Monday, 4 January 2021

Managing Well-being and Postgraduate Study During Covid-19


Chrissie writes about her experience prioritising wellbeing while transitioning to PhD study, and the challenges facing postgraduate students during the covid-19 pandemic.

- Chrissie Thwaites

In September 2020, just after handing in the last piece of work for my masters degree, I started a PhD. And there's no doubt about it: transitioning to postgraduate research – as well as moving to a new house, a new city, a new university – during the Covid-19 pandemic is a big step that has brought unique challenges! The department building is closed (as is most of campus), PGRs are encouraged to work from home, meetings and seminars are all held online, and the realities of Covid mean that it’s often difficult to produce work of the same quality as usual.  

During my first term as a PhD student, I’ve gradually learned to adapt to these circumstances, and to try to manage my own wellbeing while I get stuck in with my PhD. I’m sure I’m not alone in these struggles, so I wanted to share some tips that have helped me with this transition. Learning these lessons has really helped me and I hope they can help you too!  


1. Find your workspace 


I don’t know about you, but throughout the past few months, I’ve thought to myself, "Campus will probably be open soon!” or “In the near future I can use a desk in the department." I've also found a bit of false hope by telling myself things like, “Soon I’ll be able to work around other PGRs." But even though I derive a bit of short-term comfort from these thoughts, I’ve found that being in this mindset can have some negative effects on my mentality in the long run. For example, one problem is that this mindset invites me to see my current workspace as temporary, so I’m less likely to made it a good place to study. But the reality is that we’re in the here and now. The vaccine may just be around the corner, and it’s good to have hope for future changes, but it's also important that you don’t wait around for the good work space or the access to campus. Instead, it's important to make the best of what you have. The quality of your workspace can really affect how you feel day to day and how you approach your PhD. So I’d encourage you to think about how you can maintain a good workspace at home! Do you have a desk, or a dedicated space for working? Even if your living space is small, creating a space separate from your sleeping or relaxation zones can create mental distance between work and rest.  


2. Discover your "work self" 


As I’ve settled into to PhD study, I’ve learned how I work best – and, most importantly, how I work best given the current circumstances. For example, towards the end of last term, I started setting goals and planning ahead. I found this immensely useful and I felt more motivated to get going with work each day because I knew what I was doing and how it fitted into the bigger picture. So, what works for you? How do you do your best work? Perhaps there are certain times of the day you work best. Do you allow yourself to work with this schedule? (Within reason of course – you might be something of a night owl, but being around during daylight hours and having a healthy sleep routine are great for mental health!). I think it's also important to remember that discovering your "work self" is a learning process. PhD study comes with a new level of independence that we often need to learn to manage. Get to know how you work, how often you need breaks, what time of day you like to start – and don’t beat yourself up about it if it’s different to someone else! Your way is the best way for you to work. 


 3. Connect


Now more than ever, connecting is difficult. For many people, isolation is already a part of the reality of doing a PhD. You’re studying a niche subject and it’s a long project you take ownership for individually. If you’re based in arts/humanities like me, you might not be part of a research group, and conduct your research solely by yourself.  I recently attended an event called ‘10 Steps to a Great PhD’ on zoom with other students. Through posting in the chat we learned that all of us felt the same – quite overwhelmed, not sure how to go about our new PhD projects, and feeling like covid amplified all of this. We were experiencing the same thing – but didn’t know it! Connecting with others can help you discover you’re not the only one feeling this way. So I’d recommend making the most of any online events and opportunities to connect that come your way!  


4. Practice self-kindness


Last but not least, be kind to yourself. Imposter syndrome is real, and anxiety can be amplified during covid-19, so it’s important to practice self-kindness. Focusing on the positives and practicing gratitude can help. I’ve also found that investing in hobbies and interests outside of my studies has been great for my mental health. So, remember to let yourself have a life outside your PhD too. Make time for your friends. And don’t forget the importance of speaking to yourself with kindness.



For more Student Minds resources on managing your studies and well-being during the pandemic, please click here 


I’m Chrissie, a first year PhD student at the University of Leeds. My research interests include theology and religious studies. I'm keen to raise awareness about the importance of mental health and to encourage others to improve their wellbeing.

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