PhD research in difficult times

Eva Lantsoght
4 mrt ’21

2020 has been a difficult year for many of us, and while 2021 shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel thanks to rapid vaccine development, we are still very much feeling the effect of the pandemic on our everyday lives.

If you are a PhD candidate, the pandemic can have thrown a wrench into your work you did not anticipate. Lab work is slow and affected by lockdowns. Field work and site visits abroad are impossible. Conferences have gone virtual, changing the mode of networking. Defenses are virtual. Perhaps you haven’t seen your family back home in more than a year, and are worried about the situation in your home country. You may have lost loved ones without getting the chance to say goodbye and without having rituals to grieve.

So, how do you go about your PhD research in such difficult times? First of all, you need to understand that there are no solutions that are suitable for everyone. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: every PhD trajectory and every PhD candidate is different. You will need to think about your research, your PhD trajectory, your private situation, and your season in life to figure out what would be best for you.

When you are thinking through your options and the impact on your research, consider these seven ideas:

1. Evaluate the situation

As I said, every PhD candidate and every PhD trajectory is different. Before you can think about what would work for you and your research, think about your situation. Which particular difficulties are you facing? Which opportunities may you have encountered? After taking stock on the situation, think about possible paths forward. Think through a few scenarios, and select what would be your plan A.

2. Talk to your supervisor

If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it is that mutual trust and honest, open, human conversations are more important than ever – even if we need to be separated physically. So, if you are struggling and the pandemic has seriously impacted your research, have a conversation with your supervisor. Come prepared with what you want to propose as your plan A, but also come with an open mind – open to suggestions of your supervisor.

3. Ask for help

How can you leverage your network, the facilities of your university, and your direct research group to help you propel forward (provided that you plan to move forward, rather than take a hiatus)? Can you learn from a collaboration through your network? Should you reach out to the university library, the workplace psychologist, or another person who can support you to get the help you need – for your research, your career, or yourself? Can you assign part of the work to a MSc thesis student so that you free up more time for the most important parts of your research?

4. Adjust your timeline

It’s hard to plan when you’re in a global pandemic. Still, I recommend that you take the lessons from 2020 to make realistic plans for 2021 and beyond. Considering your situation, would you need to apply for an extension on your PhD project, would you want to wrap up earlier so you can return to your home country (or move to a new work opportunity), or is a hiatus of your PhD research the best solution? Once you’ve identified what the best solution for you would be, adjust your timeline. Find your new milestones: both new dates as well as different milestones as you may have needed to pivot your research.

5. Pivot methods

If you need to go do fieldwork abroad, need access to a closed archive, or are struggling with delays in the lab, you may need to pivot methods – perhaps less experiments and more analytical work, or change in-person interviews to an online survey with open questions. Evaluate what you can change, and discuss this with your supervisor.

6. Change your research question

Perhaps all the restrictions have made it impossible to address your original research question, and you may need to change to a tangentially related subject. If this approach would b e a way out of the difficulties, see which methods would work for this, and propose a new approach to your supervisor.

7. Try to find the silver lining

I’m naturally more a Debby Downer than a Pollyanna, and I’m not here to promote toxic positivity. My lived experience in this pandemic has been partially privileged, as I’ve been able to work from home and had not to be exposed to the virus but being away from family, not being able to go to the lab, working with a small child around, and dealing with loss and grief in my family in law have been my challenges – and we all have had our challenges. Yet, in the midst of everything, trying to find the silver lining can help you see this pandemic in a different light. This silver lining can be very different for each of us – it can be the opportunity to virtually attend a conference that otherwise would be too expensive. It can be finding more meaning in your work now that the world appreciates the work of scientists more.

I hope that these prompts have given you some ideas on how to move your research forward (or how to pause it) in today’s difficult times. More than anything, I hope you will find the opportunity to have open conversations with your supervisor on how you and your work have been impacted, and try to find the best solution.

Starting a new job in times of corona

Want to know more about how Dutch research universities, university medical centers and research institutes deal with the corona measures? AcademicTransfer gathered all information for you about working in times of corona here.

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