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Getting a PhD Project Started (During a Pandemic)

Now, three months into my PhD I thought it is a good idea to stop and reflect a little. I wanted to post something earlier, but the ToDo list is long and it is very easy to push things like reflective blog writing to the end of it until you suddenly realize several months have passed. 

But you know what is the weirdest thing? Despite ticking some things off my ToDo list like reading key publications in my field, designing aspects of my first study or registering for courses and symposia, I feel like I have done little concrete things in these three months. 

This makes me feel uneasy. 

Thinking about having to finalise my first study design, including all materials and ethics application, gives me anxiety from time to time. When I then think further about my full project proposal for which I got my scholarship grant, I realise that it is not only one but several studies that I will run. Seeing how slow everything is progressing now, worries about finishing within the 4 years of my contract arise. Also not knowing in which form my data collection can take place with the rapidly changing COVID-19 measures and how I should best develop a method to capture the daily social environment of people during a time in which we barely have any in-person contacts feed into these worries. 

I wondered how much of my unease is actually just due to COVID-related worries, the endless working-from-home situation and the lack of my normal social life. I also thought about which part is related to starting a PhD in general: To which degree is it normal to feel lost and overwhelmed when starting a new project? Why do 4 years suddenly feel so short? Does everyone feel like they could do more work or am I really not ‘productive’ enough?

From talks with fellow PhD colleagues, I gathered that at least some of them seemed to have a similar experience. Since it is always relieving to get to know that people struggle with the same things as oneself, Nina and I decided to talk to some more PhD students. From these conversations, we discovered multiple things that play into or may relieve the unease I am feeling and that may help to disentangle the influence of COVID from ‘normal’ issues during the start of a PhD…

What are ‘normal’ worries at the start of a PhD?

To get a view unbiased from COVID, we talked to people who started their project way before the pandemic. The most present themes for them during the start of their PhD were 

  • getting comfortable with the new freedom with regards to decision-making and time planning (especially compared to the highly competitive Research Master programmes most were in before)
  • the responsibilities that come with this freedom
  • the student-supervisor relationship.

The experiences of students seemed to vary based on how much support and clear communication there was between them and their supervisors as well as the administrative bodies of their department. However, almost all mentioned that it was initially challenging to figure out what was expected of them and how to make their own decisions, especially when the opinions within the supervisory team were conflicting. 

Another side note was that scholarship students* seemed to have some more clarity at the beginning of their project since they had to make a clear plan in order to receive the scholarship and felt more that the project was theirs from the start. 

Which insecurities does COVID add?

When talking to PhDs who started during the pandemic, very similar themes came up – however, paired with two additional worries:

  • difficulties to get in contact with people, both socially but also for practical purposes, such as figuring out administrative things
  • uncertainties with regards to project planning, due to frequent COVID rule-changes or due to projects being conceptually or practically not feasible anymore

Therefore, central aspects that in normal circumstances make a PhD start challenging, seem to be currently even more difficult. Unfortunately, these concerns may not just simply add up, but negatively reinforce each other.

In short: I am definitely not alone with my worries!

So if you are a PhD student at the beginning of your project, don’t be too concerned. Worrying about your progress is normal and almost every PhD does so. Somehow the thinking and planning at the start of doing research do not seem like actual work, especially since many things are still very vague, but it still is and the payoff will come! 

When I started writing this post I felt all those fears quite intensely… and now, a couple of weeks (with loads of conversations about it) later, many things seem to have already fallen in place. I found ways to cope with most COVID-related restrictions for now. My ToDo list is suddenly a lot shorter and I have a more clear vision of where my project will be going. 

My advice if you are worrying at the start of your PhD: Talk to your peers and supervisors about it and most likely you will see that everyone struggles with similar things. Even if your peers may sometimes seem to be further along with their project or seem to have a more concrete plan already, keep in mind that every research project is different and requires more or less elaborate preparation! In case you seriously worried about not being on track, checking your time planning with your supervisors or PhD advisors as well as being open about your concerns with them can be very helpful.  

But, especially with COVID still going on – don’t be too hard on yourself! If everything seems like a little too much at once, take a break and go outside to catch some fresh air.

* At our university, there are two types of PhD contracts, employee positions and scholarships. While employees mostly apply for a project offered by a supervisor, scholarship students write their own proposal. You can find more info about this topic here

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