When I was applying for my PhD and everyone around me was offering advice, most people had a lot of reasons that I shouldn’t do a doctorate… but no one ever mentioned a global pandemic. It was never in the paperwork and never in the interviews. It never even crossed our minds. Could one call this situation “unprecedented”?
So, what’s it really been like doing a PhD during the coronavirus pandemic? If you asked most of my friends and family to describe what’s changed for me, they’d have no idea as it seems like I’ve been getting along like normal, but things have actually changed dramatically in the last few months for me and my research community. Some things have changed for the better while other changes have not been so welcome. I’m using this blog post to explain what it’s been like, and in doing so I hope some of you can relate to my struggles!
Working from home – or living at work?
The main thing that’s changed for many in academia is this fancy new working-from-home (WFH) lifestyle. I used to do about a third of my work from home and spent the other two-thirds in my university’s office space. At the start of the pandemic, I had to work on my kitchen table alongside two other WFH housemates. Eventually, we managed to transform one the rooms in our house into an office, and although I still dream of university with its quiet study room, spacious desks, and several printers, it has been a vast improvement over the kitchen.
Working from home hasn’t actually been all bad: it’s a much shorter commute, I’m saving money on buying the occasional lunch and/or coffee, and I’m still managing to get work done. But we all know it’s had its downsides. It’s loud, there’s more distractions, and there’s no library. I miss popping down to the Applied Linguistics corridor to have a chat to people, or have face-to-face supervision meetings or just going to grab a coffee with a PhD colleague.
However, although I miss the space of my office on campus, I am a homebody at heart and I think I’ll still work from home a fair bit more than I used to just because I’m used to it now and appreciate the flexibility it gives me. If you, like me, think you’ll be working from home for the foreseeable future, my advice is to establish a good study space and try and separate the “work” from the “home” as much as possible. With shared study spaces due to open in September, we should hopefully be able to get back to normal.
Coffee catchups, meetings, and quick corridor chats all seem like a thing of the past. The importance of establishing research networks and making connections is drilled into our heads as PhD students, but how are we supposed to do that from afar? Well, there’s a few ways. Get involved with your departmental meetings or find out if there is something organised for postgraduate students. For example, Swansea University have been hosting ‘AppLing Monday’ sessions where the Applied Linguistics colleagues come together to talk and catch up. Some weeks we host talks, for example on getting work in academia, whereas in other sessions we play language games and catch up. I’ve even hosted some sessions myself, collecting feedback from students on how the university has handled the coronavirus crisis, and running small graduate Q&A talks. It’s been a lot of fun to get involved and develop new skills along the way. Online conferences are another way to get involved from afar, as many scheduled events are moving online. I attended CogSci 2020 and the UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference 2020, both from the comfort of my own home! Also, Twitter and other social media platforms are useful tools. Twitter is always a good place to meet like-minded people using hashtags such as #AcademicTwitter or #AcademicChatter.
And don’t forget to think about the social aspect of making connections with your fellow students, because who else will listen to you rant and rave and actually understand? We’re all in the same boat, so stay in touch with your peers. If your programme is small, like mine, try other places like Reddit (/r/GradSchool) or Discord (e.g., GradBuddies). The first is a forum, and the second more a chat group, but they both offer an anonymous way to talk to other students. I promise there’s always someone who can help you with what you’re going through, if you know where to look.
Flexibility is Key
I’m lucky to be in my first year and not in the middle of my experiments, but COVID-19 has still scuppered my plans to go into schools and collect data in September. This situation has forced many of us to rethink our methodologies and come up with a ‘Plan B’, which was the topic of one seminar hosted by the ESRC Wales DTP. Questions you might have to ask yourself might include can you move your data collection online? Can you focus on different parts of your PhD, extend one experiment or change some parameters slightly? Look to your department or funding body (for example, I’m funded by ESRC) for help and training on this, such as webinars or workshops. It’s time to adapt and to be flexible, which are skills everyone can stand to develop anyway.
Be proud of yourself
If you’ve made any progress on your PhD, no matter how small, during this global upheaval then pat yourself on the back. Honestly, we’ve all had to make major changes, completely adjust our lifestyles and expectations. It’s not easy juggling home and work and everything else. Give yourself a pat on the back – you deserve it!
Chloe Mills is currently undertaking a PhD in Applied Linguistics at Swansea University, exploring corpus-based approaches to first language writing.