As we are leaving the omicron surge of the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, the world is slowly moving forward and transitioning into a new normal. Uncertainty may be higher than before, but the general consensus is that the days of strict lockdowns are passed. Testing, masks, and more boosters will stay with us for a while, but travel, lab work, in-person meeting, and going out for fun are becoming possible again.
For many PhD researchers, working under pandemic circumstances is all they’ve ever known. Some may have enjoyed a short time of normality before the onset of the pandemic, with working from the office and lab access part of their everyday lives. Most current PhD students never had the chance to attend an in-person conference, summer school, or workshop.
Many options are opening up for PhD candidates to network and participate in events. At the same time, they may feel the need to catch up with lost lab time. How can PhD students take valuable lessons from the pandemic, while navigating a new normal, and move their research forward? In this post, we will look at these three aspects to make better choices in the upcoming months.
Reflect on the pandemic years
The pandemic years were a difficult time for many of us, but also an opportunity to learn about ourselves: how we work, how we interact with others, and how we learn. Take a moment for yourself to reflect on what you have learned with the following exercise.
Exercise: Take a sheet of paper, or your journal if you have one, and answer for yourself the following questions:
- How do I work best? Which tasks do I need to carry out in the laboratory, which tasks require my presence on campus, and for which tasks do I prefer to work from home? Which daily and weekly schedule works best for me?
- How do I interact with others? Which types of meetings work well through videoconferencing? Which meetings require my presence with my collaborators? How often do I enjoy to grab a coffee with my colleagues or go for lunch?
- How do I learn best? Which activities contribute to my learning? Do I do well with online courses? Do I learn best at home or in a shared space?
Once you have worked through this analysis, write down your tasks for the next week. Map out your tasks against location, and reach out to friends and colleagues to schedule in those coffee and lunch breaks for when you will be on campus.
Navigating a new normal
The new normal is difficult to navigate. On one hand, many opportunities are opening up for conferences and collaborations that were not possible before. On the other hand, there is still uncertainty about possible future waves as we slowly exit this pandemic. PhD students may feel unsure on how to select activities from these opportunities.
Making wise decisions depends on where you are in your PhD trajectory, and what is possible in terms of funding. By all means, put this topic on the agenda for your next meeting with your supervisor. In advance of this meeting, prepare thoroughly. If you want to take full advantage of the upcoming opportunities, think in terms of networking at three different levels.
- Locally: look for events at your university and in your city, to strengthen your ties right where you are. The added benefit of looking for local events is that the uncertainty is lower than for international travel, where a surge in a third country may influence your travel plans.
- Nationally: reach out to potential collaborators at the national level – in the industry as well as at other universities. See if you can plan visits to other labs, participate in industry events, or present your work at a national study group.
- Internationally: identify the international conference that would be most valuable to your research. You don’t want to overload yourself with conferences, as you would be piling the work of writing the abstract and paper on yourself on top of your research. At the same time, you want to get the opportunity to interact with peers, learn about other research in your field, and talk to senior researchers to broaden your network.
Moving your PhD research forward
After reflecting on what you’ve learned from the pandemic, and looking for opportunities to participate in events, it is time to zoom out and look at your PhD trajectory. Take the following three steps to get ready to move forward:
- Look at your planning for the remainder of your PhD. Add the events you selected to this planning, and build in time to prepare and catch up with your new contacts afterwards. What are the main steps you still need to take to finalise your PhD? Which milestones do you need to reach?
- Revisit your research question. Look at the remaining steps in your PhD trajectory, and evaluate these against your research question. If a step is not directly related to your research question, but just an interesting tangent, then skip it. Focus on answering your research question. This strategy will help you prioritise. You will also thank yourself later, when you write your dissertation, as you will be able to write a tighter story.
- Which part of the PhD scares you most? For many students, it is writing a thesis or developing theoretical work. Identify what scares you most, and why: is it the magnitude of the task, or because you don’t quite know how to do it? In the first case, break the task down into smaller steps, and put one tiny step on your calendar for this week. In the second case, identify possible solutions and put these on the agenda for your next supervision meeting. No excuses – get started, and you will see how your work moves forward.
Making wise choices as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic may be a challenge. In this article, you learned how to reflect on the lessons learned during the pandemic, identify key events to take advantage of as in-person activities become possible again, as well as move your PhD research forward and towards completion.
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