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A Socially Distanced PhD: Not all Zoom and Gloom?

Laureen Walker from the School of Social Work and Social Policy describes the nuanced, yet all too familiar, experience of doing a PhD from a distance.

A woman sitting at a laptop, frustrated
Source: Elisa Venthur, Unsplash

Everybody warned me about the isolation of embarking on a PhD, however solitude and lone working took on a whole new meaning in 2020. I started my ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) Studentship in October of 2020, following months of lockdown life. The novelty of Zoom quizzes and virtual catch ups had well and truly worn off by this point. The usual excitement and trepidation that accompanies starting a new project was somewhat subdued. Rites of passage like picking up a student card, getting lost on campus and accumulating miscellaneous freebies at Freshers Week were replaced by downloading an app and logging into yet another Zoom session. As someone who gets their energy from being around others, the past year has been particularly tough, but it has also illuminated some gems of wisdom. Having recently completed my annual review, I thought it was an appropriate time to take stock of the bizarre nature of starting a PhD under lockdown.

My induction week was entirely online, so I did not get to experience the collective buzz that comes from being in a throng of strangers, all embarking on a new adventure. In the first six months of my PhD, I completed three research modules virtually, which altered the dynamics of peer engagement and made exchanges more formal and stilted. I attended various online conferences, which minimised the opportunities to network and connect with other scholars. Over the past year, I have only ever seen my PhD cohort in 2D, from the shoulders up. It feels odd to have seen the inside of their bedrooms and living rooms before having met them in person. Equally jarring is that I know what artwork is displayed on my supervisors’ walls, yet we have never shaken hands and exchanged formal pleasantries. It all feels a bit back to front. Opportunities for small talk and banter are lost in the strange formality of Zoom. Virtual meetings, while arguably more productive, are less fun and sessions tend to be straight down to business. Then there are the inevitable practical issues of working remotely. When presenting my thesis at a departmental showcase, my precarious broadband connection failed as I was about to start presenting. I could only watch as the black spinning wheel of doom twirled mockingly for what seemed like a lifetime, before eventually admitting me back into the Zoom call.

Yet despite these inconveniences, it has not all been doom and gloom. The past year has taught me some important life lessons. Firstly, the importance of reframing. Starting a PhD under lockdown is neither better nor worse than starting one in ‘normal’ times, it is simply different. This subtle act of reframing can trick our brains into accepting difficult circumstances. Opportunities for connection are possible in a virtual world, they just take a bit more effort. It is ironic that my PhD is about resilience, yet I never fully understood how relevant this would be for me undertaking my own doctoral research. Resilience is about rolling with the punches, adapting to new circumstances, and accepting the inevitability of change. A PhD journey is not linear, it is disorderly and chaotic and sometimes completely off the chart. Things go into disarray, participants drop out, software fails. Yet this is also true of life and managing the expectations we have of ourselves is an important first step.

The second nugget of wisdom that I have gleaned from the past year is the importance of ‘chipping away.’ Every small act you engage in contributes something towards the larger picture, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. I like to think of a PhD like doing a marathon, something I am also training for at the moment. No matter how painful my training runs are, no matter how long they take, the most important thing is to show up and engage in the process. Some days are surprisingly easy, others are brutally painful, and I wonder why on earth I am putting myself through this. Luckily for me I prefer writing to running, though both can be frustratingly slow and can involve some uncomfortable chafing!

My final life musing is the importance of gratitude. Doing a PhD is a unique and privileged opportunity. Not only am I being paid to learn, but this may well be the only time in my life when I am completely accountable for my own time and actions. I can work when I feel most productive, I can take time off when it is needed, and I do not have a micro-managing boss constantly looking over my shoulder. It is both scary and refreshing and I know I will never have this amount of freedom again. The past year has presented unexpected challenges and has made my PhD experience different than it would have been otherwise. On reflection though, it has also made me more adaptable, more resilient, and has enhanced my problem-solving ability, which will no doubt stand me in good stead for the rest of my PhD journey.

Author retains copyright to text. Image courtesy of Unsplash (credited).

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