Around November last year, we (Amal and Bonnie) got introduced to each other as two new PhD students trying to navigate our way through perhaps the most challenging academic experience we have faced so far, with the added fun of being in the middle of a raging pandemic. Here we narrate our individual experiences in the form of a casual interview, with Amal as the interviewer and Bonnie as the interviewee. Hope you enjoy the read!
Let me introduce myself, my name is Amal, I am currently studying in my first year of my PhD at Brunel University London. In 2020, I decided to take a leap of faith and apply for the PhD project in the middle of a pandemic, and here, Bonnie and I talk about our experiences tackling a doctoral project in such uncertain and unprecedented times.
As many of you will know, PhD students can be quite reclusive in their lifestyle due to the nature of their projects; especially being a researcher within the area of oncology and therapeutics, our lifestyles are often defined by constant shuttling to and from the office and the lab – often finding ourselves going home just to sleep. This is often broken up through brief comfort breaks with fellow researchers, not unexpectedly, the pandemic changed this to a great degree in many ways.
I feel that starting my project during the pandemic changed my relationship with elements of a doctorate degree that were not explicitly a part of my project. Although this may sound a little brash, I was struggling to find connections and network with my colleagues as the zoom and team calls were not always the smoothest way to “grab a coffee”. I found that despite the meeting being renamed as a “virtual coffee catch-up” there was still a level of formality, that is perhaps felt less (or is overcome easier) in a traditional face-to-face setting. There were other aspects to this as well. Even upon returning to campus, I experienced very limited human interactions that are normally expected in the beginning of a PhD despite many others in my position. Needless to say, the pandemic has altered my perception of what it means to be a PhD researcher with my experience being so different to what one might usually expect.
At the beginning of this year, my supervisor put me into contact with Bonnie, who is doing her doctoral research all the way up in Aberdeen. This gave us both a chance to talk about some of the differences that we experienced upon starting our PhDs. It has been a very beneficial experience for both of us, as it has made us feel heard and has given us a sense of being a part of a wider community of student researchers going through similar experiences. I ended up doing a casual interview with her, and here is how it went.
Hello! My name is Bonnie, and I am from India. I moved to Aberdeen to do a PhD with Prof Val Speirs after completing my MSc in Molecular Pathology of Cancer at Queen’s University Belfast. My PhD focuses on understanding the biology of male breast cancer and figuring if it stratifies into molecular subtypes distinct from established female breast cancer subtypes. A lot of evidence already exists to support that the underlying biology of breast cancer is quite distinct between the sexes. A lot of my doctoral research entails building on that evidence and establishing whether these differences could be potentially clinical actionable.
When I first moved, it was quite a regular experience I suppose. Slowly being inducted into the group, meeting new people, getting used to a new place etc. However, I only got to do all these things for about eight weeks before COVID hit, and I was forced to move back to Belfast. I took that decision because I already had an established support system in Belfast, and the last thing I wanted was to be isolated in Aberdeen for months. In hindsight, that was one of the best decisions I could have taken, as staying with loved ones helped me in not only keeping my sanity but also continuing to make progress in my doctoral work.
To be honest, the biggest change was moving back to Aberdeen, setting up my own place, and getting used to the city again after 10 months of lockdown in Belfast. Moving away from my partner (again) has been a big challenge, as he has been the biggest source of encouragement and support throughout the lockdown months.
Not being able to see my family for over two years has definitely been the one challenge I have struggled with the most. This is because the COVID situation in India (like most places) has been volatile, and not conducive to travel at all. My mental health has also taken a huge toll. I am one of those people who work better from an office environment and really benefit from having co-workers around. Therefore, working from home for almost half my PhD has been detrimental to my well-being, mostly from being unable to switch off leading to constant stress, insomnia, and anxiety. Having said that, it was much worse during the earlier months of the lockdown. My mental health has been gradually improving by getting counselling help as well as using various coping mechanisms (trying to follow a routine as much as possible, getting back to my hobbies etc.)
The silver linings for me have been mostly work-related: I have improved my problem-solving abilities by finding creative ways to do things that are normally done face to face, e.g., organising a virtual conference. I have also been able to attend more online conferences and webinars than I ever could have done in person due to most of them having been made free to access. Juggling home and work duties has also been much easier due to there being no commute.
I feel like the improvement in academic collaboration has been significant. The realisation that geographical location means very little in this day and age has been extremely beneficial, and we should keep finding flexible ways to bring people together in a post-pandemic world.
In a nutshell, we found our similarities and differences to be useful and relevant in navigating within academia in general, and overcoming the difficulties of being trainee medical researchers in particular. In fact, the biggest thing COVID-19 has taught us is how to make the best out of a bad situation. Although we will not be missing the pandemic at all, we are tougher and braver at (hopefully almost!) the end of it and hope to apply our experience to be even better researchers and human beings moving forward.
- Bonnie and Amal
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