Trying to get used to a ‘new normal’ as a PhD student… 

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It’s been 5 weeks since lockdown here in the UK and 5 weeks since we’ve all had to rapidly change our ways of working. For a lot of people that will be mean working from home and for some that will probably mean working from home for the first time. 

While some people are just cracking on and being super productive, as a PhD student that spends a lot of time in the lab I’m finding it hard, very hard (m. At first, I thought I’d find it ok as I used to work from home during my undergrad degree, but let’s be honest the first couple of weeks have been a total write off… well, it has been for me at least. I miss the lab, my desk and my work colleagues! 

I’m currently trying to work from home along with my boyfriend who is also trying to run his coffee business from our small 1 bed flat. We’re making it work, we’re currently sharing our kitchen table (again, small) as our working space. Sometimes we mix it up and I work in the bedroom, which I know is a massive ‘no no’ but needs must. It seems to work, we know when we each need space for example if we need to make phone calls or Zach needs to grind coffee. It was difficult initially, but I think we’ve got into some sort of a rhythm. Granted we’re not working 9-5 every day, I think that’s pretty much impossible, but we’re trying and that’s all we can do.

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It was only really this week that I actually managed to have some good productive working days, emphasis on the some. I still worry about the future but I’m certainly calmer than I was a few weeks back, I think I’ve come to accept this weird and difficult time. 

So, how can you work from home as a science PhD student?

Well, there’s no lab for a start so it’s mainly reading and writing, and maybe data analysis. Reading and writing are hard if you’re not feeling inspired, I think that’s the same for any subject or profession. They’re definitely tasks that you have to ‘want’ to do. For me, a lot of the lab work dictates what I would typically do next, for example, some experiments might lead me to read certain papers or writing up what I’ve done or an idea of what I’d like to do next. The idea that if you’re not in the lab you should have enough data to churn out papers is ridiculous, the lab work and the results should dictate the story, not the other way around. 

As you may have seen from a previous post of mine (link here), I’m in my second year of my PhD which was supposed to be the critical year for collecting data and planning papers. That’s no longer the case, so what am I doing with this time at home? Well, I’m trying to write a literature review about my project in the hope to publish and I’m also trying to make a start on my thesis. It seems premature to start writing my thesis in great depth but I’ve got to make up for lost lab time in some way. My productivity has definitely been up and down during this lockdown but I’m ok with that, I’m trying to be kinder to myself. I’d like to have finished my literature review and have a chunk of my thesis written for when we’re back up and running but I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself, we have to remember this is a global pandemic.

I’m not here to give you ‘working from home tips’ but here are some things that are helping me get somewhat used to this new normal:

  1. Don’t watch the news constantly. We’re currently in information overload and it can get quite overwhelming at times. We do a quick catch up before or after our tea on youtube.
  2. Create some sort of a routine. Granted, I’m not the best at this. I work well with a routine but I struggle to create one myself.
    – I’ve been using Asana to help me track tasks and group into projects, for example, I have a project for each paper/review I’m working on to help me plan tasks for completion.
    – I also have (virtual) meetings on set mornings so I can do work in the afternoon and I have set days for reading papers.
    – I’ve been trying the Pomodoro method (25 min work, 5 min break etc). I use an app on my mac to prompt me when to work and when to take breaks (Be Focused). I don’t use this all time, I mainly use it when I’m writing and it’s not for everyone, find something that works for you.
  3. Check-in with your friends and family. We do a weekly pub quiz with our friends via Facebook video chat and that’s been super fun and part of our weekly routine. I’ve also found it really helpful chatting to my friends that are PhD students as well so we can help and motivate each other.
  4. Sign up for a virtual writing retreat if you need some extra motivation. This week I signed up for the virtual writing retreat and I found it so useful. It helped me keep track of what I was doing by setting goals and checking in with others. It’s really good to help break up the day a bit by creating a routine.
  5. Take breaks & don’t be so hard on yourself. I know this is hard, it’s something I’m learning to do. If you’re struggling with something, just take a break and come back to it later. We should all be a little kinder to ourselves and others. Just remember it’s ok if you weren’t productive or didn’t achieve much in your day, you’re allowed to have off days. 

I know I’m in a privileged position to be able to work from home while some people have no choice but to be working on the frontline and others have been laid off. I’d like to acknowledge both the privilege and the struggle, both are justified. Everyone who is working from home is in the same boat and we’re all trying to navigate this new normal. Listen to yourself and do what works for you. All we can do is try.

I hope you found this useful. I’d love to hear from you about how you’re navigating this new normal, whether you’re a PhD student or not. What works for you? How are you coping? 

Stay home, stay safe and be kind.

Beth x

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