Scrabble tiles read 'you choose your words'

I can’t be the only one who feels change is in the air; anyone else for new stationery?

As UK infant and primary schools start to reopen, the phrase, ‘back to school’ has been in my mind a lot as I got my five year-old ready – in practical terms and expectations – for the first week back. 

And with this change in our daily lives, I feel a knock-on shift for me too. Talk from media and political quarters of a ‘return to some sort of normality’ and the reopening of school has me feeling decidedly September-ish, with a strong urge for a new diary and pencil-case.

Resist an unreflective slide into a ‘return to normality’ perspective, it’s short-term comfort at the expense of your future self. Because for all the talk, this isn’t a new academic season. It’s a (potentially reversible) shift in my Covid-shaped landscape, other features of which remain unchanged, or stubbornly refuse to come into sharper focus. 

For many people I know, there’s no change at all and none in sight

For me, I’ll be working remotely, in far form ideal conditions, for the foreseeable future; my day now shaped by school drop offs and collections, with the constant awareness that a single cough could (quite rightly) result in my child being sent home for two weeks. It all feels brittle and fragile; a time to be on my guard against unreflectively absorbing narratives of ‘normality’. This is no time for a new diary or pencil-case (so disappointing).

Against this background, many conversations with researchers about how they’re feeling about their gradual / imminent / no-time-soon return to work, has highlighted to me that pressure on doctoral students is greater than ever, and being exacerbated by the decisions of UK research councils and some universities not to accept Covid-19 as a reason to suspend study, and only extend funding for a minority of students who are late in their programmes.

Many researchers are finding this confusing and upsetting, to a point of paralysis with their work.


The power in letting go of time past, to be able to move forward (gently, when it’s right for you)

Feeling behind, or as though you’re not working hard, enough is the default setting for many doctoral students. If it’s yours, let me share an idea from accountancy which might be a fresh perspective : 

how would it feel (judiciously) to declare pandemic-time to be ‘sunk costs’, that is, costs (time) which have been incurred, and can’t be recovered? 

This runs contrary to the mindsets of many PhD students, with years (sometimes decades) of running complex profit and loss tabs for working-time but, if you can give it a try, you may find it the first step to accepting – without judgement – where you find yourself today. And that acceptance can lay the foundations for starting work without the stifling weight of three months ‘catching up’ bearing down on you.


Trying to ‘make up the time’ is a terrible idea

If you try to make up the sheer hours that you believe you would have worked had the pandemic not come along (and, although we may not have met, I’m 90% confident that you wouldn’t have worked the hours your perfectionist imagination thinks you would), it’s very likely three things will happen. I know you know what they are, but let’s see them in writing anyway:

  • You will almost certainly fail (The numbers are against you: let’s say 11 weeks at 37.5hrs p/w = 412.5 hours. Where on earth are you going to find them?
  • You will burn out trying
  • These two factors together will jeopardise your health and future work

Consider these two broad paths: stick or twist? 

If you’ve not been able to work for the past three months – and particularly if you won’t be able to work for the foreseeable future because of the Covid-landscape – there are two broad paths:  

  1. Stick to your original plan and extend the amount of time you expect it to take
  2. Look at the amount of time you have left (or can afford), and scale back your expectations to be able to fit it into that time

Neither of these will feel ideal, of course. They’re not what you signed up to do. You might be able to find a middle way between them, and do a bit less, in a slightly longer time. That won’t feel ideal, either.


Don’t struggle alone: seeking supervisor and academic input as you make your decision really will help

If you’re wrangling with how to move forward, do talk it through with your supervisor and other academic contacts. Ask how questions:

  • Ask supervisors how often a student uses all the data and written work they produce, in their final thesis 
  • Ask completed doctoral students whether they cut swathes out of their final thesis, how they went about it and how that felt
  • Ask anyone academically familiar with your work how they visualise parts of your project being hived off neatly and saved for a future paper

Even without Covid-19, a social sciences or humanities doctoral thesis which ends up looking as the author imagined at the beginning (and sometimes until quite late on), is an unusual creature. Supervisors and academics are used to supporting students through (sometimes quite radical) changes of plan. And for now, take heart that even if you scale back your research plans, or radically change your methodology, you’re still almost certain to have more than enough material to write a thesis with – although perhaps not the one you expected.



Come over to Twitter, and let me know where things are for you right now

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