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Life as a PhD Student in a Pandemic

Updated: Sep 16

Today’s post is from Niamh MacSweeney who started as a Mental Health Research UK PhD Scholar at the University of Edinburgh in 2018. The title of her project is Understanding biological and psychosocial risk and resilience factors for adolescent depression. Early on in her scholarship she impressed us all by being shortlisted in the Edinburgh University-wide 5-minute thesis competition. But then COVID -19 caught up with her studies, as it has all our Scholars. In this post she tells of how she has faced up to the challenges of working through the pandemic.


Life as a PhD Student in a Pandemic


Adolescence is a time of immense biological, psychological, and social change. My PhD focuses on adolescent depression and I often use the image of a “whirlwind” to illustrate the upheaval that accompanies this period in our lives. However, a whirlwind is also a very apt description for the past year of my PhD.


When a pandemic catches up with one’s PhD plans, one is left with no other choice than to change the plan. The outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020 here in the UK, and across the world, dramatically altered our personal and working lives. I was just over a year into my PhD and up until that point, my work had largely focused on preparing and securing NHS ethics approval for my data-collection based study. My PhD aims to better understand biological, psychological, and social factors associated with depression during adolescence. In early March, I had just received final sign-off on my ethics approval and was excited to start working with local schools and third-sector organisations to recruit my study participants. To say the email announcing an indefinite halt to all face-to-face data collection across my university left me feeling untethered and anxious is an understatement!


Despite the “minor” existential crisis that followed, I managed to draft up some contingency plans for my PhD with the wonderful support of my supervisor. Fortunately, our research group works heavily with large, pre-existing datasets and this aided a relatively smooth transition to a computational-based PhD project. Rather than collecting my own data, I would be using a large, US-based dataset called the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which still allowed me to address my original research questions. Although I had some basic coding skills, developing more advanced data analysis methods was a very steep learning curve. I’m very glad that I stuck at it though as the coding experience has been invaluable to my PhD work. To anyone currently grappling with learning a coding language like R, I promise that the dread accompanying error messages do eventually abate!


Thankfully, we were able to resume data collection in November 2020 and although recruitment was more challenging due to Covid, we managed to recruit over 30 young people to take part in an adapted version of my original project. This neuroimaging study aims to understand how certain thinking styles and behaviour, such as reward processing and irritability, relate to brain structure and function in adolescents with depression. My favourite aspect of this project was the fact it was co-produced with young people. This means that young people have been, and will continue to be, involved in every stage of the research project from the development of our research questions and tools to the dissemination of our results. We had the opportunity to present this work at the MQ Mental Health Science Summit in May 2021 and were delighted to be awarded the Delegates’ Choice Poster Award. You can see our poster here.


We wrapped up data collection for this project a few weeks ago and I’m really looking forward to analysing the data over the coming months. I’m also continuing to work on my data-analysis projects with the ABCD study. Although my PhD looks quite different to the original plan in terms of methods, my research questions have remained the same. The past year has been filled with ups and downs but I feel more confident in my research skills as a result and I look forward to moving into the last 18 months of my PhD.



Niamh MacSweeney


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