It’s been a year since we started working from home in Scotland. I remember leaving the office and saying goodbye to my officemates; we are all sure we’d be back in the office by the summer, September at the latest. Here we are, March 2021 and I think I’ll be lucky to be back in the office before September this year.
The past year has been full of ups and downs. The first couple of months were a novelty, and to be honest I do like working from home; I would just also like to see my friends and colleagues in person, and catch up with them over coffee and cake in the tea room.
Luckily, my project is desk-based, so I haven’t lost field seasons or lab time, like many PhD students have. For me, the biggest barrier to doing my PhD has been the impact of trying to survive during a pandemic on my mental health. I have OCD (I’m pretty sure, currently waiting around 11 months to get it diagnosed) and one of my biggest fears has always been a pandemic.
I remember lying in bed one night right at the start of 2020 feeling terrified as I read about the devastating bushfires in Australia, and the emergence of a respitory illness in China. I couldn’t tear myself away from doom scrolling, something a counsellor would later tell me was a form of self-harm because I knew how terrible it would made me feel. I read the news over the coming weeks feeling like I was watching a car crash in slow motion as the UK Government failed to take it seriously. I’m not sure any of us could imagine how bad things would get.
For the most part, my mental health has been something I’ve always been able to manage myself. The added pressure of trying to exist during a pandemic made me reach out for professional help for the first time in my life; and I know I’m not alone in that. I’m a stubborn mule so it is a big deal to me.
It’s been hard to focus on my project, even though I love my research area. I always knew that I needed to make sure I chose a project I was excited by so that I wouldn’t want to quit when things get hard, but I was expecting to be frustrated by stats or something else – not wondering what the point of even doing it was while a pandemic rages on. And, yes, there have been a couple of times where my PhD did frustrate me, namely me trying to get a huge amount of data analysis done in a short amount of time in preparation for a conference. That would have happened with or without a pandemic, it was just made even harder while trying to deal with everything else.
Perhaps the most hurtful, and unnecessary, part of it all has been how PhD students have been treated by their funders. I want to make it clear that I’m not saying PhD students have had it worse out of everyone – every one of us has been let down in so many different ways. What I’m saying is the way funders dealt with the situation has been the hardest part for me to cope with, and has caused PhD students and university staff a lot of frustration and pain.
I’m funded by UKRI, who are one of, if not the biggest, funder of funded PhD students in the UK. I won’t rehash everything they’ve done but the bottom line is that they and the UK Government have failed to make enough funding available for every student who needs a funded extension, and haven’t made meaningful attempts to engage with students even though we’ve asked for it.
This means that some PhD students will have to finish off their PhD without being paid as a result of the impacts of COVID on their research. This disproportionately affects students, as those who are more affluent, have partners with a good wage, or those who could move in with family will find it easier to handle. It also might mean students have to change their project so they can finish on time, but they might not get the skills or experience they need for a future job. UKRI are adament that we will not graduate with lesser PhDs; they don’t get to make that decision, employers do.
At the end of last year, my Doctoral Training Program (DTP) held interviews where we discussed the impact of COVID-19 on our projects to help them decide who they could give a funded extension to. I trust that my DTP made the best decisions they could, and I know they’d much prefer to give us all the funded extensions we’re asking for. I did not get a funded extension. I asked for three months, primarily due to the impact mental health had on my productivity. I was one of three students out of 15 that asked for an extension who didn’t get one. This result of this decision de-railed me more than the pandemic itself has.
I was left wondering what the point of doing my PhD was if I was being set up to fail. I found myself unable to work, just staring at a screen wondering why I was bothering. When I started a training course, I couldn’t engage with it and pulled out because my mind was blank. Not to mention the 4,500 word essay that was due for it, so I was getting worked up trying to figure out how I’d manage to do that when I couldn’t even do my actual PhD work. I feel like I’m started to emerge from that hole now, but the question about whether I’ll be granted a funded extension from the next funding round is still whizzing around in my head.
The past year has been hard for every one of us, and I’ve been touched by the kindness and support from others. With overstretched NHS mental health services and private services unaffordable for me and many others, the support I’ve received from family, friends, and colleagues has kept me afloat. I’m lucky that I was a few months into my PhD before the pandemic began and had chance to start building relationships with people in my school. I’m also lucky that my supervisors have been great – it’s ridiculous to use the word “lucky” but I know that not everyone has supervisors as supportive as mine. The community within my school and my DTP has been brilliant. I’d be hardpressed to find better colleagues to try and navigate a pandemic alongside.
I know that I haven’t had the worst experience trying to do a PhD during the last year; I’m mourning what I wanted my PhD experience to be while others are mourning loved ones. This is just me trying to get some of my feelings out. If you’re a pissed off PhD student, feel free to get in touch with me and have a moan.