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Posted on 29 Apr '21

A Year in the Pandemic-Ridden Life of a PhD Student

Day by day, nothing changes, and then suddenly, my first year as a PhD student is almost finished. When undertaking a PhD, I think it is very easy to lose track of time. For example, an experiment can take anywhere from days to months, and in an environment like that, it is difficult to step aside and see the progress you have made.

So, looking back at my first year, I now realise that some things about my PhD study have matched up with my expectations, and some things, less so. So, what exactly has my first year as a PhD student been like?

The pressure of a first year PhD is considerably less than the Masters!

Unexpectedly, I found throughout this year I have felt a lot less stress than I did in my Masters. Everyone always talks about how big a step it is from a Masters to a PhD; you are expected to be more independent, cover a lot more ground, and become familiar with a vast variety of new and challenging techniques. However, despite all of this, there is considerably less time pressure put on you.

In my Masters programme last year, I had to take on two different projects. This meant a lot of late nights trying to quickly understand the background of my research topic whilst at the same time pushing myself to get in as many practical experiments in as time would allow. However, throughout this year, I felt that I have had the opportunity to become well acquainted with my research theme in a non-time-pressured manner, whilst structuring my time so that I still stay on top of all my experimental work.

Uncertainty about the future is the norm

Having said that, I think the biggest obstacle I faced this year was uncertainty. In my Masters, I was given a specific set project with defined aims and expectation of results (to an extent). As soon as I completed one part of it, there was always a defined plan for what to do afterwards.

But, this year, I have had to adjust to never knowing what is coming next. I have lost count of how many times I have had the same discussion with my supervisor with me asking her what my concrete plan for the next several months is.

Eventually, around the hundredth time, I understood what she was trying to tell me. The purpose of a PhD is to explore something novel, and when doing that, it is very difficult to be able to predict the future. It may happen that your hypothesis proves to be true, or on the contrary provide insignificant results, or even that whilst you are conducting your experiments you unexpectedly find something out that makes you change the whole course of your PhD. And for a person who sometimes falls into the habit of micromanaging her life, it was very difficult for me to accept that whole months of to-do lists can shift in a second upon the analysis of new results.

The pandemic didn’t stop the (socially distanced) lab socialising

Not getting to know the rest of the lab members was definitely something I was worried about before beginning my PhD. After all, when I started, very strict rules were in place to ensure proper social distancing was being followed. This meant that not everyone was allowed in the lab at the same time and, being new to the lab group, it was difficult to really get to know the team. However, as time went on, and the rules were gradually relaxed, I was able to get acquainted with all the people in my lab group really well. It has been a bit more difficult to meet the rest of the PhD students in other lab groups, but I am sure that restrictions continue to ease, I shall be able to meet all the really interesting people working in my department!

The slow decline of the (sometimes unhealthy) lab culture

I have noticed with a lot of lab-based PhDs, there is a culture of staying extremely late. Even in my Masters, I became aware that it was the norm for the lab members to stay until 6 or 7pm on a daily basis. And it was really easy for me to fall into the mental trap of thinking “If everyone else is staying, then I do the same”. This was often far from necessary.

This year, with rules stating that students can only be in lab to conduct experiments (with reading, writing and data analysis happening at home), it feels like we’ve cracked through this rather unhealthy lab mentality. Although it took some getting used to, it seems that everyone has now adjusted to the new normal of organising their weekly plans so that they don’t spend over 12 hours in the lab every day.

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes it is necessary to stay into the late hours of the evening to finish all the work you have. But it also allows for you to work from home on some days, which provides a surprisingly nice change of pace from the sometimes hectic lab environment.

Looking forwards to a hopefully even better year

An unexpected challenge this year for me was coming into lab and not being able to be trained on all the essential equipment that was needed for my experiments. Once again, due to the social distancing rules, I was not able to gain access to vital equipment such as microscopes, as it would require training in closed and small quarters. However, after a year of endlessly postponed training waiting lists, I am now really excited to have been trained in all the necessary techniques and with this, be able to take my experiments further.

I always knew that starting a PhD wouldn’t be a breeze. After all, behind every successful experiment stands several weeks, maybe months, of trying to properly calibrate all the steps and techniques just right. So, in addition to trying to navigate my experiments to fit around the techniques that I was allowed to do in lab, I have also been getting accustomed that for a lot of the questions I am trying to ask, I shan’t receive the answer right away. There have been a lot of experiments where I have been operating on a trial-and-error approach, and others, systematically going through every possible avenue to try and figure out the best way to approach a problem. Having gotten accustomed to this way of working, I am now really looking forward to what the next two years of my PhD life shall bring!

Knowing what this year would be, would I have still taken on a PhD position?

100% yes. Even before I embarked on my Masters programme, I was sure that research was what I wanted to pursue. Although many people did comment on how starting a PhD would be more difficult during a Pandemic than in regular times in a variety of aspects, I knew that I would have to go right ahead and make the best of things.

I think this year has only heightened what a PhD journey is; being able to quickly adjust and adapt to the changing circumstances around you whilst not losing focus or your passion in your field of interest. So guys, if you are considering embarking on a PhD, my honest advice would not be to wait for the perfect moment. As I’ve found, things very rarely line up perfectly. If you are passionate towards your subject, you should really go for it – and everything shall fall into place!

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