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PhD Study in the Time of COVID – How to Stay on Track

As PhD students we are used to a specific way of working, whether our project is lab-based or not. One of the most important characteristics of PhD study is the need for strict time and project management. But, as you know.. life happens. So, let me tell you about the chaotic new timeline of a 3rd year science PhD during the Covid19 outbreak.

My story

I recently entered the third year of my Biomedicine PhD. You can read about my early experiences here on this blog, but I am now at a place where most of my protocols are established, my research plan is clear to me and I am pretty much independent. I work fast, clean and effectively.

In other words, I find myself at the peak of my PhD productivity. But as they say to super-heroes like us, “with great power comes great responsibility”. My productivity needs to be translated into the design of my final year’s sophisticated experiments, which must lead to high standard final results, which I must use to create a publication, which will allow me graduate in time.

By now, I think you can hear the tick-tock of the clock in my head and imagine how hard Covid19 hit for me.

If you can’t, let me add this: my project is 90% lab work performed on human samples from patients that undergo cancer surgery. However, all operations have been postponed in the last month, so that the hospital can have full capacity for Covid19 cases. And I am not allowed to spend more than 30% of my contract hours in the lab. In the middle of this mess, I imagined myself giving up on my PhD, being unemployed, broke and playing my guitar in the subway for a living. But only for a few minutes. After that, I took a deep breath and re-planned my timeline.

Past

The email with the announcement that we are no longer allowed to work full time in the lab and have to shift to teleworking for nobody knows how long, was expected. That didn’t stop it from being a shock.

However, I knew that there were things I could do at home right away. Things from the past.

I had the results from some recent experiments saved in my drive that needed to be finally analyzed. And I did a heck of a good analysis. Being at my home office, drinking my coffee and stretching my legs on the desk allowed me to create some of the nicest graphs I ever have.

Moreover, using all of my past results, I was able to write a report for my thesis committee without time pressure. A piece of advice here: I am obliged by my doctoral school to write and present internal thesis reports. Even if you are not, try to do the same. These reports will be an amazing basis for your final thesis.

This work goes to show that it’s possible to be productive in lots of ways during a PhD. Even someone like me, with a heavily lab-based project, can usually find other worthwhile things to do for their research.

Present

When I was done analysing all of my past experiments, I realised that I still needed to find some way to move on with my current research without setting foot in the lab.

So, I started planning my next experimental steps better than ever before. This time, I had the luxury to invest hours into designing my protocols for the (near?) future. When this was done, I started going deeper into the literature about my area of expertise.

As a result, I have decided with my PI to write a review about it. There will be no better time for writing a review than now, I guess. Piece of advice number 2: if you hate writing, write more! Fight against your comfort zone and it will be worth it. Once you have to finally write your paper or your thesis you will be used to it, and who knows, maybe even enjoying it.

Again, I was able to keep working and stay productive by remembering that there’s more to a PhD than just research. Ongoing project management and general scholarship (understanding others’ research and results) are also important.

In addition to my personal research, I decided to sign up for a Covid19 volunteer initiative – one of many ways that current (and future) PhD students can help fight this disease.

Future (?)

In times like these, we realise how dramatically life can change and what are the things that matter the most. With this perspective, I decided to think more about my future. I am attending a lot of webinars about alternative careers for PhDs and it looks like there are many opportunities out there that are worth knowing about.

Academia is nice but I would never have imagined what a Regulatory Affairs officer does, for example, before looking more into alternative careers (FYI, they help ensure that marketing and production for pharmaceutical and medical products follow appropriate legal and licensing guidelines). On a similar note, I’ve used this time at home to educate myself and obtain some new skills.

I am passionate about visual communication so I am now learning how to create scientific illustrations. If this isn’t really your thing, how about learning a programming language like Python or R? They are both hot skills to possess in science. Last but not least, I put some more effort into my social media in order to create a network and strengthen my public engagement. This is the best time to use technology for scientific outreach and in order to connect to each other.

Doing a PhD during a pandemic is a big challenge. I have my down days, where I feel useless and deprived of productivity. But I try to stay positive and use this glitch in the matrix to free myself of guilt and depression.

If you’re thinking of taking on the PhD challenge yourself, then I hope you’ve found my experience useful. These are difficult times, but doctoral research is more versatile than you might think and there are lots of ways to make progress.

And if you’re a current student in need of some positive vibes, try this: during your group’s next web meeting, ask everyone (including your PI) in a serious tone, to stand up and take two steps back. If seeing how many of them are in rabbit / flower / dinosaur pajamas underneath does not give you a good reason to laugh, I rest my case!




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Last Updated: 11 May 2020