10 more tips for starting a PhD during a global pandemic

By Alex Wakeman

In September, my fellow PhD student Catriona wrote our first blog post, listing 10 tips for starting a PhD during a pandemic. I read her advice before I started in the Bennett lab and recommend it to anyone who hasn’t done so already. Listed here are 10 of my own tips, drawn from the experience of my first two months working on a mid-pandemic PhD.

  1. Separate your work from your rest

When you work and rest in the same place, the two activities will naturally bleed into each other. We’ve all had those days where it simultaneously feels like the work never starts, but it also never stops; when nothing has been accomplished, but you feel genuinely exhausted. When there’s no physical barrier between work and rest, the lines between the two begin to blur, unless you construct a new barrier. This barrier could be in the form of time (committing to only work between certain hours and refusing to check emails in the evenings) or it can be created in your workspace, completely packing away your ‘work desk’ when you’re done. Different methods will work for different people, but however you choose to enforce this separation, the message is the same: when you are done, be done. It doesn’t matter when the day starts and ends, so long as you have some way of drawing a line to separate work from rest and to prevent the amorphous creep of covid-time blurring everything together into a not quite productive, not quite restful mush.

  1. Go easy on yourself

Starting a PhD is hard. Living through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is hard. And often, even when you aren’t starting a PhD during a global pandemic, life can be hard. Your value as a person is not tethered to what you accomplish with your PhD. Just getting the funding for a PhD is hard; if you are here, you deserve to be here, and that fact will not change because you haven’t collected any data by Christmas or haven’t read as many papers as you reckon everyone else must have. Work when you can, rest when you must – this thing’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re starting a PhD you are likely very smart and very driven; so take care of yourself, then the research will take care of itself

  1. Ask Questions

OK, yes, Catriona beat me to this one, but it is very good advice and in more than one way. Whilst asking questions like ‘Where are the measuring cylinders?’ is both important and necessary, it is probably equally important to ask: ‘How was your weekend?’. For the foreseeable future, going into work might be the only source of physical socialising permitted. No matter how busy they might seem, I’m yet to encounter anyone in this current scenario who isn’t rather pleased to strike up a normal conversation with a human being that doesn’t have a few dead pixels above their right eye, or a half-second lag to their voice. Even headphones (the universally recognised symbol for ‘piss off’) wilfully come off, in favour of a cross-bench chin wag

  1. Buy a really good waterproof

Global pandemics aren’t great for your mental health. Working, sleeping and living between the same four walls isn’t great for your mental health. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions about what effects the combination of the two can have on your mental health. There’s not much we can do about the first one and throughout the cold, wet, unappealing months of British winter it can often feel like there’s not much we can do about the second, either. This is why a good waterproof might be one of the best things you can buy with that unspent pub money. The weather and your location may not be ideal, but I’ve found that even central Leeds on a rainy day can be overwhelmingly transformative when I haven’t left my flat in over 24 hours. If there’s a nearby park, walk there. If there’s not, walk round the block, or explore the university campus. Just a short amount of time outside has been proven to be transformative for your mental state, even when there’s very little sun. A good coat will at least remove an excuse to stay indoors due to the weather and I promise it’s an investment worth every penny

  1. Get into a good book

‘Work’ probably looks very different for a lot of people right now. However, if you’re one of the unfortunates who started their PhD in the cursed year of 2020 then most-to-all your work probably involves a computer screen. Many of us are still required to work from home most days of the week, and this is likely on top of spending most of our downtime on screens as well, which translates to a hell of a lot of screen-gazing. Spending most of your day on a computer isn’t only bad for your eyes, it can cause back problems, headaches and even interfere with sleep. A certain amount of computer time is sadly unavoidable for your work, but more can be done about how you spend your breaks. Pick something fun. Something you want to read, not something you ‘should’ read. Maybe you’ve always meant to get around the reading Game of Thrones? Or Harry Potter, or the Sherlock Holmes books? Hell, go and re-read a childhood favorite, or a guilty pleasure (libraries are shut, you won’t have to frantically explain to anyone that you were only reading Fifty Shades of Grey because you’re interested in the plot). Find something that’ll be able to pull you away from the tyranny of the screen, and give you a break from some of the exhausting realities we’re currently living through

  1. Experiment with your routine

Having to work exclusively from home doesn’t have to be all negative. One benefit is that it makes you the master of your own destiny – or at least, your own schedule. The hours between 9 A.M. and 5 P.M. no longer hold the value they once did. Maybe you already know whether you’re a morning person or a night owl. Maybe you’ve never before had the freedom to properly find out. What must get done in a day will vary for everyone, but if you aren’t allowed to go into university to perform experiments, perhaps you can conduct some at home. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself, realising that you’ll happily sacrifice a regular lie-in, in return for an early finish. Or perhaps you’ll find yourself enjoying a decadently long lunch break, to allow for a midday bike ride that makes the most of the limited winter sunshine. Maybe you’re happy with the times you work but could rearrange the order of tasks. I precede my writing with watering all my plants – a pocket of quiet, untaxing time to mull over whatever it is I’m currently working on. A great suggestion I had was doing the daily email check right after lunch, when you’re a bit too full and sleepy to do much else.

  1. Listen to other people’s problems

In some ways, the pandemic has narrowed the knowledge gap between new starters and other PhDs more than ever. Starting a PhD in any year can be confusing, stressful and full of new problems, however this year is unique, as this is also the case for everyone else. Further along PhDs, postdocs, yes, even PIs are adapting to new ways of working, constantly coming up against new frustrations and sometimes feeling despairingly hopeless. If you have the opportunity, talk about the problems you’re facing with people at all levels. Other first years can make you feel less alone – even if it’s just by sharing a grumble about the woes of starting a PhD in 2020. Older PhDs can reassure you that you can cope and people do get through these problems. Postdocs, technicians and supervisors ( ‘the grown-ups’) will reveal that even they can struggle, get fed up, and feel lost. Seeing others being fallible and lost and scared can give you a strange sense of relief, especially when you’re struggling to give yourself permission to feel these things.

  1. Remember why you’re here

If you’re anything like me, it wasn’t so long ago that you got the email, telling you that your PhD application had been successful. I was on holiday at the time (NB: holidays were things we did before the event where we’d travel long distances to make ourselves happier or more interesting for a bit), but knowing I might receive the email any day that week had written off the first three days for me. I won’t reveal to you how many times I re-read the email before running outside to tell my family the news, but it was an hour or two before I came back down to the surface of the earth. The global pandemic may have transformed what my PhD looks like, compared to what I imagined on that elated early-spring day, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Even under these strange circumstances, I’m still undergoing a once-in-a-lifetime experience, conducting my own research, with knowledge and resources not available to an undergraduate, yet without the pressure to publish and acquire funding of a postdoc – for someone who loves learning, loved my subject at university and doesn’t enjoy jumping through hoops, I couldn’t really ask for much more. Your own reasons for wanting to do a PhD might be very different to mine, but regardless, there was surely a time when you received that scholarship funding email and, in that moment, you couldn’t have wanted anything else.

It can become rather easy to slip into the habit of focusing on what we’ve lost to the pandemic; the opportunities we could have had, the friends we could have made, the socials we could have gone on, the full immersion of PhD life. I know that it’s easy, because I do it myself. But focusing on these losses prevents us from appreciating what we still have and where we still are. Although the extent is limited, you are still doing amazing things every day, learning about and expanding knowledge most people could only begin to comprehend – no matter what, you’re still a PhD student, and I think that’s really very exciting.

  1. Be more than just a PhD student

The pandemic has undeniably caused frustrations and setbacks for everyone this year, from school children, sixth-formers, undergraduates, postgraduates, adults starting their first job, or moving house, or planning their first child; I doubt there were many people whose plans for the 2020 didn’t involve coming into contact with another human being. The difficulties of the pandemic have affected everyone in different ways, but they can take on their own unique shade of frustration for PhD students. A PhD is an incredibly strange thing; working so intensely on a single goal can have incredible and rewarding results, but a side-effect is that a PhD is far more than just a job or a qualification, for most PhD students its their life. Maybe even more than that, for most of us, a PhD is our identity. So when our PhD is limited, when we are left feeling like we’re not 100% doing a complete PhD, that can leave us feeling like we don’t have a 100% complete identity. This is why it’s so important for you to have something else in your life to remind you: you are more than your PhD. Contrary to what some non-academics might believe, PhD students are not robots, whose skill set is almost entirely invested into a single, savant style understanding of their subject. Of every PhD student I’ve met, regardless of their field, not one has been only a PhD student and nothing more. For a PhD requires passion and I struggle to imagine anyone so intensely passionate about one thing – whether that’s biochemical signaling, gravitational waves, or tablets of Linear B script – without that innate passion transferring to many other subjects. Whether it’s music, cooking, painting, languages, sports, history, or any other niche little topic, I know you are more than just your PhD. Make the time for these things in your life. Your hobbies and interests will anchor you to a world outside of academia and help remind you that you have a place in that world as well

  1. Know when and where to get help

Several of the points I’ve discussed here relate to staying mentally healthy. However, many of us will need more than a stable routine or a walk in the park to help. Recent studies revealed that 1 in 2 PhD students experience psychological distress and 1 in 3 is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. It is a statistical certainty that someone, probably many people, reading this are suffering or will suffer from a mental health disorder. Luckily, most universities are beginning to realise the importance of mental health care and have dedicated services that any student can access. Many of these services – from workshops to counselling – are still being run via Zoom throughout the pandemic. As much as I wish this wasn’t the case, if you’re studying for a PhD your odds of needing one of these services is far higher than almost any other demographic. Even if you don‘t need them currently, find out what your university has available before you need them, because if you do, you might need them fast. If your university doesn’t offer appropriate services your local GP definitely will, so make sure you’ve registered with one in the city you’re studying in. Nobody is immune from having problems with their mental health, any more than they are from breaking a leg or requiring glasses. I know exactly what I have to do to make an appointment with the University of Leeds Wellbeing Service. I hope I’ll never need to use the information but then, if I were that naïve, I wouldn’t make a very good scientist

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