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Author: Alan Taman

 
My university, to its credit, is doing its level best. They’re offering PhD students extra time AND extra money, but only if they’re already funded and if their research has been affected by the pandemic. For postgrads, at least, the steps taken lie in stark contrast to the draconian near-incarceration of students reported elsewhere. Add to that my own career before I began the PhD – largely home-based even before there were IT solutions encouraging it – and you would think Covid-19 hasn’t hit me hard. Thankfully I don’t know anyone close that it has, yet. 
 
So why, then, do I get the feeling people taking a PhD are as a rule not faring well? The recent announcement by the  UKRI that it would not be offering any extra time or money to struggling PhD students was a hefty hint, but I had my suspicions well before then. Talking to my own peer group, some (to be fair, like me) were positively gaining from the pandemic, in the sense of getting extra help, having homes they could work comfortably from, running projects that did not depend on campus presence, and having supervisors who were aiming to be as helpful as they had been, combining to counteract any disruption. There are the even luckier ones: those whose projects and lives are almost completely unaffected, at least no more than many others not taking a PhD would be. 

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But then. There are others. Those for whom on-site working is the only option. For whom ‘working from home’ is a cramped corner with a laptop in a shared address with lousy wi-fi. For whom support from supervisors was never that great and is now wholly absent. Whose income has disappeared or been compromised. For whom carrying on will mean serious risk. For these people, and there must be many of them, the pandemic poses a particular threat. 
 
It’s not as if everything was sunny before the virus hit. The fact that The PhD Proofreaders exists at all is testimony to the cruel reality: many students are not supported, are not left feeling they are getting what they should. All of us feel we are imposters, at least some of the time. I know I did, and still do. The knowledge I can be a convincingly good one, frankly, doesn’t help (part of my career was spent in health public relations – no one stands in front of a national TV news crew defending a hospital and feels totally convinced of their own role; or if you do, that’s when they get the cringing howler…).
 
So how much worse must it be for my fellow students who are not getting the help they deserve?  How can the pandemic do anything other than make it far worse? Even for those of us who are luckier, this pandemic has made human contact all the more harder. It’s so much harder not to think your supervisor is having a go at you for no good reason when you are meeting via a screen, when you cannot hold those nourishing and stabilising informal chats with people who get it –  and point out your paranoia is actually normal. And yes, your supervisor does have a point, mate – take a calmer look.

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We’ve started looking at this. We asked those of you who get our daily emails what you thought about your PhDs, your experiences, and what you would like to see happen next. The results were as fascinating as they were encouraging, to us. For example, when asked what people struggle with, over half of the respondents (n =  108, thanks) went for dealing with negative emotions (56%), on a par with time management. When asked what is your experience of PhD skills training, only just over a quarter listed emotional wellbeing and time management. So most people rate tending to their emotional wellbeing as important to the PhD – while only 1 in 4 get any from their university. In a pandemic which is prising apart every inequality you could care to name and making it worse, and drilling holes in mental health which no one can yet gauge but which many are saying are everywhere, and deepening. 
 
The point is, we’re here. We know. We want to and can help. We’ll be helping more over the coming months, but in the meantime take a look at the rest of our ‘Covid’ page. 
 

Alan is our Communications Manager and has a background in health communications and public relations. He lives in Birmingham, UK, and is completing his PhD on public perceptions of health inequalities and policy engagement (yes, during a pandemic…). You can contact him at [email protected]

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