PhD Research in Times of Corona: How I Try to Adapt

As a PhD candidate, you carry out research that no one has ever done before to answer questions that have never been answered. After a few years, this – hopefully – results in a thesis that clearly makes a novel contribution to the existing literature and a doctorate. This is a daunting task – it takes a lot of motivation and perseverance to tackle all the issues you encounter during a multi-year project – but it is also something to be incredibly proud of once you accomplish it. When I started my PhD project in January 2017, I knew it was going to be challenging at times, especially for a perfectionist like me. However, I never expected that during the fourth year of my PhD the world would be in a global pandemic crisis. In this blog, read more about how I face the challenges associated with carrying on with my PhD research in times of corona.

1. Data collection stop
In my PhD research I study the behavioral and neural development of prosocial behavior (i.e., behavior that benefits others) in adolescence. To this end, I work on a longitudinal, three-wave study with adolescents aged 9 – 20. To map adolescents’ prosocial development we invited them to our lab in 2018 and 2019 to fill in questionnaires, perform experiments, and undergo MRI scanning. The third measurement wave was planned to start in 2020, but data collection has stopped and it is unclear when projects will be able to commence again. This data collection stop is obviously very disappointing for me – I was very proud of conducting a longitudinal study over the course of three years and could not wait to see the results. Besides, I often worry about the negative impact that the corona crisis has on our results in terms of reliability, as the circumstances changed so much between the second and third wave, and we will no longer be able to spread the measurement waves as we carefully planned to optimize our study design. Luckily for me, I already have data from the first two measurement waves that I can use to finish my dissertation. Moreover, together with my supervisors and colleagues I have been able to set up and collect additional behavioral data for our study a few weeks ago to examine how adolescents experience the corona crisis. I am currently working on a paper about this data, and I feel very thankful to work on such an important and timely topic. Even though I am disappointed that I may not be able to carry on with my research as planned, I am grateful for supervisors that help me to adjust my plans and to point out opportunities to conduct meaningful research.

2. Isolation
As a perfectionist and passionate researcher, I am no stranger to stress. In the last few years, I have learned that I am particularly good in creating self-imposed stress due to having very high expectations of myself. Over the past three years I have seen around me that I am not the only one: many PhD candidates experience feelings of stress, depression, or isolation. Doing PhD research can be a lonely endeavor even in normal times: analyzing results and writing papers often involves working alone for many hours, which for some people might result in feelings of isolation. Normally, I try to prevent such feelings by spending enough time with family, friends, and colleagues, but this has become increasingly difficult in times of corona. At the same time, I feel that now, more than ever, I want to feel connected to colleagues and supervisors. For me, it really helps that in our SYNC lab we have weekly stand-ups where me and my colleagues share what we are planning to do that week and whether we need any help. We also have weekly lab meetings, where we discuss lab values and culture, research methods, and present our latest work. Finally, I try to schedule regular coffee breaks and drinks with colleagues and friends, and a recent pub quiz that we did with our lab also really helped to make me feel more connected.

3. Work/life-balance 
The corona crisis definitely gives rise to challenges with regard to my work/life-balance. For example, I teach next to doing research, and switching to online teaching in the recent months has not only increased my teaching hours, it also required me to re-think the structure of the course, the assignments, and to spend extra time comforting distressed students. Despite this extra time invested, I still sometimes worry that my teaching is not of the same quality as it was before the switch to online teaching. Also, I now work in the living room together with my husband, which means what we disturb each other’s concentration by calling or having video meetings, but also that our work time and leisure time mainly take place in one single room. For me, it really helps that we take regular walks to have a change of scenery, and we also schedule workouts three days a week right after our working hours to create some dissociation between work and spare time.

4. Concerns about the future
Finally, the corona crisis created additional concerns about the future, both work-wise and in general. Generally, I feel distressed about not being able to see and hug my family and friends for a long time. Also, it is still unclear how long the corona crisis and associated regulations will last, which leads to feelings of insecurity and stress. Work-wise, I really empathize with all the PhD candidates who have to defend their thesis online – I imagine that this can make the moment feel less special and celebratory, and may limit networking opportunities with attendees. I sincerely hope that I will be able to defend my thesis the normal way. Furthermore, being unable to carried out your planned research means that the quality of your thesis could be affected, as you may not be able to answer the research questions you set out to answer. This could have detrimental effects on being able to find a job in academia or obtaining grants to fund your research. I sometimes worry about this myself, but this feeling is probably even stronger for PhD candidates who cannot collect any data at all or who combine their work with family responsibilities. For now, I try to handle these feelings by talking about them to others, but only time will tell how long these worries will remain.

All things considered, doing PhD research can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but also a very challenging one. The corona crisis poses extra challenges – probably even more than the ones I listed above, and we are yet to discover the consequences and to find creative solutions. Do you – as a PhD candidate, supervisor, or otherwise interested individual – experience other challenges than the ones listed above? Or did you think of a great solution? Please let me know in the comment section below!



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