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  • Kim Borg

Pandemic PhD

As COVID-19 descended on the globe I was about to enter the third and final year of my PhD. In March 2020 I shared my draft Progress report with my supervisors and left the country for my first holiday in over a year. We touched down in LA and within a week most of the USA had shut down. As the theme parks, sporting events, and tourist attractions closed their doors, we began to realise the severity of the situation. After making the difficult decision to cut our trip short, we canceled our flight to New York and jumped on an overnight flight home. By the time our plane landed on March 16, the Australian government had introduced a work-from-home ordinance and home quarantine rules for international arrivals. In the span of 10 days, my world was turned upside-down.


To be fair, I'm one of the lucky ones. Not only do I live in a country that has largely weathered the COVID storm, but I'm relatively young and healthy, I have a job that I can do from home, and I'm an introvert so binge-watching Netflix and cuddling my dogs on the couch is my idea of heaven.


The two weeks of home quarantine were even kind of fun. My husband (who normally works 80-hour weeks) was also stuck at home, so we had plenty of quality time together. It was also novel trying to find different ways to keep ourselves entertained. Plus, we had friends and family bringing us food and care packages.


Then our holiday/quarantine ended. But COVID and lockdowns continued. My husband went back to work. But I had a PhD to finish.

In a way, the pandemic actually made it easier for me to finish the PhD. And the PhD made it easier to deal with the pandemic. Where the virus and lockdowns brought so much uncertainty, one of the few things I could control was how I spent my time at home. At the same time, it can be hard to find the time and motivation to write a thesis. But when you're stuck at home and unable to socialise or travel more than 5kms, you realise how much time you actually have in a day.


Make no mistake, 2020 still sucked. In February, my husband fractured his vertebrae in a car accident, leading to ongoing health issues. When the lockdowns hit, and he returned to his 80-hour work weeks, I was left to struggle with the loneliness and isolation alone. Then in June, our dogs were hit by a car and one of them died - he was 18months old. Looking back 2020 was one of the worst years of my life so far.


But through all the chaos and uncertainty, I finished the PhD.


My research actually kept me going when my world was falling apart. It gave me a distraction when everything went wrong. It kept me focused on an endpoint when time felt like it didn't matter anymore. It gave me a reason to get up each day and keep to a routine. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and progress during the year that feels like it never happened.


I learned a lot about myself by doing a PhD, especially doing one during a pandemic. I learned that I am definitely in the right profession because I find research and writing fun. I learned that I enjoy being a mentor to other researchers. And above all, I learned that I feel calmer when I can focus on something that is within my control. Something that I can lose myself in for hours at a time. Something to give me structure and a sense of productivity.


I won't always have a PhD to keep me focused in trying times, but going forward, I plan to always have a project of some description. At the moment, like any good academic, I have a backlog of journal articles waiting to be written. And like any good author, I have several work-in-progress novels. But I also plan to start taking on my own students. As a weirdo who enjoyed the doctoral journey, I want to help others find the fun in research, especially in a post-COIVD world.


#phdlife #phdchat #academicchat #writersblock

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