Disruption during a PhD

Woman typing on laptop

Woman typing on laptop

I am very lucky to have such supportive supervisors but also to have such encouraging peers amongst my cohort.

A group of us scholars met through Zoom and discussed how we were all coping with our research in the time of a pandemic. It was a diverse group of postgraduates from first year Honours students to fifth year PhD students nearing the end of their candidature. There was also a handful of us who were mature-aged doctoral students who were in the midst of their candidature and balancing work, study and parenting responsibilities. It was also fortunate that two senior academics, who were also PhD supervisors, were able to join us to share their postgraduate journeys and the different forms of ‘disruption’ that they had to navigate through.

It was very comforting to realise that I was not alone in feeling uncertain about how the pandemic would affect my research, my productivity and my candidature. It was very encouraging and inspiring to hear the stories of ‘overcoming’ from students who are parents that successfully finished their degrees. Let me share with you some key advice that we all took away from that discussion.

  • Celebrate small wins. This was shared advice from both senior academics. Celebrate all small milestones. The PhD journey is a marathon and not a sprint. Have a special dinner and celebrate a publication. Have a sleep-in the morning after delivering a conference presentation. Catch-up with friends and go for a long hike after editing a chapter of your thesis. What are fun things you like to do and share with friends? This will give you renewed motivation to tackle the next task.
  • Carve out work time, however that works for you. Sometimes PhD work has to be balanced with caring responsibilities. There are students who are enrolled part-time and need to be working full-time. Go with whatever works best for you but try and delineate work time from personal time so that you can allow yourself some space for rest and recreation too.
  • Write every day. Again, the PhD journey is a marathon, not a sprint, so keep plugging away and write every day. I am only slowly realising that writing my thesis is essentially a repetitive task of re-writing and re-editing. Also remember, don’t let 'perfect' be the enemy of 'good'. Yes, we need to do our best but sometimes in trying to write the perfect paragraph, we never even get to finish a well-written sentence. Our doctoral thesis is not the only thing that we will write in our lifetime.
  • Reach out. Most doctoral students tend to be perfectionists. Yes, we need to be cautious about comparing ourselves to other postgraduates and their accomplishments but the PhD cohort is also a source of support. Most of our family and friends may not fully understand the struggles so we need to reach out to our peers. Stay close to those who are supportive of your work. The PhD is quite often a very isolating experience and the experiences of lockdown during a pandemic can heighten this, so make sure to reach out.
  • Find the meaning in your work. Remember that as a PhD student, this is one of the very few times you will get to work on just this single piece of research at one given time. For most of us PhD students, our research project is also something that we picked out ourselves. Remember why we wanted to study it in the first place. Make your research relevant to your life and your experiences.
  • Contribute and share. Think about how you can make your research relevant to the world, engage with society by allowing your research to contribute not just to existing knowledge in your field but also to real-world issues and conversations. Remembering why your research is important will help motivate you to keep going despite disruptive periods in your candidature.
Tagged in phd, coronavirus, Productivity, Wellbeing, What messes with your head