This post has been published in direct response to recent calls by governments around the world to encourage more people to work from home and self-isolate as a result of coronavirus and COVID-19. We wanted to create a resource that talked specifically to PhD students in order to advise them on steps they could take to ease the transition to home-working if they are being advised to self-isolate because of coronavirus during their PhD. Towards the end of these guidelines are specific tips for those who currently teach as part of their PhD workload.
Let us start by saying this: you won’t be able to achieve the same level of effectiveness and efficiency as if you were working on campus or in your lab. You need to lower your expectations about how much you are going to achieve. First, there are the more obvious limitations; those who work in labs will be away from their samples and experiments. Second, many of you may be unaccustomed to working from home for prolonged periods, so will need to take time to adjust. Third, your supervision meetings, teaching workloads or even viva will be disrupted, so you will need to work around that.
Nevertheless, there are a number of things you can do to make the transition easier and less stressful while coronavirus runs its course and while you get accustomed to self-isolating during your PhD. This list is not exhaustive, and you may find that some of it doesn’t apply to you. Its purpose is to help you understand whether you have considered everything and to understand where you can make improvements.
To help others, leave a comment explaining how you’ve managed to make life easier as you work from home.

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1. Work out the impact home-working/self-isolation will have


Make a list of all your core PhD duties and priorities for the coming weeks and months. Assess whether you will have the ability to complete these tasks from home and what you will need in order to do so. There are some things you won’t be able to complete (for example, lab work or experiments). In this case, triage your workload. Can you shift priorities and work instead on things that aren’t dependent upon your being on campus?

Similarly, think about how working from home will impact your non-PhD life. Are you a care provider, or living with someone who is symptomatic? This presents its own challenges, so must be considered.

2. Create boundaries

When you work from home, the line between social and professional life becomes blurred. Make a commitment to yourself to have a set work time and a set social time. If you live with other people, make sure they’re aware of this. A good rule I have in my house is that if the door to my room is closed, that means I’m working and it mustn’t be opened.
In line with this, don’t work from the couch and make sure you get dressed. The effect that putting your normal work clothes on has on your state of mind is important to consider.

 3. Work out key dates for your PhD in the future


Work out your key dates (viva, upgrades, exams, and so on) in the future. Worried about your ability to meet them? Air your concerns with the relevant people as soon as possible, so alternative arrangements can be made.


 4. Turn down non-urgent or non-essential work if possible, and triage email


In line with our suggestion above that your efficiency and productivity will decrease, you must get into a habit of turning down or re-prioritising any non-essential work. In line with step two above, focus on essential and important or urgent tasks and try not to stress your workload by taking on any less important/urgent work. If you are signed up to work but worry about your ability to complete it, communicate with your supervisors or line managers to see if you can get an extension.
Similarly, triage your emails and only respond to what’s urgent. Consider setting an auto-responder letting people know you’ll respond to non-essential emails at set times during the day.

 5. Regularly communicate with your supervisors/line managers


Let your supervisors and line managers know that you are self-isolating. Tell them about your plans and immediate workload and let them know how you plan on working during this time. Be realistic; if you have children or caring responsibilities, for example, be upfront about this. At this time, they should be sympathetic.

Then, get into the habit of sending regular updates to your supervisors (or line-managers/principal investigators if you’re working on research projects or administrative tasks). They may only be a paragraph in an email, but letting them know what you’re working on, but regular contact is important to keep the momentum in projects. Don’t necessarily expect a response, but see them as an opportunity to broadcast your activity instead.

 6. Check that you’ve filled in the necessary paperwork


Some universities require that you fill in paperwork requesting leave from your studies. This is particularly important if you are on a student visa. Check your university’s requirements on this. Most have published coronavirus updates.

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7. Learn about what technology you can use to simulate your office environment 

The technology available to facilitate remote working is varied and impressive. Some things to consider:


1. Zoom/skype/google hangouts for one-on-one and group video chats

2. Slack, as a way of keeping in touch with teams and peers. 

3. Dropbox, for cloud based sharing

4. Google books at a push will help you if you can’t make it to the library. Check if your university has access to online e-book resources/depositories

5. Check if your university has a VPN. This may help you get remote access to resources/software/files that are on campus. 


8. Maintain (virtual) social contact and be aware of isolation


Depending on the level of self-isolation required by your home country or current health status, you may find yourself completely shut off from other people. Make sure you keep in touch with friends and family as often as possible. If possible, have phone and video chats, rather than just text message exchanges. It will help you feel more connected.

Having a life outside of work has never been more important, but also never more difficult. Think about things you can do around the home that satisfy the human urge for stimulation and creativity but also avoid social contact. Netflix and youtube have a place, but make sure you don’t vegetate in front of the TV. Pick up a book, start a side-hustle, learn a new skills. Keep busy.


9. Keep moving


The importance of exercising at times like this cannot be overstated. However, if you’re self-isolating it is likely you’re avoiding the gym. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep fit. If your government allows it, you can jog and run in public spaces, keeping distance from others. On top of that, you can use a variety of bodyweight exercises (known as callisthenics) to practice strength and conditioning. You may also want to check out google for virtual exercise classes.

10. Specific advice for those also teaching


1. Check your university’s coronavirus policy and check what arrangements are being made for off-campus teaching.

2. When you’re not sure of your responsibilities, check with your line manager

3. Communicate regularly with your students and let them know the situation may change.

4. Think about how you can plan your seminars or lectures to transition them online. An important thing here is to prioritise what is important. Making your online teaching exactly the same as it is in person is not the most important thing. Instead, you should pick out what’s important and run with that.

5. The simplest technological solution is best. Don’t overcomplicate things by expecting too much from students. Stick to a simple technological solution (see the section on technology above). If all else fails, record your seminar using your webcam, upload it to youtube and send your students the link. Consider hosting Twitter Q&As as a way of soliciting comments. Or, set up a slack chat. Think creatively about the simplest, least resistance route to maximum engagement.

6. Consider that your students are also likely working from home, often on different timezones. Make allowances for that.

7. Batch respond to student inquiries. Don’t respond to each student individually, as many will be sharing similar concerns. 

Wrapping up


For many people – not just PhD students – working from home is not something they’re used to. The situation thrown up by coronavirus is unprecedented, and many people are learning as they go along. When you come to transition your PhD and teaching online, expect to make mistakes and keep an open mind to finding your most effective way of working. Be prepared to work this way for a while, and try your hardest to find a routine.

This is a group endeavour, so please comment below letting everyone else know what steps you are taking to transition to home-based working. Your views are important and will help others.

Please also share this article using the social share buttons below. Doing so will help other PhD students in your network. 


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