As people were forced to self-isolate, engage in social distancing and work from home, universities around the world closed their doors. PhD students found themselves unable to access their fieldwork, supervisors, labs or libraries. Carefully thought out plans and strategies were thrown into jeopardy.
We wanted to find out the effect that coronavirus was having on PhD students around the world. So, we asked over a hundred PhD students a simple question:
How has coronavirus affected your PhD and how have you adapted? 
The contributions were made anonymously on a dedicated page on our website, and give a snapshot into how this unique moment in history is playing out amongst a very particular demographic.
Seen by many as being at the bottom rung of the academic ladder, PhD students often feel voiceless and unable to share their frustrations or contribute to wider debates. It was our hope with this project to give PhD students that voice and allow them to share their experience of this unique moment in history.
Many shared varying degrees of anxiety, driven largely by uncertainty and the disruption to plans and challenges thrown up by working from home. This wasn’t helped by the perfectionist streak running through many PhD students, who typically don’t respond well to uncertainty or disruption. On a more practical level, experiments, fieldwork, funding and job offers were in jeopardy, which created an uncertain future for many. However, some found themselves thriving and welcoming the opportunity to lock themselves away and get on with the job at hand.
The responses paint two pictures. The first is one of frustration, depicting and reflecting the propensity for PhD students to struggle with anxiety and uncertainty. The other, though, is one of resilience and hope as many find their new feet in this different reality.
Below, I present the themes that emerged from the hundred-plus submissions that were received. Because the responses were made completely anonymously, no claims to representativeness can be made and these responses are deliberately anecdotal and veer away from robust, generalisable science. The purpose here is to tell the stories of a small group of PhD students.

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“Anxiety has destroyed my ability to concentrate”


PhD students have a well documented propensity for anxiety disorders and poor mental health. This is fuelled, in part, by the necessary uncertainty and intellectual challenge accompanying doctoral level study, but also a precarious job market, casual employment and feelings of inadequacy or incompetence.
Because it separated PhD students from their labs, fieldwork, supervisors, libraries or other resources integral to their successful completion, coronavirus has fuelled many of these stressors.
For some, the uncertainty it brought about was a challenge to adapt to and overcome in time as new routines and coping mechanisms are learnt.
For others though, the situation led to crippling levels of anxiety and fuelled either existing or new mental health problems. Much of this was spurred by a lack of structure, particularly now that people were being forced to work from home.
‘The virus outbreak is taking a toll on my mental health: I don’t do well without structure, working from home’.
‘With no routine to follow at home, I was almost spiralling down’.
‘Allowing myself some time to not work in these challenging times, allowing the mental stress and pressure of the situation itself to loosen, that’s been the hard thing for me. Because it’s not tangible, it’s not a reason I can put on a form to justify a delay. I hope that allowances will be made for the huge emotional impacts this situation has on us all’.
Others struggled to deal with the prevailing uncertainty that the situation caused, finding that having less control over the future fuelled existing doubts about whether they ‘had what it takes’ or whether they will submit on time or reach the required standard.
‘I make all possible efforts to remain calm but the moment I try to read …the uncertainties recur’.
‘I think that I will be mentally exhausted by the summer. This PhD has already been really hard. I really hope that it will be better soon. Not only for my PhD, but also for my mental health’.
Those who were already worried about deadlines or their ability were finding their situation even more untenable. Some of those who previously had no worries in this regard were now struggling to find routine while working from home and found little solace in the increased uncertainty.


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


Coronavirus had a much greater effect on those respondents who were further advanced in their PhDs. For those just starting out, much of the daily workload involves reading and formulating ideas and research designs. Notwithstanding the effect that the closure of libraries has had, this type of work can easily be done at home. However, for those in the fieldwork or writing up stages, additional challenges emerged.
Many who responded found their fieldwork either cut short or failing to get off the ground altogether. Although some can easily reschedule their fieldwork for when campuses reopen and social distancing measures are lifted, others that relied on living plant/animal specimens or intricate experiments find themselves back at square one. Others may be delayed in returning to their fieldwork because of ongoing travel bans, which may remain in place even after domestic social distancing measures have been lifted.
What’s more, some were using an initial round of fieldwork as pilots to refine their research design. They were worried that the cancellation of this fieldwork means they will go into the field proper with an incomplete or flawed research design and that they will only find out when it’s too late.
Although the writing up stage can progress at home with relative ease (notwithstanding other commitments, such as teaching or research assistance), those at this stage of their thesis faced uncertainty over the scheduling of vivas and, beyond that, the availability of jobs or the status of existing job offers and applications. Others who were already behind in their progress are now facing new pressure: ‘I already have a three months’ delay in my PhD project so this makes me extra stressed’.
It wasn’t yet clear to many what affect coronavirus will have on funding, particularly for those who were coming to the end of their period of registration. One remarked: ‘The fear of losing my funding is greater than ever.’


It’s not all bad (for everyone)

For some though, the opportunity to self-isolate and work from home presented a welcome relief from the distractions of day to day campus life. Some respondents remarked that they were able to ‘get in the zone’ now they were free from distractions and found their mood and motivation increased ‘as they had society’s permission to say no’. One remarked: ‘To finish my thesis, lockdown was what I had planned to do anyway’.
Others commented:
‘I now have the rare opportunity to read a massive amount of papers and started writing the core manuscript of my PhD thesis. I also felt more creative and proposed a set of new experiments and analysis that would have never occurred to me otherwise.’
‘This lockdown has given me a break from work which I otherwise never get, so I am focusing on reading by day (when my kid is engaged in her drawings and cartoons and when she is taking a nap) and writing at night’.

Growing resilience


Many respondents reported an initial shock as they got used to ‘the new normal’. However, many also reported that they are finding new ways to adapt and make the most of the situation. They have also begun adjusting their expectations and working out ways to be more forgiving and compassionate and to self-soothe.
‘I’ve accepted that some days will be more productive than others so days I’m feeling it, roll with it and if I’m not being very productive, don’t be too disheartened’.
‘Now it’s my second week of quarantine and I’m doing much better. First and foremost, I don’t demand a lot and allow myself to get distracted by everything. That makes me feel better, increases motivation and creativity and release all stress’
‘My routine is very disrupted, but I have worked from home before, so I can do it again.’



What can we learn?


The responses we received and the discussion above paint a broad picture. Some have thrived, some have struggled. Each student we heard from brings with them a unique perspective, reflecting unique struggles. There is no ‘right way’ to respond to a pandemic, but many are finding themselves searching for appropriate strategies in the face of considerable adversity.
Those who were free of caring responsibilities and used to working from home appeared to find the challenge easier, particularly if they were at a stage if their PhD journey that lent itself to being away from campus. Similarly, those who didn’t have a second job were better placed to manage, as they didn’t face the stress of shifting that job to home-based working. As with much else in life, those who had sufficient funding or external financial resources to weather this storm had one less thing to worry about. Overall though, those in good mental health found themselves drawing on levels of resilience they may not have known were there, seemingly more able to deal with the stresses and anxieties that coronavirus has presented to us all.
Everyone who responded reported struggles unique to them of varying degrees of intensity. Whilst we were saddened to see the ways in which students were struggling to navigate this uncertain time, we were also impressed by the level of resilience and adaptability on display as people rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. PhDs require grit, determination and courage, so many PhD students will find themselves well equipped to weather this storm. At the other end of this crisis, they will find themselves with strengthened resolve as a result of this perseverance and will be in a very strong position to navigate the rest of their PhDs and complete successfully.

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