Starting a PhD in Lockdown

Today’s post is the second about the experience of doing PhD research during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month Niamh MacSweeney wrote about her experience when she was well on with her PhD. Sam Knight who was awarded the John Grace QC PhD Scholarship in 2020, started his PhD at Kings College, London, just as the pandemic began. He writes here about his experiences. His PhD title is: Neural mechanisms of positive symptoms I first-episode and prodromal psychosis.

Starting a PhD in lockdown

On the way to the meeting where I would receive the news that I’d been successful in my PhD application, I vividly remember passing in front of King’s College Hospital and witnessing a patient wheeled out of an ambulance in front of me, everyone in full protective gear, like a scene from a film. COVID news had been bubbling up for the past few weeks but this was the first direct contact with the then looming pandemic that I’d experienced, and sure enough, a week later the first lockdown was announced.

Before I launch into talking about my experiences starting a PhD in a pandemic, I want to acknowledge how extremely fortunate I have been this last year. Firstly, for the security from MHRUK in funding this studentship; secondly, that I am fit and young and healthy (and that my family all live in covid-free New Zealand!). While COVID has been a worldwide shared experience, it’s also exposed us to deep inequities in our society and – I hope – a new appreciation of the importance of mental health research.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned from starting a PhD in a pandemic:

1. The importance of online meetings

The strangest thing about starting a PhD was only knowing my colleagues as pixels on a screen. I’d always heard that PhDs can be a solitary experience, and this is especially true when you’re working from home. One way in which my lab has tried to remedy this lack of social respite is our Friday morning coffee break calls, a chance to talk about anything non-work related, as well as practice our drawing/painting. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of these calls, and even with restrictions lifting I hope they continue (photo of some of our artwork below).

2. Dealing with delays

Data collection for my PhD was shut down for 3 months this year. 3-4 years for a PhD seems like a long time, but even small delays can have sweeping ramifications for how a project is planned, data are collected, and therefore the quality of the PhD and publications that come from it. Losing “only” 3 months to shutdown may be a bullet dodged; students in their 2nd or 3rd years are finding they must make large changes to their projects or be faced with the uncomfortable situation of unfunded extensions. Shutting down data collection was necessary to curb the spread of COVID, but the effects on this generation of PhD students and young researchers will be widely felt.

3. Maintaining a good working environment

Some people love being able to roll out of bed at 8:55am in the morning and working in their PJs, but I for one am not a fan of working from home. Working from my bedroom, the blurring of work and home life without the normal recreational outlets has probably been the most difficult aspect of the pandemic for me. Coupled with the external anxiety of a rapidly spreading pandemic, I didn’t realise the stress creep until it was upon me. What I’ve taken away from this is that especially in a pandemic, maintaining good work-life balance is essential. Schedule your working hours, book in that recreational time, and get away from the computer.

Things are looking up at the moment; our data collection has resumed, I met the other PhD students in my lab face-to-face for a park-beer (and it wasn’t even that cold!), and just last week our office has reopened. It will take years to unpack the ways in which covid has affected us all, but I feel ridiculously lucky to get to keep working in a field I value so much.

Sam Knight

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