Almost everyone is dealing with new ways of working during the current pandemic and lockdown. While some enjoy more time at home, many PhD students, researchers and even established academics are facing diverse practical challenges in terms of carrying out research in isolation, or with very limited resources.
It is not uncommon for PhD students to feel completely stuck at the moment, unable to progress with their research. Paradoxically, however, unforeseen circumstances like these can also provide rich opportunities for PhD candidates to demonstrate their capabilities and potential as a researcher.
Understand that a successful PhD is as much about how you do your research and how you develop as a researcher, as it is about the actual research itself. You are being examined on your ability to produce original, rigorous research within specific parameters, such as time, word counts, funding, and limited access to resources and facilities (even without a global emergency).
The ability to adapt to changing situations and working conditions is key for any researcher – even if there is no pandemic, experiments can still go wrong; fieldwork with human participants can produce challenging situations and unexpected data. Things get messed up all the time in research and it is more common for things to go awry than you might believe. Just before I started my fieldwork, I shared anxieties with my supervisor that things might go wrong. She responded, “Oh, they will. If things go exactly as you plan, then you’re probably doing something wrong!”
You are not being assessed on how perfectly your data is produced or how precisely your results align with your hypotheses. Examiners (and possibly potential employers) are interested to know how and if you are able to reflect and respond thoughtfully and pragmatically to unexpected situations. Use this time to exercise your creativity, flexibility, resourcefulness and ability to develop alternative, effective ways to address your research questions.
Check out this other article with tips on what can be done in this time, in lieu of fieldwork and data collection. Additionally, here are some other ways you can progress in your PhD – even if you’re doing it in your pyjamas, on your sofa at home during lockdown.
Think, think and think some more
In more normal times, it’s very easy for us to become very busy with auditing seminars, lab work, travelling for fieldwork, teaching, presenting at conferences etc. While it can be helpful to be productive and garner plenty of experience, this busy-ness seldom leaves us enough time for deep reflection and thinking. Not to be dismissed as mere naval gazing, contemplation is a crucial, but often forgotten, step in the doctoral process. We need to allow ourselves time to process what we are reading, think through the theory and ideas we are working with, and generate new, original thought.
Use the stillness of this time to reread key texts or your previous writing – you may discover new perspectives and insights you missed before. Review your work so far: are there different ways you can approach your research? Can you go deeper with some of your ideas, expand them, or formulate new directions altogether (for parallel or future research projects)? Although it might feel like you’re not able to physically do much right now, you may find that this downtime produces more ideas and projects for you to work on in the long term.
Develop other skills
Use extra time you currently have to build your professional development and career portfolio. Many universities have made training modules and events available online which can be done in your own time, or from the comfort of your living room. Take this opportunity to sign up for some of these online courses to enhance your skillset – this will be time well spent, helping you to develop skills needed for your PhD too. A good place to start is with our free webinars, which address many aspects of research and academic publishing, and aim to help you develop more confidence in your writing and work.
Attending online courses can sometimes also offer opportunities for you to connect and socialise with other PhD students and researchers. Maintaining some contact with your academic community can be very helpful, if only to hear how others are coping in lockdown and to bring some relief to prolonged periods of isolation.
Look after yourself
Know that researchers the world over – including students and senior academics – are responding to the pandemic in vastly different ways. Many may be finding working from home as difficult as you might be finding it. It may help to remind yourself that there is no one right way to work or do research in these unprecedented times. Amidst these current challenges, being kind to yourself becomes even more important.
Forcing yourself to maintain as vigorous and productive a schedule as pre-COVID times can result in creating more undue stress, anxiety and guilt. Give yourself space to rest, practice self-care, and find a sustainable, happy working rhythm that will work for you right now, whether that’s shorter hours, more breaks, or working outdoors in your garden.
Ultimately, good, successful research is made possible and easier if the person doing the research feels healthy and supported. Finding that happy place – whatever that may look like – is the best thing you can do right now, for both your PhD and yourself.