Guest Blog from Sam Watkin: Starting a PhD in a Pandemic

The wonderful Sam Watkin has volunteered to do a blog post for me this week. He has the dubious fortune of being one of my PhD students and has only known working for me during a global pandemic. He volunteered to share his experience of what this has meant for him and his learning.

I remember on the 4th of January 2021, sitting down at my desk in my bedroom, excited for the first day starting my PhD. I had got a new pad of paper and a fresh set of pens and highlighters. I turned on my laptop, opened my emails and pulled up a paper from the reading list I had been sent a few weeks prior. After about 6 hours of reading and making notes, I turned off my laptop and watched ‘A New Life in the Sun’ on Channel 4.

I had known for a while before being accepted to do a PhD that this was the path I wanted to go down. What I didn’t know was that I would start it remotely in my childhood bedroom. Overall, it felt rather anticlimactic. By this point though, I was pretty used to anticlimactic events. I had written and submitted my master’s thesis, done my masters viva and attended a virtual graduation all from this same desk, mostly wearing pajamas. So, starting my PhD had a similar feeling to it, a sense of “well, that was that I guess”.

From what I had heard from people already deep in their PhD journeys, the beginning few months were mostly spent reading and getting to grips with the subject area. I suppose, looking back on it, the lockdown that was in place at the beginning of 2021 helped with that a fair bit. All there really was to do was read around the subject area… and watch daytime TV. Not that it was a chore to do this (the reading, not watching telly) – it is a subject area I am really interested in and passionate about.

As time went on though, there was a growing feeling of missing out on the “PhD experience”. It wasn’t until around May 2021 that I actually met my supervisors face-to-face, and didn’t meet everyone in the research group till a few weeks after that. It felt as though the social aspect of it had been in slow-motion, never mind the feeling I can only really sum up as “Oh my god I’m almost 6 months in and haven’t picked up a pipette yet!”. Once I was able to start in the lab, the rules in place to make sure it was safe for us all to work in meant that work was, at times, painfully slow. All in all, while I was able to make progress, everything felt slower, more drawn out and more frustrating than I would have thought it would be.

If it isn’t obvious, I sometimes feel pressure to be overly-productive. This is something that I’m fairly sure is common among PhD students – especially as there was a whole lecture series put on about how to manage PhD pressure and workload. I’m horribly paraphrasing it, but the gist of it all was “you’re all good enough, stop stressing!”. I’ve got to give credit to my supervisors though – throughout all of this they have reassured me that this is all fairly normal to feel at the beginning of a PhD and, even with the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, I am making good progress.

While I think it is fair to say the pandemic has made starting a PhD very… different, to how it would have been otherwise, it hasn’t all been stress and doom. A few other people started PhD’s in our research group a few months before me, meaning we all have been going through this “Pandemic PhD” rollercoaster at more-or-less the same pace. Having this shared experience, with all its very unique challenges, has for certain made us closer as a group. At the very least, it has shown us all that we aren’t alone in going through this process, with all the additional stresses and strains a pandemic brings to the first year of a doctorate.

Aside from the work itself, starting this PhD has had some amazingly positive aspects to it. It has afforded me the chance to learn so much more than I thought I could about a subject I am fascinated by, pick up new skills, speak in a theatre production and present my own work at conferences. I was also able to move to London, then move straight back out of London (not enough countryside for me) and meet some of the most interesting and clever people I have ever met. While starting a PhD in a pandemic has presented many challenges, most of which I never expected to come across, the experience has been overall a really rewarding and enjoyable one, and I am looking forward to the next few years of it. Famous last words…

All opinions on this blog are my own

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