“Stay positive, but test negative”
I would lie if I said that this pandemic crisis and all the uncertainties going with it did not cause me anxiety and a feeling of being socially isolated and separated from loved ones. But from another perspective, this unprecedented situation pushed me to relativize, be resilient and try to see things differently.
Restructuring a working environment
In March, universities in the UK had to close for a few months and lab access was not allowed. Despite the virus still being around us, this is no longer the case. After the end of the first lockdown, I was impressed to see how the management staff of my university worked hard on a sanitary protocol to re-open the school as soon as possible and under safe conditions. Since the beginning of July, PhD students can gain access to the lab and do experimental work via a booking app system. This allows us to get back into a routine, make progress on our project and probably improve our organisation skills. As part of the BioImplant ITN, Bioimplant meetings and trainings were maintained and organized remotely. I could even sign up for German class again!
The lack of social interactions remains one of the main difficulties now. Working every day with other PhD students had a lot of advantages: it gives you support after a hard day in the lab, advice and feedback about your work, fosters the development of new ideas… To compensate for this, we are still organizing a remote coffee meeting every week between QUB’s ESRs and we recently decided to organize a monthly informal meeting between all ESRs to share ideas on our projects or just have a chat about our personal lives.
Learning how to slow down
When I look back at my life before March 2020, I realise that not only was my timetable always busy, but my mind was too. I would not say that I liked staying at home, but it forced me to slow down, which was probably beneficial for my personal balance and my work.
As a fresh PhD student before the arrival of COVID-19, I discovered a completely unknown subject and I gathered a lot of information from my supervisors, paper readings, lab trainings, etc, in a short amount of time. My brain was always full of questions and ideas and I immediately started doing experiments and collecting data. In contrast, during the lockdown period, I took time to look more deeply at the data collected so far which allowed me to adjust my future plans accordingly in a more relevant manner. I also had the opportunity to spend time on a big piece of analysis left on the side, on purpose, due to a lack of time and it will probably result in the writing of my first paper!
On a more personal note, I put a lot of effort into finding my balance and keeping good mental health. It might be ordinary to say but the main challenge was to appreciate being alone and reconnect with solitary activities. For example, creating my own sport challenge improved my mood and motivation, increased my self-esteem and helped me to deal with stress. Having time to cook, read and write was also revitalizing and relaxing. Although these activities were imposed by the context, I wish to maintain most of them in the future and continue to work on my personal development which is, in my view, essential to succeed in my PhD.