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Journey of two novice PhD candidates amidst COVID-19

Journey of two novice PhD candidates amidst COVID-19

Starting a PhD is an exciting opportunity: meeting new colleagues, settling in your office and familiarizing yourself with your new environment. What we couldn’t have imagined, is that this ‘new environment’ would actually turn out to be the confinement at our own homes.

The two of us simultaneously began our PhDs on March 16th, the exact date that official measures on working from home were announced nation-wide. Our long-awaited first day at work suddenly became anti-climactic, trading our new suits for jogging pants and switching workplace from the beautiful university building to a small urban apartment. In this blog, we share our experience and lessons learned on how to start a PhD from home.

Disorientating beginnings

Knowing where and how to start a 4-year research project is a real struggle, one that surely applies to all PhD candidates. We experienced this confusion strongly, probably emphasized by these uncertain times, being unable to exchange spontaneous coffee talks with fellow researchers or walk into the offices of supervisors with questions. Despite our passion for our research topics, we often found ourselves distracted and overwhelmed with the magnitude of the tasks ahead. Moreover, the disconnection with the university setting often left us confused as to what was expected of us and who to reach out to.

We experienced this confusion strongly, probably emphasized by these uncertain times, being unable to exchange spontaneous coffee talks with fellow researchers or walk into the offices of supervisors with questions.

Luckily, the support system of the university rapidly caught up with us: between our (online) supervisors, team colleagues, PhD buddies and research coordinators, we were not alone. A lot of efforts were made to integrate us, show us around our work environments digitally, and reassure our anxious minds. After all, everyone had to adjust to the ‘new normal’ at the same time as us! Soon, informal texts were exchanged on MS Teams, after-work drinks were organized virtually, and even online pub quizzes were initiated. Although not fully replacing a meet-up to break the ice, everyone’s good will in keeping contact made us feel at home in this environment (pun intended).

Keeping motivation levels high

Undergoing a long-term research project requires constant renewal of energy especially when external inputs are limited. Often, we found ourselves lacking inspiration and getting stuck on irrelevant questions, thus pressuring our creative process in ways that are counterproductive (and unhealthy). From our experience, the most common mistake is to set vague goals for yourself, or unrealistic expectations. Putting the bar too high resulted unequivocally in discouragement, leading to the vicious circle of work inefficiency. Realistic short-term objectives, clear deadlines, and regular supervisor catch-up are key elements to stay motivated. A helpful strategy for us was to agree on clear objectives with supervisors, breaking down tasks in order to maintain a monthly, weekly, and even daily manageable schedule.

In this process, we found that the online courses offered by the university were of great help. PhD-specific classes related to our research topics (such as the Quantitative Empirical Research in Law followed by Sarah) allowed us to make major progress rapidly. By meeting other PhDs working on similar topics in these courses, we gained external input on our research and developed our theoretical models through discussions. The obligation to hand in assignments regularly also helped in setting deadlines and remaining productive. Bottom line is: don’t get stuck in your bubble and reach out to whoever may be interested, even online!

Finally, in these times when work and life seem to merge in new ways, it is important to self-reflect and work on personal skills that can help put everything in perspective. The classes offered by the university to develop social intelligence and communication abilities, such as the course Presenting skills for PhDs followed by Kimia, constitute great help in this regard. Eventually, we had to work on our resilience and ability to cope with drawbacks in order to realize that a PhD from home is totally feasible as long as you are surrounded by the right people and dare reaching out.

How has the university supported us? What else can be done?

First off, the university’s wide array of available courses that build on research-related topics and personal development have been life saviors. Teachers have gone out of their ways to provide great education online – and it showed. Continuing to provide a large panel of courses and workshops online is definitely something to pursue in this upcoming academic year. However, since July, most classes for PhDs are fully booked until December. Adding to the offer when the demand is so high is a must.

Teachers have gone out of their ways to provide great education online – and it showed.

Secondly, great team building online has been promoted during the lockdown, which has been highly appreciated. Though our workspaces will remain at home, it would be helpful to be allowed to hold small (one-on-one) meetings in the university sometimes – respecting all necessary measures, of course. Doing so would greatly improve our enthusiasm and connection with our work environment and breaking the lonely routine. For example, we would appreciate meeting our supervisors in person once in a while, to improve communication and exchanges over our research topics.

In addition, one of the main challenges that will likely demand (the university’s) attention in the coming period, is the risk of isolation and mental health issues among young scholars as a result of working from home. Being detached from a work environment comes for many with social isolation, especially in times where social distancing is the rule. Normally, social bonds are formed organically by being in the same work environment and joining activities. During these times, more external support might be needed in order to create online environments in which young academics can bond.

Leiden University is a great example of a successful shift from physical to online education in a very short time. Since March, it has allowed students to follow their study programs uninterruptedly and graduate in due time. In a short period, the university found a way to strike a balance between physical and online facilities for students; for instance, to this day, students still have access to the library. As for its working staff, the university is relatively strict on the possibilities to work in the building and be physically present. Most researchers (and all PhDs) are required to work exclusively from home, except for some exceptional circumstances. While this shows rigor and capability to face this health crisis, these measures unfortunately interact negatively with our work by creating a wide gap between our daily tasks and the work environment. Over the summer, it was very unclear to all of us whether the beginning of the Academic Year would come with more flexibility to access our offices, or partially work in the building as done in other universities. The guidelines given in September proved us otherwise: there will be no physical presence at the Faculty until further notice. Though unavoidable at this moment in time, these measures make it hard to integrate in a new environment.

To counteract possible negative consequences, mainly relating to employee mental health and loss of focus, extra effort is needed from all parties affected. It would be unfair to place the weight of this responsibility fully on the shoulders of the University, as they are already making the best use of the information and the resources that they have. Getting through this transition period is a team effort. Though the University can introduce faculty-wide policies and initiatives, there is a big responsibility for us on a more within-faculty and individual level to reach out to one another.

Lessons for the academic community

With these major changes in our work habits, the academic community can draw lessons from the pros and cons of teleworking. Working from home definitely has perks, such as less commuting, flexible schedules and custom-made working days according to one’s daily activities. If the lockdown has taught us one thing, it is that working from home can be productive, and inversely that being in an office does not necessarily result in our best work. Flexibility, both in terms of location and working hours, should be provided in academia.

However, these perks should not come at the detriment of the interactions between colleagues and fellow researchers: social exchanges are necessary to develop research. Being part of a team and an organization is paramount in the sense of contributing to something greater than yourself, greater than your own research. After all, the strength of the academic community lies in the exchange of ideas and flow of information between researchers.

Though theoretically PhD research like ours can be performed from home alone, it is also well known that young researchers are prone to developing anxiety and mental health issues. In this context, universities have a role to bear in the creation of the sense of community and belonging.

The academic sector is particularly sensitive in this regard, due to the individualism of the profession and thus risk of isolation. Though theoretically PhD research like ours can be performed from home alone, it is also well known that young researchers are prone to developing anxiety and mental health issues. In this context, universities have a role to bear in the creation of the sense of community and belonging. The ‘new normal’ should not hinder the importance of the academic community and the interlinked network that it provides researchers with. Only then can working from home be a sustainable and fruitful prospective.

About Kimia Heidary and Sarah Vandenbroucke

Kimia Heidary (24) and Sarah Vandenbroucke (25) are two PhD candidates at the Faculty of Business Studies. They simultaneously started working at Leiden Law School in March 2020.

Kimia completed her bachelor’s degree in Law (2013), after which she obtained two master’s degrees in Persuasive Communication Science (2017) and Private & Intellectual Property Law (2019). Currently, she is conducting empirical-legal research on online price discrimination, focusing on the perceptions of companies, consumers and regulatory actors and the (legal) implications thereof for consumer behavior and market regulation. Her interests are mainly in the field of technology, intellectual property law, (new) marketing strategies, communication science and consumer rights.

Sarah holds a Master in European Law obtained at Leiden University (2017), and a Master in European Labor Studies from Amsterdam Graduate School of Social Sciences (2018). Her PhD research investigates the compliance with fundamental labor rights in multinationals’ global supply chains. Having worked for the European Commission on gender equality at work and for the South Asian ILO regional office in New Delhi, Sarah’s interests include gender equality, protection of worker’s rights, international labor law and human rights.

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