Starting a PhD during a pandemic: My Experience

By Anitta Rose Chacko

Starting a PhD during ‘normal’ times is an adventure in itself, the start of a long and exciting academic commitment. But starting a PhD amid a global pandemic has certainly been a completely new experience and one that I couldn’t have ever contemplated.

When I received my offer for my PhD starting in September 2020, I was thrilled about the journey ahead. I would finally be able to pursue a project that closely matches my interests in stem cell and imaging biology, whilst incorporating an exciting research area that was novel to me. However, I would be lying if I said that my happiness wasn’t combined with anxiety of the uncertainty ahead.

How would the pandemic affect my course? Would I be able to start research in labs? Would the start date of my course change? In retrospect, although I understand these questions are quite natural to any student about to start a PhD, or any course for that matter, which involves on-campus research, you have to accept that this isn’t a situation that you have control over. In fact, nobody really does, so the best thing we can do is to learn to accept and adapt with the evolving situation.  

Resetting expectations

Firstly, it is crucial that you reset your expectations although this can seem daunting at first. If working on-campus, you are most likely going to be working in a physically distanced university environment and with reduced face-to-face interaction with other lab members wearing face masks. 

Therefore, if presented with a chance to virtually meet others ahead of your course, I highly recommend you jump at the opportunity or even try to proactively arrange this yourself. Thankfully, my supervisor was kind enough to ask if I would like to partake in the virtual lab meetings and tutorials that were scheduled prior to my course start date.

Despite not being overly conversational in these meetings, I have to say these have undoubtedly made the transition into my course far easier. I was able to get a taste of the working environment in its ‘normality’, so to speak, and meet other lab members without the barrier of a face mask.

Technology Hiccups

Encountering technology hiccups is a challenge associated with virtual learning that I am more that certain you will come across. Situations where you are faced with low internet quality and phrases like ‘can you hear me’ and ‘you are on mute’ are bound to happen at some point during meetings. Therefore, be prepared and learn to accept these situations.

Support is always given

We may be sick and tired of hearing of words such as ‘unprecedented’ being thrown at every opportunity but the reality is that circumstances can change at any point in the lead up to starting or during your PhD journey. I am lucky enough to have a supervisor who made me feel supported throughout these times but if you feel this is not your case, there will always be other people you can approach for support. So, don’t be reluctant to take this support if you need it.

Understandably, a PhD will require learning techniques that you may not be familiar with and coordinating this training once you start can seem difficult when you are working with reduced occupancy in labs and your supervisor is working remotely. In these occasions, remember that you are surrounded by a vast array of people with different expertise from technicians, to post docs to other students.

I urge you to reach out to these people if you need help understanding something. I guarantee you, they will be more than willing to help and more often than not your doubts can simply be resolved through an email or by arranging to shadow experiments conducted by another lab member in a socially distanced manner.

A final thought

Remind yourself that it is completely natural to feel nervous about starting a PhD during a pandemic and that you are not alone in this situation. Trust me when I say, this feeling will pass, and you will grow to become accustomed to these strange times.

About the author:

Anitta Rose Chacko is a first-year PhD student in Cell and Developmental Biology at University College London.

Twitter: @ChackoAnitta


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