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

From November 23, the 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

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Surviving the 3rd Year of the PhD: Or, How to Become a ‘Structure of Feeling’ Part 2

This is Part 2 of the post about my experience of writing PhD at the University of Manchester. You can read Part 1 here.

In the mid of January 2020, when I was coming back from Moscow to Manchester, some people in Europe already knew about the coronavirus from the news. However, most of them neither worried about it nor took it seriously. As for me, I was in reading research literature for my next empirical chapter.

Spring Semester: Stay Safe, Take Care and Write Thesis

Got back from winter break, I started writing chapter 5 on living life in two industrial neighbourhoods, where I undertook ethnography. In the chapter, I tried to explain the peculiarities of the spatial imaginary of Russian workers and other neighbourhoods’ residents with the help of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘a sense of place’ and Raymond Williams’ concept of ‘structure of feeling’. It took me three weeks to draft that chapter. Later, I spent three weeks more to improve it for the annual review 2020.

In February, most people from my network still did not worry about COVID-19, apart from my friend, a PhD student from China, who told me the news about the coronavirus, when I came back to the office. In the mid of February, I received feedback from my supervisory team. And then a new UCU strike began at 74 Universities across the UK. The strike lasted until March. Needless to say that striking was a very emotional (and emotionally tiring) experience. I presented my PhD research at the Sociology teach-outs. At the same time, I was mainly focused on writing the thesis. However, even a brief experience of taking part in collective actions was intellectually insightful for me and helped me to formulate my critical arguments.

Sociology teach-outs during the UCU strike, the University of Manchester Students’ Union, February 2020 © Photo by the author

In chapter 4 on my research approach and methodology, I criticized those scholars who studied a working-class movement in Russia in the 1990s and argued that Russian workers were ‘patient’ (for example, see: Ashwin, 1999), capable only for survival and not for proactive actions. After the UCU strikes, it became clear for me that those scholars looked at Russian workers from the ‘Western’ perspective of strong trade unions with a long-standing history. While in Russia, independent trade unions began to emerge at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. However, in Russia workers were involved in everyday struggle of different forms ranging from everyday resistance to open protests (and it also happened in the Soviet era (for example, see: Piskunov, 2017)). Probably, I will move this critique to chapter 3 about the Russian context which was written as a literature review for the annual review 2018. I spent three weeks for drafting chapter 4 and sent it to my supervisors in the mid of March. In a week, a lockdown happened in the UK.

Life under Lockdown: Stay at Home, Save Lives

It is really hard to describe my experience of living life under lockdown. Talking to friends and colleagues from the academic community via Zoom, Skype, Facebook and other messengers, I realized that University people employed three strategies of coping with lockdowns in different parts of the globe. Some academics said that they ‘just ignore it’ meaning that they did not worry about the news and death toll and continued working as usual. Some others tried dealing with their worries work-wise. The rest (and it was my case) could not be focused on work at all.

My window view, March 2020 © Photo by the author

In the first weeks of lockdown, I was very stressed and could not write the next chapter supposed to be about the theoretical framework. I tried making myself to read books on theory, which I found at home. Fortunately, I borrowed some of them from the University library before its closure due to COVID-19. However, it was hard to be focused even on reading. I worried about my family and beloved ones in Russia. Also, all flights between countries were stopped. And there were some delays in delivering food at the beginning of the UK lockdown if you buy it online. These altogether added more stress. I had a feeling that I had to survive, even though it was not true. I am aware that there are a lot of people who suffered much more than me. In my case, it was more about emotional survival.

I felt that my emotional resource was close to run out and I sought professional assistance from the therapist who helped me to cope with anxiety. I was in contact with my relatives and friends, and my supervisory team was very supportive at that time. In the mid of April, I came back to writing and managed to draft theoretical chapter 2, which of course still needs to be improved. While I stayed at home, I tried to pay attention to my body, soul and health. It may sound very Foucauldian. Anyway, I established a daily routine: waking up at 6.30 am and going to bed at 10 pm, doing yoga, cooking healthy food and going out to the courtyard to breath fresh air. I aired out the rooms regularly and kept them clean. Having one walk a day near the house building I got to know my neighbours better.

A neighbour’s cat in their one walk a day, April 2020 © Photo by the author

At the same time, staying at home was a cultural experience for me. Here, I do not romanticize lockdown at all. In March, I subscribed to webpages of the museums, art galleries, theatres, and philharmonics opened online access to their cultural resources. Their wonderful streams helped me to cope with anxiety. I am very thankful to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Wiener Staatsoper, the Belvedere Museum Vienna, and many others for broadcasting their cultural events.

During lockdown, I finished reading The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, the final book of the Neapolitan quartet, a series of novels telling the story of a friendship between two women who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood on the edge of Naples and had absolutely different life trajectories. The Neapolitan quartet gets the reader involved in a complicated relationship between two women and their relationships with other people of different backgrounds from their neighbourhood and other parts of Italy. It has your attention from the beginning to the end. I thought that I might borrow some literary forms from Ferrante’s novel and use them in my thesis. But then I realized that I need my ethnographic style.

Returning to the question about a ‘structure of feeling’

In the 3rd year, I was too focused on my doctoral research. To take my mind off it, I bought water-mixable oil paints and started painting whatever I saw around in Manchester and its surroundings. I never painted before and viewed this activity only as a hobby. Staying at home for a long time I painted my window view representing structures of feeling of Northern England. That’s how I tried to reflect in visual arts what structure of feeling was. One of my friends said that structure of feeling was ‘that historical atmosphere of being that can’t fully be explored retroactively’. In this piece of text, I tried to grasp that historical atmosphere, in which I have been writing my PhD.

Surviving the 3rd Year of the PhD: Or, How to Become a ‘Structure of Feeling’ Part 1

After two months of the coronavirus lockdown, Britain is slowly coming back to ‘normal’ life. In Manchester, cafés and non-essential shops reopen their doors to customers. People go out and gather together though social distancing, taking sanitary measures, and wearing facemasks. Meanwhile, I submitted my documents for the annual review 2020. It is time to look back over the 3rd year of my PhD at the University of Manchester, full of intellectual insights but also of diverse feelings and experiences against the background of big events, which will go into history.

Autumn Semester: Eat, Pray, Love Write, Teach, Strike

The autumn semester started well and did not show any sign of trouble.

On the 1st of September 2019, I was ready to begin writing the first, actually the final, empirical chapter of my thesis. I know it might sound strange but my supervisory team advised me to begin with that final chapter 7 looking at different forms of everyday struggle of workers and subordinate classes in Russia. I established a writing routine and spent two months for drafting the text. I was mainly struggling with how to formulate the arguments out of ethnographic data. For me, it turned out to be easy to write but hard to put rich ethnography in one chapter still waiting for a good summary.

Writing the first page of my thesis, September 2019 © Photo by the author

After that, I decided to follow a logical sequence in telling the story and spent the following two months for drafting the next, actually the previous, empirical chapter dedicated to everyday inequalities, which workers experienced daily in Russian industrial neighbourhoods. Chapter 6 on everyday inequalities and social imaginary was more consistent. I tried to inscribe theoretical concepts into the empirical analysis. However, building bridges between Russian data and ‘Western’ theories was not an easy task for me. Alongside this, I assisted my supervisor in her course on the everyday understanding of inequalities which broadened my knowledge in inequality studies.

The University Place, October 2019 © Photo by the author

The final lectures of the course were planned to be on how people protest inequalities and make sense of them. Due to the UCU* eight-day strike supported by 60 Universities across the UK, those lectures were cancelled. Instead, together with the University staff and students, we were protesting against unfair pensions in academia, gender and race pay gap, short-term contracts, underpayment and workload of early career researchers and graduate teaching assistants. In parallel to the strike, I was finishing chapter 6, while some of my peers were canvassing for the Labour Party before the General Elections.

The UCU strike at the University of Manchester, November 2019 © Photo by the author

I remember the day before the elections we were drinking in a pub with PhD students and somebody said that tomorrow we would wake up in socialism. The semester finished with the loss of Jeremy Corbin. Boris Johnson became the Prime Minister. For Britain, leaving the EU became an inevitable future. Many people in academia felt disappointed and thought that Brexit was the worst thing could happen. At that time, no one had ever heard about COVID-19.

Winter Break: Be Happy and Read Novels

Packing my suitcase with Christmas presents, I managed to squeeze a novel, which I borrowed from the university library and went to Russia. I was happy to spend a winter break in Moscow with my family, meet up with friends and colleagues, and visit a couple of art exhibitions.

During the Christmas holidays, I had more time for reading for pleasure. That’s how I turned to Border Country, the novel I brought with me in the suitcase. The novel opens with the return of Matthew Price, a university lecturer in London, to the Welsh village of Glynmawr, when his father, a signalman at the railway station, has a stroke. The book impressed me deeply by the imaginative depiction of the country, its landscapes and sceneries combining rural and industrial elements in the local infrastructure. After finishing it, I began to understand better what ‘structure of feeling’ meant.

The book from the University of Manchester Library © Photo by the author

Amazingly, the book from the library, the third impression of the novel published in 1978, contained the signature on its title page. I am still thinking whether it could be that I was holding in my hands the copy of the book signed by its author, Raymond Williams.

In the mid of January, when I was leaving Moscow for Manchester, some people in Europe already knew about the coronavirus from the news. However, most of them neither worried about it nor took it seriously. As for me, I was in reading research literature for my next empirical chapter.

To be continued…

*UCU is an abbreviation for the University and College Union, the official trade union supporting University workers across the UK.