially vulnerable to poor mental health and I for one have certainly experienced this. There are feelings of overwhelm, “I’ll never be as good as other researchers”, “how am I ever going to learn all of this”, “how did I pass my other degrees, I know nothing about my subject”, the imposter syndrome, the self-doubt, the arduous task of motivating yourself. The past 8 months have been pretty rocky, huh?! (Couple this with the anxiety caused by Covid-19 and the outlook isn’t good!) Being able to see other PhD students helps a lot as you’re reminded that you’re not alone, but because of the lockdown and all the different measures put in place, I haven’t been able to see anyone face-to-face. I am so grateful to the SCDTP for the social events organised during my MSc though as it was some of these talks that have helped me through. At these events, other PhD students told stories of how they had battled imposter syndrome, how they had come out of their supervisory meeting feeling overwhelmed and with a ton of work to do, and how different strategies had been useful for different things.

I’m a mum of two (aged 3 and 1) so doing a PhD with two little people during a lockdown wasn’t easy. It was difficult to settle into my studies, to get into a routine, to balance being a full-time researcher with being a full-time mum. There were so many days where I would be trying to read complex sociological studies all the while Peppa Pig played in the background, or my daughter would come and sit beside my computer and insist I help her with her phonics, or sitting at the breakfast bar on my laptop and my son would sneak up and bite my toes. Mornings where I would send an email then have to play doctors, then go back to my computer to do another quick task, before being made to play police officers. Having such young children at home all the time presented many challenges for me. The stress of trying to complete full-time hours, the guilt of continually saying “sorry, I need to work”, the exhaustion of trying to do everything. I did gradually get into a routine however and I managed to catch up with the workload, but this was really down to two things: the reopening of preschools, and more importantly having a supportive husband. I literally wouldn’t have managed without him.

I have been lucky in that I was able to access most of my readings online but nevertheless there have been study difficulties. For a while the library was shut and I couldn’t get hold of any books, but fortunately during the summer the university library offered a Click and Collect service which enabled me to pick up books again. The inter-library loan service was then reopened and many of the more obscure books were bought as eBooks. Nevertheless, a tiny handful of books remained inaccessible. Overall, I was able to access enough books to be able to complete my literature review, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I had to wait for services to reopen, accept some books were unavailable and thus find alternatives, and buy my own books to ensure I could access the material. Where training was concerned, the normal face-to-face seminars in the summer term were all cancelled and were not moved online so I didn’t get the opportunity to do any trainings for the first 5 months of my PhD. When the autumn term started, the university had successfully moved many of their trainings online so all of a sudden I was joining at least one training a week. This made my PhD more enjoyable as my weeks became more diverse and varied, but I did feel I had missed out on five months work of professional development.

Despite all of this, I consider myself lucky. Although it’s been a challenge (a big one!) I’ve been able to study and I’ve been able to make progress. Had I been in my second year when lockdown occurred though, it would have been a different story. For those unfamiliar with PhDs, the second year is generally when you collect your data, which in my area of study requires interacting with others. Many of my friends and colleagues have had to postpone their data collection, adapt their research, or take on new projects because their original plan was not feasible in the Covid age.

Now I like to consider myself an optimist, so I wish to mention a few of the benefits that Covid-19 has brought me.

Despite missing out on the planned trainings, the lockdown has in itself been an exercise in professional development. As a society, we’ve had to learn how to adapt to unexpected and uncertain times, manage our mental health more effectively and adopt better organisational skills. On a personal level I’ve had to improve my time management skills to enable me to balance my various responsibilities and I’ve had to become more self-disciplined as it’s so easy to be distracted by children and chores.

My technological skills in particular have improved. Although I’ve always been relatively good with computers, I’m certainly no whizz. And I certainly don’t know the first thing when it comes to coding and all that fancy stuff. By becoming more reliant on technology, I have learnt new skills and have become much more confident using technology. I’ve had to learn new software, such as Microsoft Teams, and get comfortable with video conferencing. I’ve also had to work on my digital wellbeing, which refers to the impact of technology on our mental health and general wellbeing. For example, ensuring adequate breaks, limiting screen time especially in the evening, and being mindful of how social media can contribute to poor mental health. Even when the pandemic is over, technology will remain and it will govern our lives more so than ever before. The future is algorithms and AI, so technological skills are now of the utmost importance.

The lockdown has also enabled me to become more resilient. Earlier I mentioned the various mental health challenges that PhD students face and how socialising with others in the same situation helps with resilience. When social support is less accessible however, we have to learn to pick ourselves up and motivate ourselves to carry on. Moping around feeling overwhelmed won’t get any PhD done, and allowing feelings of self-doubt to linger is not conducive to success either. I’ve therefore had to learn different strategies to push through the hard times and keep plodding on. Simple things, such as listening to alpha music (look it up- it’s great!), going for a walk in nature, or getting active really help to calm the body and mind and dissolve stress. Positive affirmations and thought challenging fight any negativity and reflecting on your achievements are great for boosting self-confidence. I created a series of “boards” each with their own theme (e.g. identity, skills, values, gratitude, etc) which reminded me who I was and how great I am, and why there really isn’t any reason why I shouldn’t succeed. I’m planning on writing a separate blog post about this as I found this such a valuable exercise!

I don’t know what the future holds and I don’t know how long this “new normal” will last. None of us do. We can only make the most of what we have. It’s certainly been an experience studying a PhD during a national lockdown, and it has definitely caused me a number of difficulties. But ever the optimist, I’m also confident it’s making me a better researcher, by making me more adaptable, more resilient, and more skilled.

Are you a PhD researcher who has experienced difficulties because of Covid-19? I’d love to hear from you!