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PhD in a Pandemic: 151 Days Later | Cordelia Roberts

When you head out for a research cruise on the vast ocean for a few weeks or months at a time they said you should never count your days. Life aboard a ship is different. Your usual indoor and outdoor dependencies are taken away from you. There is undeniably dodgy Wi-Fi, someone who you can’t quite gel with and definitely no walks in a luscious, green park. So, I had thought (naively perhaps) that although what we were unknowingly heading into for the next 151+ days, that my previous sea-going experience might have made it more bearable. But they don’t allow you to do cruises for longer than 3 months for sanity reasons and as no one had ever experienced this type of lockdown before life was turned upside down and very much inside in (as in, lockdown in), my seagoing experience meant nothing.

I haven’t been counting the days, but when I used Google to search for the time since national coronavirus measures were put in place it elicited an unsurprising response from my fellow scientist roomie and myself ‘Jesus, that long?’ I said. ‘We’re in it for the long haul’ she said.

Having begun in the October of last year, beguiled by marine fungi and particulate organic matter, I had been in my PhD for 173 days before the pandemic struck, and lockdown started. I had taken those office days for granted, as I swapped my desk and office chair for a double bed and an unquestionably disrupted sleeping pattern. Not so long ago my days had been crammed with nucleic acid extractions, prepping a manuscript for submission, coding in R studio and a healthy dose of procrastination. Overnight, procrastination and frustration occupied my days as I sat on my bed trying to write a discussion, plan a literature review, and read papers, all in the middle of a global pandemic and without falling back to sleep.

Work-life balance at its finest.

Understandably, the desire to not be doing a PhD at that current moment in time was initially quite profound. I felt like I had just got to the interesting part; I had started processing samples I had saved for myself from a research cruise last year. To be at home, with none of my scientist pals or my beloved office mate to keep me from screaming at R was a disappointing turn of events. With no office interruptions to distract me there was an internal conflict that told me I should be more productive and making miles of progress every day. But that didn’t happen and the smallest of tasks took hours too long…

Life aboard a research cruise! [1] me and a giant rosette CTD - an instrument used to record conductivity, temperature and pressure in the ocean [2] picking individual marine snow particles and [3] a camera rig being deployed from the ship

But it wasn’t all bad, I submitted that manuscript which, looking back, felt like a blur of writing and is currently in its second round of revisions after battling with a classic ‘Reviewer Number 2’. And I took the time I needed, that we all needed, to realise what was important to us. And for some of us that was a desk in an office, and for others it was time to breath, and both of those are okay.

With time to be aware of our surroundings and receptive to global happenings, lockdown took a new direction as I, along with others, were made aware of systematic racism highlighted by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard brooks in the US, that underrepresented minorities have spoken of for years. But closer to home, it stressed the disparities and struggles of Black and non-white folk in academia too. I finally made time, I should have made long ago, to listen.

Racism is intrinsically linked to what we, as a group of environmental PhD researchers, are aiming to tackle – the global environmental crisis. It’s presence actively hinders the work we do. I really love this quote by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, CEO and founder of the Ocean Collectiv and Urban Lab “We can’t solve the climate crisis without people of colour, but we could probably solve it without racists”. And she is SO right.

This is not an overnight fix, but requires a continual effort from us – rather than that of underrepresented minorities – to make noise and build solid foundations for a future academia we want to be part of: where everyone is appropriately recognised for their brilliance and contributions in tackling the environmental crisis we are facing.

Would you like to share your PhD in a pandemic story? Please get in touch - we'd love to hear from you!


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