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Each week we send a short, thought-provoking email that will make you think differently about what it means to be a PhD student. It is designed to be read in thirty seconds and thought about all day.
“Anxiety has destroyed my ability to concentrate”
PhD students are perfectionists
Many PhD students are, to a greater or lesser extent, perfectionists. With that comes pleasure from being in control, knowing how things will pan out, and a strong desire to do as well as possible.
Part of the reason that coronavirus has led to increased levels of anxiety and stress amongst those who responded is that it has created considerable uncertainty. For the perfectionist, such uncertainty is difficult to manage, particularly if it starts to cast doubt on submission deadlines, viva dates, or the successful completion of key milestones in the PhD journey (such as fieldwork or data analysis).
‘My PhD has always been a struggle but I am feeling this more than ever now. I just found out that our uni library has closed and books can no longer be borrowed – this is also going to have a huge impact as I attempt to finish up. I am going to do my best – but I am terrified that this will result in something sub-optimal and I won’t pass. The anxiety from this alone is crippling’.
‘I am in my second year (out of 5), cancelling this year’s field season means I will enter and finish my third year without any real data (I have some preliminary data from last year) and it’s terrifying’.
Many who responded were now worried that, because they have to work from home, or no longer have access to their support network, or are having to make compromises when it comes to fieldwork, their thesis will be sub-optimal as a result. This is causing considerable anxiety.
Working from home is causing significant challenges (for some)
As more and more people work from home, a variety of challenges are being thrown up. On a practical level, some of our respondents said that they were struggling to find motivation to work from home. Many had made the conscious choice in the past to go to their universities (even though there is no formal requirement for them to do so) specifically because they don’t work well from home. With that option now off the cards, many students we heard from are now being reminded of how tempting the distractions at home are.
‘A lab is an ideal work environment. Home, in my head, is a place to relax. Now that I am confined in my home, I find it difficult to focus and meet deadlines. Adding to that is the slow internet speed there’.
Many though aren’t alone at home, which presents additional challenges. Several respondents complained of a ‘chaotic environment’ as they share their home with partners and children, all of whom are also struggling to find normalcy.
Those with younger children stressed the need to prioritise childcare, at the expense of meaningful progress on the PhD.
‘The coronavirus and its impacts on childcare has made it near impossible to get any significant time in the day to work.’
‘How much can you do and concentrate with kids also at home to take care of?’
‘I have had to suddenly take on the role of homeschooling my children and take on the role of maintaining my house when usually I have paid services for daycare. It is a full-time job taking care of my kids and I am struggling to do any PhD work.’
‘I have a five year old kid who is stuck at home. She needs my attention more than ever in this turbulent time when her world has turned upside down. I need to be her parent, her teacher and her friend. So my priorities have shifted. If I can get an hour of work done a day, it’s a win”
‘Having a child in quarantine- I am just happy if I get anything, even the smallest thing, done. I have been working towards my PhD for five years now, and thought that I would be done within 6 months. My husband is in the midst of his PhD. We have a one year old son. We are all in quarantine now for two weeks, which followed one week of self-isolation, and it is…strange. We find it wonderful being with our son for so many hours, watching him grow and change. The amount of hours we can work, however, has been cut by nearly 80%.’
As if this wasn’t stressful enough, a handful of respondents faced challenges shifting other paid employment home. Some respondents held paid employment away from the university, with set hours and responsibilities. The stresses of shifting to a work from home environment for these jobs was prioritised ahead of the PhD.
‘All work on thesis stopped for past two weeks as ‘day job’ has gone crazy busy and I want to help that business and colleagues as well as be valuable so I don’t get laid off.’
‘When I spend all day literally plugged into the machine working I find my appetite for studying online is reduced – as are the hours I can put in.’
Conversely, some found that now that they weren’t commuting to or from work or the university, they had a couple of ‘spare’ hours in which to concentrate on the PhD. Similarly, those who were already used to working from home – distance learners, for example – found the transition relatively seamless.
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Effects on fieldwork, vivas and job prospects
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