10 tips for starting a PhD during a global pandemic

By Catriona Walker

2020 hasn’t gone to plan – and it’s clearly going to be a while before we get back to anything approaching normal. Starting a PhD at any time can be a daunting experience; starting during a global pandemic is going to be even more daunting. You, your supervisor, the rest of your lab and your university are going to be sussing out how the process is going to work as it happens. What follows is a list of suggestions to make starting your PhD in 2020 a little easier.

  1. Learn the current working protocols – and stay up to date

Protocols for your group/ lab/ university are likely to change often and potentially at short notice for at least the first few months of your PhD. Make sure you know where to find the latest updates and be aware that your supervisor won’t always have new information before you do.

  1. Get to know your new lab

Many universities are currently operating under flexible working hours and/or restricting access to buildings, meaning opportunities to meet your new peers will be limited. Try to meet them in small numbers outside the lab – invite a couple of members of your lab for a coffee so you can start integrating into your new group. If they have a lab group chat (e.g. WhatsApp, Slack), ask to be included so you can stay up to date with more casual conversations.

  1. Learn where things are

If possible, take the time to walk around the building or campus if it’s unfamiliar to you. Work out where things are in the lab – familiarise yourself with where the equipment is kept, where you will be working, what the waste disposal methods are in your lab etc.

  1. Make the most of opportunities

Social events might be reduced but check out what socially-distanced or virtual meetings your union or department are offering for new starters.

  1. Take the time for background reading

You should be doing this when you start your PhD anyway, but make the most of the time you get to read at home. Read the papers suggested to you, and ask existing PhD students in your lab if you can read their early reports, or if they could recommend any reviews they’ve found particularly helpful.

  1. Sign up to virtual seminars

Since the start of Covid-19, a number of virtual seminar series have been launched. Normally every one or two weeks, they’re a great way to get up to date on the latest research in the field. If you’re studying plant sciences, Plantae Presents (https://plantae.org/education/plantae_presents/#upcoming-talks-) and GARNet Presents (http://blog.garnetcommunity.org.uk/garnet-presents-webinars/) are particularly good – what’s more, they record all their talks and they’re free!

  1. Set up relevant social media accounts

You’ll find a huge amount of science discussion on various social media platforms. If you haven’t already, take the time to set up some accounts (e.g. Twitter). It’s generally easier to have separate work and personal social media accounts if you use them, and it avoids any awkward work/ life cross-overs.

  1. Try to have a dedicated working space

You might be doing much of your work from home for the first few months. If possible, dedicate a space to work, and set it up properly so you can be comfortable. If you don’t have the luxury of a separate space, try to ensure you put away your things when you’re finished with work for the day. It will help you to mentally switch off.

  1. Ask questions

Nobody knows what’s going on when they first start their PhD at the best of times, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. It doesn’t matter if they seem stupid to you – we all have to start somewhere, and everyone prefers answering a question to fixing something that’s been broken because you didn’t know how to work it!

  1. Go with the flow

Don’t forget, even though you’re new, the rest of your lab are likely working in a way they’ve never worked before so everyone is in a situation they’re not used to. Accept in advance that things might be more restricted than ideal and just do the best you can in the situation.


Finally, be sure to enjoy your PhD. Regardless of the circumstances in which you start, this is an amazing opportunity to have almost total control over your own work for a number of years. Make the most of it and enjoy it – it passes quicker than you think!

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