When I started my PhD just a little over a year ago, I made a mental list of all of the things that might happen over the next three years, and all of the challenges I might face. That life happens around and throughout your PhD journey is something that all researchers must confront at some point during their studies, and doing a doctorate requires an intricate management of the world beyond the PhD. However, having a slightly pessimistic disposition, it felt reassuring to consider what challenges might arise and to think about how best to mitigate whatever comes my way from the beginning. One thing that did not make my list, however, was the outbreak of a global pandemic.
And yet, that is precisely the situation in which my colleagues and I now find ourselves. The coronavirus has spread on an unprecedented scale and has brought much of the world to a grinding halt. Our university campuses have closed, and we are, at the time of writing, in partial lockdown. That this pandemic will affect our research is, at this stage, inevitable. So, it is only natural that we ask ourselves what might be done to mitigate its impact.
There are a number of practical limitations that arise from a state of lockdown. To start, conducting fieldwork appears to be out of the question in the coming months. For me, this has sent me back to the drawing board. Prior to the pandemic, I was in the process of designing my fieldwork and planning the next few months of my research. In a sense, this has forced a period of much needed introspection; by obliging me to ask difficult questions about the decisions I am making and allow myself some important time to reflect and regroup before proceeding. In any case, as universities move increasingly (now entirely) online, it has never been more feasible to remain productive and research active remotely. From staying in touch with supervisors to completing interviews and focus groups, platforms like Zoom and Skype mean that research need not simply cease in these uncertain times.
Perhaps less easy to mitigate, however, are the missed opportunities that will arise as a consequence of cancelled events and conferences. As a doctoral research student, time is precious and your position is precarious. In the competitive world of academia, the opportunities to teach, publish and present can be just as important as the successful completion of a thesis in terms of securing employment post-PhD. From this perspective, cancelled classes and conferences could potentially have a significant impact on professional development, not simply in terms of bolstering your CV. Conferences, for example, provide networking opportunities that are difficult to replicate in the current climate of social distancing.
There are, then, a myriad of concerns for PhD students beyond the immediate threat to progression. It is without a doubt an uncertain and anxious time for everyone and for many, particularly those more closely affected by COVID-19, staying productive will be the least of their concerns. In these strange and uncertain times, the PhD and the world beyond it seem to be at odds. Despite the levity of some sections of academia, who insist that lockdown is concomitant with something of a productivity boom, it is important be mindful of your own mental health and recognise your own limitations in the coming weeks and months.
The PhD and pandemic, it seems, reveals a struggle between productivity and priority that we all must address. Coronavirus will continue to have an impact that reaches far beyond our research journey. It will, it seems, remain possible to continue to research. However, it would be a little naive to suggest that this constitutes anything resembling a ‘business as usual’ approach. In these anxious times, it is important to take the time to rest, reflect and regroup.