Research and COVID-19, what does this all mean for PhD students?

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Across the UK, labs and universities have closed (apart from those working on a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19), leaving many researchers like myself feeling uncertain about the future. 

Some people have suggested that this time could be used as a “writing retreat” to write papers, reviews and grant applications. I think we can all agree that is somewhat optimistic and I don’t know about you but I can barely concentrate!

I’m in my second year of my PhD and typically this is the big year. I’ve got my first year under my belt in which, I made a lot of mistakes and was learning about the background of my project. Your second year is the year where you have a bit more knowledge behind you and you can really get your teeth stuck into the (lab) work. I was really excited for all the lab work I was supposed to do this year but like everything and everyone else, this has drastically come to a halt. 

I don’t know about you but I am struggling to work from home, I didn’t realise how much I loved the lab and the people I work with. The lab seriously makes me manage my time much better and I’m one of those annoying people that like to be busy because it means I can actually prioritise my work accordingly. Not being in the lab has been hard.

I can’t stop thinking. Honestly, I can’t stop thinking about pretty much everything, my family and friends, those that have lost their jobs, the people fighting for their lives, the amazing NHS staff and key workers that are saving lives and keeping us all going and then selfishly, what this all means for my PhD project. It’s a little busy in my brain at the moment so trying to churn out high quality writing for my project, even though I love it has proven very difficult.

I’m concerned, like many others, about how this delay will affect my research, and I know in the grand scheme of things it’s not the end of the world but it’s relative to me and something I’ve worked really hard for. 

A lot of funding bodies are allowing for no-cost extensions and that means the project can be extended but you won’t get any extra funding. That’s pretty much guaranteed for most funding bodies and most projects, but what about if this goes on for much longer than anticipated? What happens then? 

A PhD project in most cases is like an apprenticeship, you get paid to work for your qualification over your course of study and this is either by a university or an external funding body like a charity. 

I’m exceptionally lucky that my stipend is still getting paid, but what’s the knock-on effect of this? If this goes on for let’s say hypothetically, 6 months, and that’s a long time out of the lab, I’ll need to have 6 months extra in the lab at the end to make up for the lost time. What happens then? Well, I could be frugal and try and save as much as I can possibly save and of course, the lack of going on holiday and going out will definitely help with that but then there’s the case of tuition fees, I can’t afford to pay those tuition fees off my own back, this is something I’d have to apply for if necessary. 

I was on a roll with my project and we were getting to a really critical point and now that’s stopped I’m wondering how we’ll recover. I’m sure that we will, I have every faith that we will get over this but it’s just how long that will take and if you’re like me, who likes to stay busy and keep momentum this pause is pretty hard. I hadn’t realised how much of a social being I am and that’s had quite an impact on my mental wellbeing. I think we’re bound to have good days and bad days through this but we’ve got to support each other as best as we can. 

So to cut a long story short, this is NOT a “writing retreat”, this is a global pandemic. It’s ok to not be productive (I have to keep telling myself this, and my amazing boyfriend is constantly telling me this). Thankfully I have a good support system and this includes my supervisor and my colleagues. I know a lot of people don’t have that so I am very fortunate. 

Let me know how you think this will affect your research or how it is affecting your life in general. I’d like to hear other peoples thoughts on this. 

Stay at home and stay safe.

Beth x

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