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Lockdown Stories: Finishing my PhD remotely

Like many of us, my life has changed due to Covid-19. I have gone from being a researcher in the lab to working from home, yet despite this, I have finished my PhD and celebrated my viva voce remotely. These are my takeaways from relocating my research from the lab to my home.

A shift of research focus. Being unable to acquire data due to lockdown has changed my work focus from data acquisition to analysis and writing. Working in my living room has made it a challenge to separate work from personal life. I have found that it is important to separate my work physically and mentally from my free-time, e.g. for work times I use a separate desk, keep scheduled breaks, and have a dedicated coffee cup.

Get moving. Being confined to my home also meant that I became less active as my daily commute, going for lunch breaks, or even the regular walk to the water dispenser were lacking. To counteract this, I am taking regular breaks that include moving away from my workspace, taking walks, and doing some exercise (e.g. I started yoga). Similarly, at first I improvised a standing desk using a pile of books and have now managed to find an adjustable desk, which means that I do not spent all my work time sitting down.

Keeping routines up. When working from home it can be difficult to maintain focus and productivity. I therefore kept some of my old work routines, such as setting an alarm in the morning, regular mealtimes, and using a calendar which has helped me to maintain routine and structure. Similarly, I kept writing a lab book, work logs, and notebooks to aid the sense of achievement and proof of productivity.

Mental health and wellbeing. As lockdown continued I realized that I needed to make a conscious effort with self-care. Thus, I am taking more time to draw and am trying to improve my photography skills, along with going for walks. Also, as we are all united by this experience, I have established virtual networks with friends and colleagues to have social interactions with, besides work.

Connecting with others. This directly links to practicing self-care, but has also allowed me to stay engaged with the scientific community. Participating in lab meetings, seminars, or conferences, and engaging with other researchers helped me to remove feelings of work isolation. Social media was a fantastic way to “meet” new people, hear about events, and share thoughts. The ability to virtually connect has also allowed me to have virtual coffee breaks with fellow students and colleagues, as well as celebrate birthdays, manuscript successes, and other milestones.

Writing your thesis. Writing a thesis which is hundreds of pages long and contains years of your research is daunting enough, but without the community of peers around in the lab, I found it even more challenging to maintain the discipline and a writing mind-set. What has helped me to keep a “writing mind-set” are the following things (a) breaking up my thesis into subheadings which helped me not to start with a blank page and focus on each section individually rather than thinking I have to write “everything” at once, (b) appreciating that thinking about my work and using creativity methods (e.g. mind maps) is a valid process and helped me with reframing my attitude towards writing, (c) creating an environment for writing helped with focus (e.g. all the lights on, music, scents, etc.), (d) having all the things I might need next to me to avoid procrastination saying “I just need this.. and that.. and..” (e.g. water flask, lip balm, tissues, pain killers, notepad, etc.).

The remote viva voce. Due to Covid-19, viva’s, as with many other things, are now conducted virtually and I was one of the students who defended online. The preparation was similar to an in-person viva, including thesis revision and annotation. Administratively, additional forms had to be filled out and my internal examiner made sure backup plans were in place (additional virtual platforms setup and the exchange of phone numbers). I made sure I had familiarized myself with the virtual platform used, and on the day of the viva we had a brief technical check before starting the examination processes. The viva itself felt like an in-person viva, albeit with a few technical glitches. However, these technical issues are probably the new normal and like they say in the theatre “The show must go on”. For me, the biggest challenge was that the “celebration” with my examiners, family, friends, and colleagues also was remotely, and thus I felt like I had missed out on closure and celebration. However, one day I am sure that we will be able to make up for it.

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