In December 2019, a coronavirus outbreak rapidly spread across the world and was subsequently declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020. All our lives were collectively impacted, in a multitude of diverse ways. But I’d like to focus on one group of people: those undertaking PhD studies during this time.
The pandemic led to many restrictions across the UK, and many areas around the world, including a lockdown where all non-essential establishments and businesses were required to close. People were asked to remain at home unless they were deemed key or essential workers, such as medical or supermarket staff. Working practices within many sectors changed as face-to-face contact was no longer permitted, so working from home became necessary.
Undertaking PhD research is often not a clear path to completion and submission. In fact, this journey can follow an erratic trajectory, with turbulence along the way. Much has been written about the possible mental health and well-being impact when undertaking PhD research. During the last few years, PhD researchers have been affected in countless and diverse ways by the coronavirus pandemic, in both their personal and work-related lives.
The PhD journey entails a timeline, a schedule agreed upon by the PhD researcher and supervisory team, which carves a detailed trajectory to meet research aims and objectives. For many PhD researchers, this was in place. For many the timeline had begun; the clock was ticking – then came March 2020. As the world was thrown into uncertainty, so was the research community. The pandemic brought unexpected challenges to PhD progress and created various obstacles requiring amendments and changes to research plans.
Many research activities were stalled, and planned in-person data collection could not proceed. Ethically, researchers had to consider whether inviting prospective participants would place them under additional stress in addition to that created by the pandemic. Many PhD researchers had to re-plan and re-design their studies. The PhD clock was still ticking.
Recruitment was impacted as it was not possible to arrange in-person meetings with organisations to discuss research and provide them with recruitment materials (such as recruitment posters for their premises and information postcards for those interested to take). Organisations faced their own challenges and therefore contact by phone and email resulted in low response rates. Beyond the impact of homeworking itself, it is almost certain that the pandemic made the working environments of various professionals very intense and increasingly difficult during this time.
Interviews had to be completed online, either via an online platform or by telephone call. Participating in research could not have been further from the minds of many, as people were faced with health-related worries, many lost their jobs, or were furloughed. When undertaking research participant sample size is important as this influences data reliability. Some who had agreed to participate in the research withdrew their consent. Recruitment, therefore, faced additional challenges.
The career progress of PhD researchers has also been impacted in other ways. Engaging with others physically within their universities was no longer possible. Opportunities to gain experience teaching, demonstrating, or other CV-related activities were not possible, minimised, or online, which may not provide the same learning experience for PhD researchers. In-person conferences were cancelled, so opportunities to engage with peers and academics working in similar fields were not possible, negating possible networking and collaboration opportunities. Although online conferences provided PhD researchers with opportunities to present posters and oral presentations, the ability to network and engage with others was limited. Now that more in-person conferences and events are happening, the PhD ticking clock necessitates prioritising thesis submission.
It must be acknowledged that there have been some benefits of engaging in online teaching and learning opportunities. The online learning environment is growing and so those who had the opportunity to undertake this have gained skills in this area. Issues of inclusivity are also important to acknowledge. Online remote methods have enabled those with caring responsibilities, and those with disability needs to participate.
While many universities were understanding and fully supportive of the difficulties faced by PhD researchers, universities were also impacted by the need to continue to meet academic deadlines. Thankfully, many funded PhD researchers were able to avail themselves of a short period of extended funding from their universities to assist with the completion of their projects. But the implication of the difficulties experienced is that those who have completed or are due to complete their PhDs, may not have CVs with the additional academic-related aspects that are often necessary, or desirable when seeking future positions.
Some PhD researchers may not have been impacted by issues around having to terminate their research, re-plan their research or issues with recruitment and participation in PhD projects. Those undertaking desk-based research, or research using secondary datasets, may not have faced the challenges outlined. However, challenges have been faced by all. These researchers would also not have had access to the university community that they would have had on campus, and would have depended on for research-related support. So feelings of isolation may have been experienced, alongside a limited sense of research community belonging, as they embarked on a now more independent journey.
A wide range of research, and anecdotal evidence, has discussed the possible mental health and well-being impact on a person when undertaking PhD research. March 2020 brought with it new challenges to be added to this, therefore phenomenally expanding this paradigm. Increased isolation when homeworking and a lack of connection with others more generally, may be just some influencing factors. In addition to this PhD researchers, alongside society at large, navigated concerns regarding; their personal, familial and community physical health, pandemic and lockdown-related mental health and wellbeing concerns, as well as financial insecurity and difficulties.
There may be many other ways in which PhD researchers have been impacted during this time. But I want to provide a brief outline to provide an understanding of the impact on PhD progress. In summary, PhD research, combined with a global pandemic, brought about many diverse challenges to ensuring PhD progress. The extreme difficulties and delays encountered have meant that many research projects have had to pivot in new ways to meet research aims. It has been an intense and stress-provoking time.
To PhD researchers impacted during this unprecedented time, I urge you to reflect and focus on the positives that have occurred, and the positives that have resulted from the challenges. Acknowledge your personal strengths and personal growth in many ways and in many areas, the relationships that have been able to be built with peers, supervisors and academic staff, and the vast academic knowledge and insight that has been gained. In my view, despite the trials and tribulations, this experience has also facilitated our collective development as researchers. We have a clearer insight into what the research path can be like, and can acknowledge the need for researchers to possess unsurmountable determination and motivation.
To universities, organisations, and employers seeking to employ those who have had their PhD journey impacted during this time, I would suggest bearing in mind the information detailed within this article; and remember that completing a PhD takes resilience, and undertaking a PhD since March 2020 has necessitated what I would call ‘double resilience’.
Elizabeth Cowdean is a 3rd year PhD researcher in psychology at Ulster University.