Back at the beginning of April, I wrote a short blog post sharing my experiences of some of the challenges of doing a PhD during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes we might have been in lockdown, but the sun was shining and the colours of spring were beginning to bloom around us. Ok, I’m talking about Paisley here so it might be more accurate to say that it was getting slightly less cold and the sky had gone from grey to a slightly lighter shade of grey, but two things were certain: it wasn’t winter, and we had no idea how long the purgatory of the lockdown would continue. As summer drew in, the days grew longer and life eased slightly closer to normal. One by one, the zoom quizzes disappeared, the travel restrictions eased and family and friends were reunited during those glorious nights we sat, socially distanced, in local beer-gardens. But it wasn’t to last, the nights closed in as the days grew shorted and I find myself once again resigned to my flat trying to keep writing, presenting, teaching and researching during this strange, strange year.
A lot has happened since I initially sat down to reflect on the strange uncertainty that was beginning to engulf our everyday lives. I have (re)written my methodology, I’ve began conducting my fieldwork (albeit online), I’ve written up my first findings and most recently, I have successfully negotiated my transfer event (I’m now officially a PhD student). But with all this humble bragging out of the way, I thought now would be time to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned since I penned those anxious words back in April.
By this point, everyone has seen my kitchen. From my hallowed perch at my kitchen table I’ve sat with the plain white cupboard door directly behind me on call after call, speaking supervisors, students, colleagues and even research participants. Given that I’d never heard of Zoom, or Teams this time last year it’s strange to think how quickly I’ve (we’ve) adapted. Working from home, something I hated passionately pre-pandemic, has become naturalised. It’s just how I work. It is far from ideal at times, the roar of sirens bursting through the old single-glazed windows, locking my partner out of the kitchen for hours at a time or even just the spatial compression of everyday life presents very real challenges to both productivity and wellbeing. With that said, however, I am proud of how I, and my PhD colleagues, have adapted in these strange times.
We are, it seems, living in a new epoch of academic life. Classes and conferences have moved online and as the initial shock of the pandemic wears, the stasis we found ourselves in back in March has been replaced by some-kind of new normal. For doctoral researchers, this has meant a resumption in some of the activities so important to the progression of our research and beyond. Personally, from my kitchen table in front of my cupboard, I’ve attended numerous online events and seminars. I’ve been able to teach, write and research in addition to my PhD. Some of the hauntology, the ‘lost futures’ of a generating of budding doctoral researchers, has subsided as we have tentatively continued our doctoral journey to whatever extent possible.
I recognise my privileged position within broad range of impacts the pandemic has had on the PhD. First, most if not all of my fieldwork can be done online by working with secondary data and conducting interviews remotely. Second, contrary to the scenario I had feared in April, my timeline has not been altered drastically. I recognise the difficulties that many still face doing research during the pandemic, and ‘business as usual’ is still not an option for most. In recent weeks, for example, the UKRI has come under criticism for not extending funding for PhD students and instead asking them to ‘adapt’ their research. Even speaking as someone who has ‘adapted’ research, there are substantial difficulties that come with during research during the pandemic. These range from missing those informal interactions with colleagues on campus, to a lack of suitable workspace (I really don’t like this kitchen office of mine) and the absence of in-person conferences (It is, after all, much more difficult to get that conversation with a ‘big name’ academic on a zoom call with 60 others).
I’ve often felt that, as a PhD student, I occupy a strange and flexible middle-ground. Neither a fully-fledged academic nor a fresh faced undergraduate, we’re often left out of the dominant conversations being had about the post-COVID university. After over six months working from home, it’s easy to feel disconnected from everyday university life. However, after the shock of lockdown we’re still here. It is just as important, therefore, to take the time to reflect, reflect and regroup in the purgatory of the new normal.