Shielding as a PGR

 

Jo Sutherst is a second year PhD researcher in Art History and Visual Culture and a keen facilitator for the Doctoral College’s PGR Writing Groups. You can find Jo on Twitter @JoSutherst.

 

 

Over the past year, the Covid-19 virus has relentlessly spread worldwide; our social worlds have become smaller and working from home has gone from being a novelty to a monotonous and mundane necessity. The list of things that we can’t do and the people we can’t see due to lockdown restrictions seems endless.

I usually have excellent mental health and am generally well-grounded. Despite this, in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, being told I classed as clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus and placed in the shielding group my mental wellbeing deteriorated. Despite already being a distance student and being used to working from home for long periods of time, as a very positive and active person, being told you cannot leave your house at all and that you will most likely suffer severe consequences if you catch the virus, was such a shock. The effects of long-term shielding, the worry about losing loved ones to the virus, and the over-consumption of stress-inducing media reports have taken their toll on my mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, I believe this will continue to have lasting effects long after my shielding days are over.

My home has become the epicentre of both my life and my experiences. Each day is the same; the lack of stimulation has negatively impacted my creativity and productivity. My ability to piece together ideas about my research has been stifled and, on some days, non-existent. My creativity and motivation are enhanced from exposure to new situations and people; before Covid-19, I regularly encountered novel situations through serendipitous conversations. Even driving different routes each time I went to the supermarket was stimulating.

In the first 9 months of the pandemic and shielding, my days were dominated by worries about how I could secure food deliveries, collect my medication, along with worrying about the health of my family and friends. The anxiety and stress forced my brain to take on a reactionary role; my thinking and decision making became limited to binary choices. Whilst I had more quiet space to focus on my research, I found it impossible to stay motivated and creative as my life felt monotonous.

Since Christmas, my focus has changed. I have added more routine and structure to my day. I attend as many Shut Up and Write sessions as possible, using them for both motivation and company. It can be tough to stay motivated with a monotonous and stifled daily routine in shielding, but the friendships I have developed in the sessions have spurred me on. I feel almost accountable to others for my progress and share in the journeys of other’s progress. Sharing with others has made me feel connected and, as a result of this, I have reconnected with my research.

I no longer check the daily death rate of Covid-19; I avoid the stream of negative global news and have muted social media friends who share stories of doom and gloom. I found I was getting annoyed by people who were sharing false information about Covid-19. So, I now concentrate on engaging in academic conversations on Twitter to increase my cognitive flexibility and scroll past potential trigger posts. I can’t avoid social media entirely due to the focus of my research, but I am coping with limiting my exposure.

COVID-19 is by far the most significant global event and challenge that I will face in my lifetime, causing exceptionally worrying times. Consequently, my PhD research momentum has slowed down, stifled by the lack of human contact outside of a computer screen. I have had to re-examine my aims of the research and adapt them to the current situation. I had planned for the research to be practice-led, using my creative work to inform the project’s direction and investigation. But now find myself reviewing how this might work, taking into account all the factors that directly impact my creativity. I do not doubt that my project will change for the better. It will not look the same as it did a year ago, but that’s ok. I have accepted that I need to adapt to a world of increased virtual interactions and communications. I remind myself that this change is not a failure; in fact, it is an accomplishment to admit that my original research plans may no longer be achievable in the current climate.

Coming out of shielding will be my next concern. I was privileged to have been given my first dose of the Astra Zeneca vaccine this past weekend. Whilst I was excited to get this done, I experienced a panic attack before the vaccination due entirely to having to be around people. I have adjusted to my new routine of shielding. Just being around other people triggered this unexpected experience (a new one for me). The government’s explicit message has been that other people and surfaces they touch carry an invisible threat of Covid-19. My confidence in others is now non-existent. I find it hard to trust that others will be respectful of those with greater vulnerability and maintain social distancing. The total lack of control I felt in the situation was overwhelming. But as with all things, it will get easier the more I can interact with people in the future.

My top tips for those who may find themselves in similar circumstances:

  • It is ok to feel how you feel – we all react and cope in different ways.
  • Just getting through each day is an achievement, so don’t be too hard on yourself when things don’t go to plan.
  • Try to keep to a routine as much as possible.
  • Avoid the news and negative people.
  • Be kind to yourself – take things hour by hour.
  • Focus on that makes you smile. Don’t focus on how much of your project you achieve each day.
  • Talk to people every day.

Finally, remember that nothing lasts forever. We will get through this difficult time.

Not your average student?

Shayma Alatharia was born in Baghdad/Iraq 14/11/1981. Completed my BSc. in Microbiology at Baghdad University, 2003. Joined an MSc program in Medical & Molecular Microbiology at Manchester Medical School, 2005. Later on in Jordan, she became a High school teacher and taught Biology for four years. Between getting married and having two children, in 2017 she decided to resume my research, and joined the University of Exeter to complete an MbyRes in Biosciences and won a full scholarship-2019 to complete a PhD: Developing genomic tools for identifying/monitoring fish pathogens. She is currently a second-year PhD student.

This is harder than I thought..listing challenges faced as a parent during the pandemic. Do I list the difficulties I was facing before this all started??

Well let’s just assume I’m a typical parent doing a PhD, but actually, there is nothing typical about it. I’m an international student, English is my second language (you might have picked this up by now), I’ve been away from science for 13 yrs. Won a scholarship at Exeter Uni while doing my Masters in Biosciences, and adjusting to live in a new country, with two children away from my husband, who works abroad most of the year. I do consider my self very lucky, and grateful to have had the opportunity to get a scholarship and to be treated as a UK/EU citizen, having a salary while doing really cool science and researching about the things I love the most..Microorganisms.

6 months into my studies, and the pandemic hits hard. I was already struggling, trying to find my way as a PhD student. My husband was in Jordan at the time, and borders were closed for almost 7 months. He was already caring for his father with terminal cancer. I was expected to work, attend meetings as usual while home-schooling and no support from schools or childcare.

Everyone around me was struggling, but I was trying to keep it together for the sake of my children. After a bedtime story “Harry Potter” of course, I’d make dance routines at bedtime, just so they don’t cry themselves to sleep, remembering how much they miss their dad and family. My supervisors supported me the most, and tried to lift any pressure by letting me know they will fight to extend my studies. I’d breakdown just after the sentence “How are you?”.  It was tough, but the feeling of guilt never washed off. I couldn’t study or take a break. It was just a continuous struggle of not being able to work, several interruptions in an hour.. the line of thought was always broken. I sent a message to my supervisor saying “I’m not working as hard as a PhD student should”. He replied with the kindest message and said ”I’ll expect you to be a student when you can be one, now your priorities are your family and wellbeing” I just cried for the rest of that day.

I try my best to find my feet as soon as I hear that labs are about to reopen. I contact Cefas (in Weymouth) to collect my cell lines in person, as they were closed at the time.

I start up the cell culture lab that was out of use for a few years, but it worked. I manage to run a few other projects alongside. With the support of a few lovely people, it was possible.

I struggle to keep this going during the summer, but September comes and schools start, still nothing in sight when to meet my husband again, but some hope for normality. My two start school, and my son comes down with a fever on the 3rd day. I try to book for a test, the nearest test was in Cardiff. I put them in the car, drive from Taunton, get tested in Whales. By night-time my second child shows symptoms. We isolate and I start learning live stream home-schooling. If you are a parent, you will understand what a nightmare it is. 3 days later they test negative, and life resumes once more. My husband manages to get a flight and see us mid-September, and it finally felt I can let go and be “me” again.

Looking back, I have done pretty cool stuff during those seven months.. I won 2nd place for the “Three Minute Thesis” competition, I helped with ramping up tests for Covid screening in the SPS labs in Somerset, and now I have an amazing support circle that I wouldn’t replace for the world.

I have just submitted my Upgrade to my PI, so for now.. Come what may!

Getting Academic experience during COVID-19

Although all institutions and roles will vary, using the University of Exeter’s Job Description Library is a useful place to start to help us work out what prospective employers will be looking for. Below is a table of the sorts of things you will need to show you have achieved. In the second column, we have added ideas for things you could do to build your experience in the areas during COVID-19. You can also download a pdf version of this.

 

Personal Specification

What could you do next during COVID-19? 

Evidence of research activity (ideally including publications)

 

Conferences

Most conferences are going ahead online during COVID-19. The presenting experience is different, but still an important was to disseminate your research and demonstrate research activity. Many conferences are also giving more varied opportunities to present, including pre-recorded and downloadable content. Some other opportunities include:

  • Research Showcase – the Doctoral College Research Showcase will take place online in summer 2021, with opportunities to share your research via Three Minute Thesis, a research poster competition, a Tweet Your Thesis competition and an Images of Research Competition.
  • Organise your own! – there are lots of PGR conferences that happen in Colleges and disciplines, so why not get involved in organising a conference of a research seminar series in your research area?

 

Publishing

Opportunities to publish continue, and for those unable to conduct field or lab work at present, this might be an ideal time to focus on getting some of your work published. Researcher Development run a number of webinars that may be useful to get you started, including:

Knowledge of teaching methods and techniques

 

Undertake LTHE Stage 1 and/or 2

Apply for Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy

Don’t have many opportunities to teach in your department? You can also teach through:

All of these opportunities are continuing online during COVID-19. Some are paid, and some are volunteering so there are different options to suit your needs.

Don’t have enough teaching hours? LTHE/Aspire have agreed that facilitating PGR writing groups can count towards your assessment teaching hours, and be used as a case study/example.

Don’t have any teaching coming up to be observed on? You can also get observation feedback on online teaching resources you have created, or recordings of teaching.

Excellent written and verbal communication skills You may want to think about how the nature of communication has changed since everything has moved online. Communicating online has always been a valued skill, and will be even more so now. Think about how you have developed and evidenced your online communication skills during this time – online conference presentations, online teaching, online supervisions/research seminars?
Ability to build networks

 

Building networks has become even more crucial now we are online. You can develop experience in this area in the following ways:

Strong administrative skills

 

You demonstrate this in the management of your project, but you could also develop your experience further by helping to organise an online conference or applying for the funding listed below.
Able to identify potential sources of funding

 

Whilst funding pots for conferences, to conduct data collection etc. many not be relevant at the moment, there are other opportunities to apply for funding.

The Doctoral College Researcher-Led Initiative awards are running this year, asking for applications for online/virtual events on the following themes:

  • Developing an engaged research culture
  • Building a PGR or ECR community
  • Equality, diversity, and inclusivity
  • Wellbeing

Funding is available for applications of a maximum of up to £1000 per award to pay for external facilitators/speakers to support projects, events, and initiatives on these themes. You can apply using our online application form.

 

The Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Human Health run Research Initiation Awards support individual applicants, or community organisations, to build the relationships that initiate engaged research and generate the conditions for future engaged research.

Public engagement

 

Creative/digital research communication

You can engage in creative and digital research communication to demonstrate public engagement. Research Development run the following webinars you may find useful:

There is also the creative and digital research communication online resource.

 

Widening participation teaching opportunities:

 

Engaged research

  • Online Engagement Training – 18th March 1-2pm (For more information, including how to book to attend, please email , Enterprise & Innovation Programmes Officer)
  • Evaluation of Engagement Training – 25th March 1-4pm (For more information, including how to book to attend, please email , Enterprise & Innovation Programmes Officer)
  • The university have also produced a COVID-19 Digital and Socially Distanced Engagement Guide.
  • The Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Human Health run Research Initiation Awards support individual applicants, or community organisations, to build the relationships that initiate engaged research and generate the conditions for future engaged research.
Commitment to creating an inclusive culture

 

There are lots of ways to get involved in creating an inclusive culture.

 

My Decolonial Journey at the University of Exeter

Riadh Ghemmour is an Indigenous Kabyle doctoral researcher in education based at the Graduate School of Education. He is interested in decolonising research methodologies and methods in education research. He is the co-founder and co-editor at Decolonial Dialogues, and a Student Fellow at the ‘Decolonial Knowledge Production and Anti-Racist Pedagogy’ Education Incubator Funded Project, led by Exeter Decolonising Group.

I love research. I think research changes us as humans including our social conditions, but are [we] doing it right? I started my MSc in education research in 2017 at the Graduate School of Education (University of Exeter) leading to a PhD route after completion. I vividly remember the research inputs and knowledge which I received regarding the different research paradigms, methodologies and methods. Coming from ‘Global South’ with my Indigenous Kabyle identity, I have not been critical enough to appraise the knowledge which I was introduced to because I though these were the ‘games’ of research which are ‘universal’ across all contexts.

In 2018, I started my PhD journey, I was still navigating the complexity of the thesis (until now!) and reading the different literature on my topic and research methods. I came across this unfamiliar and strange concept, ‘decolonisation!’ I had no clue what it was, what it does, and why it was mentioned in research-related papers. Of course, I was curious and intrigued to read more – the more I read, the more I felt connected as if the concept was conversing with my existence and intersectionality. Indigenous Māori Linda Tuhiwai Smith was the first decolonialist scholar I have read and I remember her poignant statement, ‘research is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary’ which will stuck with me throughout my entire research and teaching career. So at this very particular moment, my critical consciousness was activated to critique, challenge and appraise my taken-for-granted assumptions and ideologies which I constructed around research praxis. This led me to conclude that the contents which I was introduced to either during the MSc programme or back home (in Algeria where I did my BA and MA) are driven from essentialist Eurocentric perspectives. Of course, my aim is not to disregard what has been constructed in the West, but I question why other ways of doing research are not taught nor explored in the academy.

My self-teaching process allowed me to discover decolonising, Indigenous, and tribal methodologies which I never heard of before. From that moment, I decided to pursue my scholarship towards understanding decolonisation process to celebrate different worldviews grounded in an ethical moral responsibility to achieve social justice and equity within and beyond HE. At the early stages of my PhD, I struggled to find fellow peers to talk ‘decolonisation’, but luckily I heard of Exeter Decolonising Group and the Education Incubator project, ‘decolonial knowledge production and anti-racist pedagogy’ composed of a group of activists from different departments and disciplines. I decided to apply in order to get involved to foster solidarity, share good practice and progressive knowledge to challenge ‘mainstream’ ideologies within the academy and include other ways of knowing and being in order to make our site of learning and teaching a ‘safe’ space for all diverse communities. In fact, being involved allowed me to explore other facets of decolonisation outside my educational lens to have a pluriversal mind which is critical, reflective and versatile; and this will definitely have implications on the way I teach, research and co-exist within a community in the present and future. Indeed, being involved boosted me to commence a small project towards decolonising research methods curriculum to inform future practice and provision at GSE.

Clearly, Education Incubator projects provide excellent opportunities and a supportive ethos for UG, PG, and PGR students to be an integral part of the world and contribute to shape the trajectory of the University of Exeter. So, I really do encourage students to get involved – if they can- to expand the possible, leave a legacy behind them and see the world from different colours to become pluriversal minds.

 

Written byRiadh Ghemmour

Torn between my Home Country and my PhD

Larissa is a first year PhD student from the Department of Politics. She has been awarded the College of Social Sciences and International Studies Global Excellence PhD Studentship. She is studying social movements in ethnically divided societies, with a special focus on Lebanon and Bosnia. Besides from her PhD, Larissa is a political activist, debater, and researcher in Lebanon. She also holds a BA and a diploma in translation and interpretation.

When I started packing on 23 September 2020, preparing for my flight the next day from Lebanon to the UK, I made sure to hide the Lebanese flag between my clothes…  As life there became unbearable, I made the difficult decision to leave the country, yet both my heart and mind were still attached to the land I have been fighting for since an early age. And if life has taught me anything since September, it is to never underestimate the impact of the scars you hide underneath your skin on your research and academic productivity.

It is easier said than done to detach oneself from what is happening in the real world, let alone one’s homeland, and solely focus on reading and collecting data related to the research question. That is even harder for students whose research revolves essentially around their own country because they will find themselves, one way or another, watching the news or reading online newspapers. In my case, Lebanon is at the heart of my thesis and keeping track of Lebanese politics is not even an option; instead, it is a pillar upon which my entire research is built. In the following, I will briefly talk about the psychological and emotional impact of watching my country collapse in front of my very eyes on my Ph.D. journey. I will also share a few tips, which can help any PGR student going through the same situation.

Drained is the perfect adjective to describe how I felt every time I watched my people weeping on TV and begging for a piece of bread. Last August, ESCWA confirmed that more than 55% of the country’s population suffers from poverty and the situation has worsened since. In addition to the unprecedented economic, financial, and monetary crises, Beirut was the victim of the third-largest non-nuclear blast in the world last summer, killing around 200 people. Since starting my Ph.D. journey, I have never stopped watching videos, interviews, and news of devasted Lebanese people, the blast’s victims’ parents, and greedy politicians burning my country to the ground. The impact of these tragic developments, coupled with the lockdown and the new Covid19-related shocks, deprived me of sleep, impacted my food diet, and dealt a severe blow to my productivity. I spent weeks unable to finish my readings, to reflect upon my research question, or to feel motivated to accomplish basic tasks (such as recording the minutes of supervisory meetings). Thinking of Lebanon 24/7 and worrying about my parents have become my new daily routine. Thankfully, I was well-aware of the emotional damage the situation has inflicted upon me and was keen on taking action.

First, I decided to seek professional therapy. Mind over matter, remember? PGR students must have a safe space to vent and express their feelings without feeling ashamed. It would also be preferable to choose a therapist from your country. This way, they will be familiar with the situation back home and its impact on you. Second, and maybe that is the most critical part, I started thinking about my thesis’ potential contribution to my country’s recovery. Yes, I still embrace my feelings, but I direct them now towards a new path. I channel those negative feelings into something useful: what is better than being a changemaker in your own country? Think of it this way and believe that you are still serving your country as an activist who has also become a researcher, no matter what topic you are working on. Third, try to take time off during your working hours. Indeed, it is not always possible, but it is crucial to enter your bubble for few hours and solely focus on your Ph.D. Whenever you do that, reward yourself with watching a political talk show in the evening, for example, or choosing an interesting political documentary. Fourth, go out for a walk every day. Connecting with nature revives your soul and assuages your fears. It restores your hope and surrounds you with positive vibes.

Finally, one day before submitting this article, the prominent Lebanese political activist and researcher Luqman Slim was assassinated back home. I spent the entire day watching the news and unable even to speak to anyone. This is to say, never forget that you are a human being, that you have the right to mourn. However, once you wipe off your tears, get back to your desk, take a deep breath, and make a change!

 

Written by: Larissa Abou Harb

Adapting my research in the time of a pandemic

Kensa Broadhurst is a second year PhD student at the Institute of Cornish Studies.  Her studies are  funded by the Cornwall Heritage Trust.  Kensa is researching the status of the Cornish language between 1777-1904, that is, the period in which it is widely believed to have been extinct.  A former modern languages teacher, Kensa is a fluent speaker of Cornish, a bard of the Cornish Gorsedh, and both teaches and examines the language.

 

 

I’m a bit of a pessimist, well, I like to think I’m more of a realist…

When we went into lockdown last March I was four months into my PhD.  Like most people I’m sure, I spent the first week or so feeling somewhat disconcerted by the whole concept, then I began to realise that I still had work to be getting on with.  Looking back I was in a fortunate position, most likely engineered by my supervisor.  I had been gathering research for my literature review, and two separate chapters of my thesis so I had plenty of work to be getting on with in terms of research (PDFs doing the digital equivalent of gathering dust on my hard drive).  The Doctoral College very quickly laid on further opportunities for training, so I signed up for pretty much everything that was available and relevant to my research.  Here’s the pessimistic side of my nature though – I knew it was highly likely we would be back in lockdown in the Autumn/ Winter so even at that early stage and whilst working through the chapters I intended to concentrate on, I was stockpiling yet more work from electronic sources in case of future lockdowns.

My upgrade submission deadline was at the beginning of June, so I actually spent most of the time from March to June concentrating on that as in the end I submitted a far longer piece of writing than necessary, what I hope will be a full chapter of my thesis.  I found the upgrade documentation requirements really helpful at this time because it forced me to think about a timeline for the remainder of my PhD. To that end I submitted an “ideal” timeline, based on which archives I hope to use and when, interspersed with periods of time for writing, but I also provided a Covid-alternative timeline in which I assumed that I would not get back into an archive for the rest of 2020.

My ideal timeline

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My alternative timeline

My upgrade examiners spent most of my viva talking through the impact of Covid on my research plans and how I might be affected by further lockdowns.  They were reassured by the plans I had already put in place, and I was reassured by their concern!  Although I had been worried that I was going through the upgrade process so soon into my PhD journey, in hindsight it couldn’t have come at a better time in terms of making me plan for both the ideal, and the worst-case scenarios.  Phone calls and meetings with my supervisor have also been invaluable, as they are a monthly chance to take stock, look at what’s feasible and what can be moved or postponed.

As the November and current lockdowns came into force, I returned to writing.  Another chapter exists in draft form, and I was fortunate enough to have an article published and speak at a conference in the Autumn, and currently have two more conference papers to write.  I had a momentary panic about one of these: it’s based on two particular documents in an archive, but the librarian there was happy and able to scan the documents and email them through to me so my work on that paper has not been held up.  I estimate I currently have enough work to keep me going for another two months, so one of the topics for tomorrow’s supervision meeting is planning for further disruption beyond that point.  In an ideal world I need to access not only the archives here in Cornwall, but in London and possibly Cambridge and Canterbury too, however, realistically I now need to rethink when, or if, travel, and accommodation, away from here might be possible within the timeframe left to me and adjust what I hope to concentrate on and how this will affect my thesis structure.  Although I have been able to work continuously since last March, very little of the material I need to access from now on is available in a digital format… I need to access manuscripts in archives.  The whole rationale behind my thesis question involves searching for some elusive evidence in archives.

Reflecting on the past year maybe I’m not a pessimist.  I’m definitely a realist, but I’m also a planner and a project manager.  I’m a PhD student and that’s what we do!

 

Written by: Kensa Broadhurst
Twitter: @kensabroadhurst
Website: The Cornish Language PhD