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  • Writer's pictureSciEnvy

PhD in a pandemic: Starting out in isolation | Becky Shaw

This year for me, as I’m sure it has been for many, went past in a blur. It feels like forever ago that I was busily filling in applications, asking for references and studying for my PhD interviews. Working full time alongside interview preparation meant that I had barely even followed the news that was engulfing the rest of the world mid-January and February, about the ever worrying increase of cases in COVID-19. I was on a one-track goal of managing to win a PhD project and when, at the start of March, I’d heard the news that I’d received a PhD through ARIES I was relieved and ready to take a break. Little did any of us know that it would be a 6-month break.

Fast forward to summer and it looked like students were going to be able to move to their university towns. We were getting a glimpse of what it might be to get back to normality and I was preparing to move across country to embark on my PhD journey. I was going to be based at the Earlham Institute in Norwich and having only been there once for my interview I was very unsure of where to start. Luckily, I had secured a super supportive supervisor and had been introduced virtually to some of my cohort already and so I could piece together viewings.

Moving home itself is a stressful, life-turned-upside-down event and so in a pandemic I was prepared for it to be a bit worse. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and I’ve managed to set up an office space from home that would rival that in a work setting!

Pic 1: Visual representation of me moving my life from the NE of Scotland to Norwich. Pic 2: My new set up from my room in Norwich.

First few weeks of the PhD

The first few weeks were definitely an adjustment period. I was inundated with online training and inductions that needed to be completed. I was also made aware of so many opportunities for postgraduate students to get involved with, such as teaching or science communication. On top of this, I was meeting new people virtually over zoom each day and while this was exciting and time consuming, it was also still quite isolating. Once the zoom meetings were over, there was no one to go for coffee or walk home with to digest that particularly dry H&S induction or discuss how you had no idea what you were supposed to be doing for your project.

The Positives

One definitive positive that I have taken from this experience is that everyone is in the same position. When I thought about this, I was thinking mainly of the majority of my cohort and lab mates. But it is also true of my friends, family and flat mates. This has created a large online community (on twitter, LinkedIn, online seminars and so many more) in which I can meet or hear of others that I can relate to and express familiar feelings with. I’ve been told from peers and from reading online blogs that starting a PhD can be quite an isolating and lonely experience in the beginning. However, this solidarity has definitely helped in keeping me sane and motivated in my day-to-day work.

Another positive experience I have found in starting my PhD during a pandemic is being able to go to online conferences that I might not have been able to otherwise. One of my main motivations to pursue a PhD was to be able to go to conferences around the world, meet incredible researchers and enjoy listening to inspirational science talks. These often come with a hefty price tag and the constraint of time dedicated to travelling and being away from your institute. However, a lot of the attendance fees to these conferences have either been waivered or greatly reduced making it a lot more accessible for early career researchers and those with limited funding to attend. This has also greatly shown the science community how effective it is to make the switch to virtual conferences with not only being able to push the accessibility of attendance, but by also greatly reducing the carbon footprint of attendees.

The Prospects

I was always resigned to the fact that I would have to be flexible in my research during my PhD and thankfully for me, a lot of my project revolves around programming and bioinformatics. I do hope that next year will allow me to move into the office within my institute and I also hope that I can get into the lab to generate my own data and feel like a scientist again. I also miss being able to procrastinate with coffee breaks and lunch dates.

If I’ve learned anything from this year though it is that we rely on the support of others during difficult times and the support I’ve received from my institute, funders, lab members and university already has been fantastic. And if that is the case from a virtual setting, I’m looking forward to what the next 3 years will bring!



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