Back on track: post-COVID PhD recovery
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic affected our work and personal life to a great extent. We are well aware of the unfortunate consequences of the pandemic in doctoral education. And we most certainly hope that the worst part of it is already behind us. Not without complications, we can already see countries relaxing the measures, numbers of cases decreasing, and life slowly getting back to normal. But how will this “new normal” look like for PhD students? What long-term impacts of COVID-19 will we have to face?
In order to hear some opinions about this topic I conducted my own mini-research. I asked my friends and colleagues, who are now all half-way through their PhD journey, what they think about the impact of the end of the global corona-lockdown on their PhD and personal life. While all of my peers are really excited about the end of this challenging period and new opportunities it will bring us, many people expressed some concern. Here I summarize their main worries and give you some tips on how to deal with them, in case you feel the same way:
Time with loved ones
As challenging as it was, global lockdown did give us an opportunity to spend more time with our partners, children and parents. It gave us the time and opportunity to improve relationships we lost with our families, grow stronger bonds with the people we love and, to some, even give life to new family members! Yet, with the end of the lockdown we can see this time running through our fingers. In such cases it is always advised to apply techniques of time management: set goals, make to-do lists, prioritize, drop non-essential tasks, set clear working hours and don’t work outside of those hours or during the weekends. All those are certainly good tips, but let’s be honest, being late from work, hours of commute and extra office hours are coming… And we will definitely not manage to be with our families as much as we were used to during the lockdown. But it is important to keep in mind that sometimes less is more, and while the time spent with your loved ones will probably decrease, it will start to feel more precious again. What counts is not quantity, but quality, so it’s time to spend quality time with your loved ones! Create moments, build memories, be present for each other and make good use of that precious time together!
Another concern is that many PhD students must move to another city or country in order to proceed with their work/research. To them, the end of the lockdown means having to leave their friends and family. And this, after all this time of being always by each other’s side, may not be the easiest thing to do… In this case, it is extremely important to keep in touch. Schedule phone calls, arrange digital meet-ups, exchange messages and keep your connection alive! Geographical distance does not stop you from being there for each other, and time apart can make your relationship even stronger!
Lost opportunities for skills development, training and network-building
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the worldwide disruption of education and training, especially in areas that require physical human contact. For PhD students this includes, among others, networking, presenting skills, outreach and data collection (fieldwork, lab work, surveys…). But let’s not forget that the challenges of the lockdown brought with them opportunities for development of other essential skills, such as flexibility, resilience, remote communication and ability to operate in a digital environment. And as for the opportunities we missed out on, it’s about time to catch up on them! Luckily, you are not alone in it. The others are also trying to make up for the pullback, and there are going to be many activities organized! As the lockdown comes to an end, physical meetings will become available again, starting with small gatherings of just a few people, and slowly expanding all the way to big international conferences. Of course, this will not happen overnight. But keep an eye open on the available options, and take part in the activities of your interest. If you would rather take the initiative into your own hands – organize meet-ups, workshops, courses, present your work to colleagues, and take interest in what they are doing. It’s finally time to get busy with the networking!
Millions of people around the world, including myself, often feel uncomfortable, or nervous during the public speaking. But during the whole lockdown period we were given a luxury of presenting from the comfort of our home, in front of a not-so-scary computer screen. Being used to that, presenting in front of the live audience again can be quite challenging. To make things easier, before the live presentation you could try to carefully organise the presentation, practice your speech with friends, meditate or exercise, focus on the talk instead of the audience, look at friendly or familiar faces in the audience. And most importantly, remember that this feeling usually fades away with some practice, so don’t miss out on an opportunity to present to more people, and develop this valuable skill.
It will not come as a surprise that people have different productive hours. During the lockdown many of us were able to adjust our schedules to match our preferences. For example, I am usually more productive at night. So lately, whenever I feel like it, I could spend a night working, and then sleep until noon. But with the end of the lockdown many of the people like me will slowly get back to our offices, and back to the socially acceptable working schedule. Taking a gradual approach may help here. Moving your bedtime 15-30 minutes a day in a desired direction will help to make the change smoother for body and mind. Adjusting a daytime routine to have timely meals, consistent physical activity, working with intervals, and relaxing time can also be helpful. Focusing on positive can even make the transition exciting! Think of all the things you missed at your workplace: re-establishing the boundary between work and private life, meeting your colleagues for a chat with a cup of delicious coffee, having a peaceful place to focus on your work…
All in all, everyone will experience their own difficulties getting back on track. Those things may be difficult to talk about when everyone around seems to be very eager to resume their normal lives again. Promoting such conversations may show people that they are not alone in their worries, and help to support each other when things are uneasy. Taking a gradual approach, focusing on positive and reminding yourself that soon these difficulties will be left behind, and everything will feel normal again, will help to reduce the stress of the transition.