The Last Stretch to the PhD during the COVID-19 Pandemic

From November 23, Greater Manchester moved to the local COVID alert level 3 due to the increased infection rate. This information reached me via e-mail as part of the news feed from the University of Manchester, where I am doing my PhD in Sociology. What does it mean for students? We cannot socialise with people from other households in public places. We can neither accept guests at home and in private gardens nor visit other people at their home. But in fact, it means that if you are an international student, you are very likely to continue living in isolation. If you would like to meet friends in person, the only option for you is to walk with them in the park social distancing. Although the rainy Mancunian weather does not permit this much. If you do not want to break the rules, you can merely hang out remotely.

In such a context, I am entering the last stretch to the PhD, which is the most difficult one, as my local friend with a doctoral degree says. In this post, I reflect some challenges, which I face at the final stage of the thesis writing under the local lockdown in Manchester. I explain how I attempt to meet these challenges.

The lack of proper rest

One of the problems, which PhD students with funding face, is that the studentship will run out one day. In my view, it is better to complete your thesis by that moment or at least not shortly afterwards. I know some people will disagree with me saying that it is better to spend more time in the PhD to build a solid CV and improve a publication record.

Well, it depends on your life situation, personal goals and your programme. For example, anthropologists spend at least one year in the field, and it takes more time for them to complete a PhD. It also depends on what academic profile you already have and at what stage of your professional path you are. Bearing this in mind, I worked hard throughout the whole summer and autumn trying to improve the chapters, which I drafted during my third year.

Another problem at this stage is that you need to start applying for jobs or/and elaborate your postdoctoral project if your goal is to continue working in academia. Apart from this, you may need to write some other texts, for example, journal articles, and do a side job in teaching, research or somewhere else. As for me, I entirely focused on improving the thesis draft and preparing an application for the postdoctoral fellowship. I also applied for several jobs. The purpose of this activity was to understand what was happening with the academic labour market during the pandemic and gain experience in applying for positions of different types.

As a result, I did not have enough time for proper rest and sufficient breaks.

Possible solutions

  • Under the local lockdown, you do not have many opportunities to take proper rest. For me, sunbathing on the lawn with the neighbours in summer and regular walks in the park in autumn was the best solution to this problem. It helped me to keep my mind off the work and the laptop screen. I enjoyed walking, observing squirrels, greeting people accurately social distancing, and breathing in the smell of trees in the park. However, it will be more difficult to make in late autumn.
  • Sometimes, I visited a neighbourhood café with a garden, where I enjoyed chatting with a barista, drinking coffee or having lunch in the open air. I know that some students save money and prefer eating at home. I can do nothing with this habit. It cheers me up and increases my productivity. If you find it problematic to go out in the lockdown, you can make a proper meal for yourself and have it watching a good movie.© Photo by the author

The difficulty of time management

Another problem is the difficulty of planning time. My friend, who completed her PhD a while ago, told me that it always took her more time to improve the thesis than she expected. I did not believe her until I entered the final stage of writing my thesis. The problem with the PhD is that you think that you have your chapters done, while your supervisors may have a different opinion on that.

There are unforeseen factors, which do not depend on you. You never know how many drafts of each chapter you will need to make and how much time it will take to finalise the thesis. Though, I continued making plans for each day, each week, each month, and the rest of the PhD. Moreover, under the pandemic, many other factors of risk have emerged, ranging from contracting COVID-19 to remaining without foodstuff and any support.

Possible solutions

  • I solved this problem by accepting the idea that I could not control everything. I follow the flow and trust my supervisors. At the same time, I do not forget to look at my writing schedule. I would give the following advice on this. Take your time and try not to control everything. However, making a writing schedule is helpful in structuring time, especially under the lockdown. Now, I also plan household activities and calculate how much foodstuff I have and for how many days.

A weakening of social ties

One more problem is a weakening of social ties caused by the lack of live communication. As PhD students, we used to come to the Sociology department and chat with each other. Before the pandemic, the fabric of our PhD life consisted of these everyday conversations and exchanges of thoughts. I am not even talking about drinks in pubs and informal talks with peers about our research and other issues.

Possible solutions

  • Now all professional communication happens remotely. I meet my supervisors in zoom and discuss with them the progress of my writing. My peers organise a virtual PhD colloquium, where we can present our projects and receive feedback. Regular Skype calls with  PhD students help to maintain social ties. Sometimes we have online lunches and coffee. My supervisor has recently organised a virtual tea-gather with her students and that was great.
  • Since the pandemic began, I started messaging people more and having more calls with friends working at universities in other countries. I am happy to talk to them and learn about the academic culture in their national contexts. Staying in touch with my Moscow friends is also very important to me. And last but not least, regular calls with my mum and relatives encourage me and give me support. © Photo by the author 

Emotional fatigue (or burnout)

In the final stretch, the lack of proper rest may lead to emotional fatigue or burnout, especially if you are an international student living alone. This problem is compounded by long self-isolation, weakening of social ties and increased social uncertainty under the pandemic. Some students, who I know, talked about depression they had at the end of the PhD. Some others gained chronic fatigue affecting their mental health and emotional well-being. There are several reasons why this happens at the final stage. Below, I will list some of them drawing on my experience and talks with other students.

Firstly, you work individually on the same topic throughout three years or even more. You spend the whole final year for writing the thesis about this topic. It is a good idea to be focused on this unless it becomes too exaggerated. You become tired of thinking and rethinking the same issues, drafting and redrafting the same chapters, writing and rewriting the same thesis. The work, which is supposed to be creative, turns to be monotonous. Writing the thesis requires self-discipline and effort of the will what can be challenging to maintain for a long period.

Secondly, there are no rewards. If you wish writing a good thesis with strong arguments, drawing on an extensive research database and thorough analysis, you will need to invest most of your time in this work. However, your funding remains the same, and your work will not be recognised until you get it published as a book or a series of articles. It means that you may get rewards later or not get them at all.

Thirdly, if you are a postgraduate student, your life is precarious. It means that you take an uncertain position and cannot afford much. Moreover, a PhD degree obtained in the UK does not guarantee a decent job in academia. It gives you a chance to apply for postdocs and academic positions across Europe. Theoretically, you can apply for jobs in the US. But it is hard to compete with the alumni of American universities because they usually spend more than six years in PhD programmes. In Russia, some universities pay an additional salary to teachers with a doctoral degree received from western universities.

As for me, I became emotionally tired in the final stretch. For the first time, I thought about whether it was the right decision to take this path. After writing down, what I gained from the PhD and what I lost, I realised that I still would make the same choice. My friend, a feminist writer and social researcher, who got her doctoral degree a couple of years ago, told me that PhD was more about psychological resilience for her. And I would agree with this. I would agree with this twice in a time of the pandemic.

Possible solutions

  • Try to see positive things in the negative ones. For example, if you are writing your thesis and feel emotionally tired, take this activity as if you were drafting your future book. If your postdoctoral applications are not successful at the moment, view this as an opportunity to gain more experience in preparing stronger applications for research grants in future.
  • Pay more attention to your mental health and emotional well-being. I began to ask myself what and how I feel and put down these thoughts in my diary. This reflection allows me to be aware, why I have particular feelings in the final stretch during the pandemic.
  • Talk to other people who went through the PhD experience. Regular chats with friends who already obtained their doctoral degrees helped me to understand what challenges may arise at the next stage of my professional path.
  • Balance work and rest. I started planning my leisure time and taking breaks from writing when I feel tired. Hobbies and creative activities, including reading, painting, doing arts and crafts, photographing, etc., can help to get rid of the emotional tiredness. As for me, I have already bought a carving pumpkin for Halloween.
  • Love yourself and take care of yourself. Take care of others, if you can, as appropriate. These activities may range from baking cakes to listening to podcasts, organizing zoom parties to visiting virtual events. The idea is that you should find them enjoyable and pleasant. I have ordered a birthday cake for my upcoming birthday and organize an online party for my loved ones. I cannot volunteer at the moment but make donations to a charity helping homeless people during the pandemic.

In summary

My last stretch to the PhD has overlapped the second wave of coronavirus in the UK. On the one hand, this situation is challenging, and you never know how long it is going to last. On the other hand, it gives you a chance to be creative in making everyday life. I outlined the most relevant problems for me and suggested possible solutions. Although there are many more challenges, which international students may face now. You can continue my list and share in comments your experience of meeting these problems in your PhD life.

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