Doing a PhD in isolation

As you may know, or have experienced, doing a PhD can be a hard slog. It involves long hours, juggling multiple tasks and dwindling motivation as the years fly past. Now, throw in a global pandemic and you have the perfect storm.

Full disclosure, I am in a really lucky position during the Covid-19 isolation and shutdowns. I have finished all fieldwork for my PhD (I was just doing some fieldwork here and there for other fun projects, but nothing essential to my PhD), I have collected all my data, so I don’t need any time in a lab or glasshouse AND I am very privileged to live in a nice home with my husband, with no children. This makes it a lot easier to find a quiet space and time to write and work deeply. So, I recognise and I want to acknowledge that there are fellow PhD students out there doing it way tougher than I am!

I wanted to share a bit about my personal experience during this time and a few helpful tips and resources that I’ve found and benefitted from during isolation. Some of these ideas may be super obvious, and others may be new! But hopefully, this blog is of some benefit to you too, whether you’re a PhD student, early career academic or just working from home generally.

My experience

At the start of working from home and isolation, I was extremely unmotivated. Before isolation, I was getting into a great rhythm at work in the office. My desk was sandwiched between three wonderful and hard-working lab friends – ClaireAlex and Zoe and we all subconsciously worked quite well together with just the right amount of time for concentration and focus as well as collaboration on harder problems and essential trips to the coffee cart (taking the long route through the more plant-filled part of campus, of course). Working from home threw that rhythm out a little bit and I started getting easily distracted by the dirty dishes in the sink, the clothes that needed washing and other little things. The worries of a global pandemic and wondering what would happen to our country, my family and my friends didn’t help my focus either.

Then as things in Australia seemed to become a little less bleak (cases were going down, a lot of patients were recovering, the public was mostly doing the right thing) I worked really hard to be more disciplined and try and get into better habits and rhythms. I wanted to share 6 brief tips that worked for me whilst I’ve been writing the chapters of my thesis.

My tips

1. Try and wake up at the same time each day.

It doesn’t matter if it’s early or late, try and get into a good habit of going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. My husband and I have found a great schedule together where we typically wake up at 7.30am, take the dog for a walk, grab a coffee to support our local cafes and then get into work around 8/8.30am. We never had this blissful morning time together as I was commuting into uni so it’s been a really lovely way to start the day.

Whether you wake up and do some exercise or yoga or just brew a tea/coffee and sit on your couch, try and make a little routine out of that. You’ll feel as though you’ve started the day accomplished and every little bit counts.

Our morning walk companion, Pepper, and our morning walk view. Very lucky!

2. Write often and write when you can.

Schedule writing time, but also allow flexibility and seize writing time when you can. This tip may go against a lot of advice that suggests to schedule writing at certain times of the day and stick to that and never write outside those hours. I’ve found that this doesn’t always work for me. Meetings on zoom have been moved and changed and at different times of the day, I have obligations that I can’t cancel and this changes week-to-week. I try to write each morning before I do any other work, but when things come up, I try not to let that phase me. Be open to writing when you have a decent chunk of time at any point in the day. That could be morning, afternoon or even in the evening if you function at that time.

Be disciplined in your writing. Motivation will not get you through writing a thesis (believe me, I know!). Don’t rely on feeling “excited” or “motivated” to write. Be disciplined and push yourself a bit further to write even when you don’t feel like writing. Set small goals and break your writing down into chunks and give yourself deadlines for each section of writing.

3. Create a working space

If you can and you have the space available, create a working space that is separate from your living space with a clear division. I have a home office that my husband and I have shared during lockdown. We try and hide out in there and we’ve become really intentional about working in that space. We then close the door when we’re finished working so that the rest of our house feels like a place to relax and unwind.

Even if it’s a small desk in your room, try to make it feel separate from your bed or couch and pack things up at the end of the day so that you can unwind, this will re-energise your mind for the next day.

Our “office” that we set up for isolation – normally we’d just have the one desk but we both needed somewhere to work at home. My husband’s desk is on the right wall and mine is against the window (I fought for the view of our garden haha!)
My desk

4. Stay in touch with friends, family and co-workers

Don’t suffer alone. Even though you may not be able to see people in person as much as you used to, stay in contact with people. There are so many great platforms to catch up.

In my lab, we normally have one formal meeting every two weeks, but in isolation/work-from-home restrictions we decided to make it one every week (with an informal online lab drinks on some Fridays too!). This was a great way of seeing co-workers and just checking in with the group. My centre, the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at UNSW, kept our morning tea catch-ups and we now have them on zoom, every Tuesday and Thursday for anyone who needs a quick 30min chat! The post-grad student committee also ran a fun, virtual trivia night and it was a blast.

Outside of work, I’ve been more intentional in messaging my friends, skyping family that I haven’t been able to see in person and trying to stay socially connected for my mental health and to help others that may be struggling. Emotional wellbeing is so important!

5. Don’t compare your journey in isolation to other people’s journeys

I found this tip so hard myself. I heard of other people getting heaps of work done or papers submitted to journals in isolation. Everyone has a different journey and you can’t compare yourself to what other people are doing, it will only make you miserable. Work hard, for yourself, set your own personal standards high but don’t base them off others’ standards.

6. Stay balanced

A lot of people have a bit more time on their hands during isolation (parents with kids at home from school: I am sorry! I know you’re probably run off your feet).

Maybe you’re commuting less (I’m saving at least 2 hours a day on commuting) or spending less time teaching or in face-to-face meetings. Use this extra time to exercise each day (see below some resources of free exercise classes), get out and walk around your neighbourhood, continue your hobbies or invest in one you’ve never had time for, make nutritious home-cooked dinners that may take a little longer than grabbing take-out on the way home from work (like we all did so often!).

IMG_5205 (1)
My “staying balanced” hobby was this macrame project I copied off a YouTube tutorial. Each evening, after I’d finished working, I’d work on a section. A few weeks later and I’d created my own artwork! I’m not usually creative so I am slightly proud of myself on this one!

My super helpful resources for all things working from home!

Mental Health Resources

Whilst I’ve been *very slowly* writing this blog (apologies, I’m trying to squeeze it in during the evenings after I’ve gotten through trying to write my thesis chapters!) the world seems to have been changing, fast. Not only has coronavirus impacted us all, horrific injustices have been brought to light, in regards to racism, globally and the fact that the COVID-19 restrictions have possibly undone a lot of the gender equality work for women in workplaces and particularly women in academia.

I’ve spoken to many people and fellow PhD candidates, and it’s hard to stay focused and mentally balanced when it seems like the world is falling apart. Although I am ill-equipped to fully discuss these issues, I want to recognise them, and encourage you to check out all the fantastic resources that are available regarding these issues. I also want to suggest some places you can turn if you are struggling with your mental health during this time (please note these are just a few Australian resources, but there are many more out there and also more in other countries):

  • Head to Health – online resources for Australians and where to get help regarding mental health
  • Lifeline- free call for crisis support or a conversation when you’re struggling
  • Beyond Blue – free call to speak to a mental health professional
  • You can also speak to your GP and if you are referred to a mental health professional the Australian Government will subsidise a decent amount of the costs of your appointments with a psychologist or social worker

Fantastic apps for organisation for work and study

  • Evernote is what I use daily as a note-taker/organiser. I write at the start of the week or the night before all the work events I have (mostly zoom meetings now) and then set my daily aims. At the end of the day, I write what I achieved as “results” and leave the points I didn’t do in “outstanding”. The next day I come back, and without these notes, I probably couldn’t remember what I was up to or what I was doing. Also, rather than sitting around trying to figure out what to do each day I have clear, written goals that I can get straight into, the moment I open my computer.
  • To-doist is a great way to break your tasks down into smaller goals and tick them off as you go, so satisfying.
  • If you’re a mac person: I love the Papers or it’s legacy application Papers3 for organising, reading and filing journal articles (this application is not available on windows).
Screen Shot 2020-06-01 at 4.53.39 PM
How I use Evernote each day.

Apps for supervision-style teaching

  • I’m not really doing much coursework teaching at the moment but I am co-supervising a student and helping other undergrads in the lab. I usually hop on zoom to supervise or explain concepts. I’ve also found that screen sharing a whiteboard from Miro on zoom, has been invaluable for explaining tricky concepts or drawing example graphs/results.

Resources for Australian Domestic Students’ PhD income

  • Erika Roper, a PhD student from Perth, WA has pulled together great info about domestic students gaining financial support from Centrelink. If your PhD scholarship has run out/is about to run out or you are struggling financially – check out her blog to see if you may be eligible to get financial assistance from the Aus Government, especially while you aren’t earning an income!

Great music playlists that I love listening to in the background

Great resources for home office ergonomics

  • Check out this helpful article by ABC Health & Wellbeing about working from home and setting up your desk, computer, chair, etc.

A few free online exercise classes (some are only free during COVID-19) because what PhD student doesn’t love free stuff?!


One thought on “Doing a PhD in isolation

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about developing a rhythm/routine and staying connected to your research colleagues. Or at least SOMEONE to talk to about research.


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