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Posted on 3 Apr '20

What COVID-19 Means for my PhD


COVID-19 is affecting all of us in some way or another. Here Marcus, a final year Bioscience PhD student shares the impact it is having on his research.


So, I’m going to be brutally honest with you: my PhD hasn’t gone the way I planned. All the important experiments have ended up being left to the very last moment. This is mostly because it’s taken three years to get them to work, but I also feel that I should have been more organised or even more proactive with it. And now with the world in its current situation, I may not even get to finish them.

How is COVID-19 affecting my research you might ask? Well, if you have read my other blogs, you will know that I commute to university by train. This is where I first noticed the really effects of the virus pandemic (apart from the lack of loo roll that is). Usually, the trains are so packed that I could class ‘getting a seat’ as a good day. But when there only seemed to be about three people on the train at peak-time and the conductor checks your ticket from 2 metres away, it really hits home. . . That was two weeks ago.

PhD study during the coronavirus lockdown

My university has now gone into full lock down, it doesn’t matter if you’re a student or the Dean, you cannot get onto the premises. What this basically means is we’ve had to put the lab into ‘winter mode’. All experiments have been frozen, and the incubators shut down.

I had the last six months planned out (contrary to popular belief) so that I could get all the data I needed and then write everything up for my thesis. However, I now have had to re-think this. So, I have taken home all my research notes – in order to start the write-up now with the hopes of finishing the data collection when things are (relatively) back to normal, and then just ‘plugging’ the results into my thesis.

Having said that, times are uncertain, this could go on for only 2-3 months, or it could last all the way until September. My supervisor reassured me that if that was the case, I have enough (quality) data to be pass my PhD (phew) – my thesis may look more like a novella than War and Peace, but what can I do? I may even have to have my viva virtually.

But I’m in final year, what about other PhD students that aren’t ready write up yet? Well, in Bioscience, there’s always computer work to do (we just leave it to the end because we’re all lab junkies). Those in first year have a literature review to write up or their transfer report (to upgrade from MPhil to PhD). Those in second (and third years if they’re doing a four-year PhD) may have data to analyse or papers they can work on.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we can still do science without a lab (honestly) – or any research for that matter. You can be productive in many ways: make beautiful figures, plan future experiments or learn a new skill – like coding. These will all help you when universities re-open and you get back to normal research life.

Working from home – some PhD tips

To some this may seem like a blessing in disguise, but (as you may know) it’s not always that simple. Our mental health is going to really struggle over the coming months – I already feel like I’m crawling up the walls and its only been a week. Luckily, some universities recognise this and have offered some tips. Here’s a few to keep in mind:

  • Keep a normal working routine – It’s a good idea to wake at a normal time. Even though you don’t have to commute and staying in bed for that extra 30 minutes can seem enticing. Having a regular routine can really affect how you feel about work. So, create a schedule and remember to . . .
  • Take frequent breaks – Breaks are important! This goes for any form of research. So, grab a coffee (or any appropriate beverage of your choice), have a snack or stare out of the window. Whatever takes your fancy, just remember that looking at screens all-day not only damages your eyes (hence my glasses) but can play with your sleep cycle – and no one likes a grumpy PhD student.
  • Have a designated work-space – whether that be a ‘proper’ home office or just a particular bit of the kitchen table, having somewhere specific to work helps you separate work from rest. This way your brain gets the rest it needs and you’re less likely to be distracted while working – it’s a win / win.
  • Keep active – It goes without saying that staying inside means that you are moving less. So, set up a home gym or go for a walk, just follow the advice and keep your distance from other people right now.
  • Keep social – Self isolation doesn’t mean social isolation. Keep in contact with your friends and family. Why not organise a digital coffee morning with your research group – find out what they’ve been up to while eating cake?
  • Let go of the guilt – COVID-19 is not your fault! So, don’t feel bad if you don’t get as much done as you would like to. Pace yourself. And remember, everyone is in the same boat, people will understand.

Just as an end note, you may even be able to help with the COVID-19 research! If you find yourself with enough spare time, why not help out the researchers and volunteer your research skills?

So, whatever you’re doing, be productive, look after yourself and stay safe!




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Last Updated: 03 April 2020