So if your PhD wasn’t stressful enough, now you have to self-isolate or quarantine yourself. That means leaving behind your lab, library, experiments, colleagues and supervisors. As the dust begins to settle on this new reality and the shock of the new and unknown begins to subside, it’s time to start planning how to manage this new situation you’re in.
This post looks at the things you can prioritise in your PhD now that you are away from all of the core elements of your PhD research (such as your equipment, respondents, fieldwork, supervisors, support networks and library). Whilst being based from home and self-isolating will undoubtedly have a big impact on how you work, it doesn’t mean your PhD comes to a stop. There are other things you can work on once you re-prioritise your workload and shift your projects around.
Before I talk about what those things are, let me just say a few general things. First, if you need to take time off to care for the vulnerable or yourself, or you are physically and mentally unwell and need a break then take one. Your PhD can wait. If you do decide to work, accept that you may not be as productive as you would otherwise be and that’s okay in this context. Don’t expect too much of yourself and take time to self-soothe. Show yourself some compassion rather than beat yourself up. Lastly, take time to communicate with your supervisors, particularly if you think you’ll miss upcoming deadlines.
Now that I have the more general points out of the way, let’s look at things you can focus on now you’re self-isolating.

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1. Catch up on reading


No doubt you have a list of things that you have been meaning to read. Now’s the time to do so! Obviously, you’re away from your library, so prioritise journal articles that you can access online. Look into whether your university has subscriptions to e-book services, so you can access books remotely. A few publishers (for example Cambridge University Press) are allowing students access to their catalogue of text-books for free, so if there’s a book you absolutely need to read it may be useful to contact the publisher directly.


2. Finish or update your literature review


Literature reviews are tricky and they require a huge amount of time, creativity and energy. Self-isolation is the ideal time to tackle one. If you’ve been putting off your literature review, now’s the time to start. Or, if you’ve already written it, you can update it to account for new publications, new insight from your findings and new ideas you’ve had since the last time you sat down to write it.

True, how much you are able to do will depend on how good your note taking was when you were reading and navigating the literature, but if you’ve got good records and notes, and if you have a good idea of what you’re trying to say, your literature review can progress. Check out this guide I’ve put together to writing a literature review, and this guide to being critical when you read the literature and write your review.


3. Check your formatting


If you’re coming to the end of your PhD, you’re going to have an increasing body of written work to deal with. Students often underestimate how long it takes to format the thesis, so this will be a good time to go through and check all the formatting. Check the heading sizes and fonts, make sure all your tables and figures look good (and that the style is consistent). One great tip is to use the headings feature in Word, which makes creating a table of contents a breeze.

4. Structure/outline your thesis


If you’re just starting up your writing, a key challenge is knowing how to structure all your ideas. You can use this time to work on your thesis structure. A good place to start is the PhD Writing Template that I’ve created, which will help you organise all your ideas so that they are in the right order. Creating an outline of your thesis will mean that your writing will be more structured and effective.

 5. Hone your introductions and conclusions

If you’ve got written chapters or sections – even in draft form – a great exercise is to write introductory statements (even just for individual sections) that condense the main argument and points down into a small paragraph. Writing these kind of statements is a great way not just of making sure you really clearly tell the reader what it is that the section will do, but it can help you crystallise your own thinking and ideas by cutting out all the bloat.

Your PhD Thesis.
On one page.

Use our free PhD Structure Template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.

6. If your fieldwork has stopped, treat your limited data as a pilot study


If your fieldwork has been called off, you can treat the limited data that you have as a pilot study. What does that mean? Well, you can look at the limited data to see if it tells you about any issues in your research design, for example. Can you learn from the data and refine your research design to make it even better? Or, if you’re engaging in theory development, you could use your limited data and go back and see how your theory can be refined or developed to take into account the data you’ve already got? You may even use your fieldwork data to refine your research questions, or shift your aims and objectives slightly.


7. Focus on self-care


Self-care is always important, but particularly so during times of crisis. Try and develop a self-care routine as a way of counterbalancing the stress that arises from uncertainty. This may involve journalling, meditating or exercising more. Whatever form it takes, it should revolve around a simple principle: be kind to yourself, even if you’re not performing as well as you hoped. 


8. Come up with new ideas, experiments and science


This will be an unusually quiet time to think very deeply about your research. Free from the stresses of daily campus life, you may now have mental room to think about a new idea, concept or theory, or come up with a new clever experiment that you can perform when things return to normal. You may be able to take your science and thinking to new heights.



9. Write papers


If you’re coming to the end of your PhD, you may be thinking about writing papers for publication. Now is the time to do that.



10. Data analysis and coding


If you’ve already got some of your data, now is a good time to analyse it. Related to the point above about using your data as a pilot study, this process of analysing your data will start to show you what the data is ‘saying’. This can then feed into new theory development, a refinement of the research design, or new strands of literature to review, all of which can be done at home.



Wrapping up


This may be a frightening and disorienting time. But, rather than being fearful, carry on with work in new ways. Talk to your supervisors and work out a plan of action. You know your research better than anyone. Sit down and ask yourself what’s important right now, what can wait, what isn’t affected by working from home, and what you can achieve in one day. Rather than see self-isolation as a sacrifice, or a form of torture, use this time to do the things that normally get crowded out by the stresses of daily PhD-student life on campus. Good things come out of careful, quiet introspection. Used wisely, this period is the time in which you can flourish and take your PhD to places you never knew it could go.


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