The empty office: Re-building our academic support networks

Meaghan Castledine (@mcastledine96) is a 3rd year PhD student based in CLES at the University of Exeter, Penryn campus. Her research, funded by the Medical Research Council, explores the evolution of microbial interactions in community ecology and medicine. She has studied here since an undergraduate in 2015 and has settled into Cornish life. She loves taekwondo, reading and, most importantly, dogs.

“I’m really sorry to bother you…”

“I know you’re really busy but…”

“Please can you help…”


Developing an academic support network is hard and made harder in a time when knocking on someone’s door or hovering by someone’s desk is no longer a possibility. Offices that once facilitated support are now quiet ghostly places. The casual support groups we formed over cups of coffee have become strained by dedicated online calls. Especially for new students, asking for help has become significantly harder: who do you ask? Who has the time, or willingness, to share their skills?

I’ve been incredibly lucky, and remain grateful to, a number of mentors who took me under their wings at each stage of my academic learning curve. These were mentors who were not assigned to me by the university, but rather people who personally volunteered to share their skills and knowledge with me.

At undergrad, two postgraduate students taught me how to write essays, develop ideas and work in a laboratory. At PhD, a post-doc – Dr Daniel Padfield – has taught me how to code and analyse my data. Although the foundations for each of these skills were laid in my degree training, these mentors helped me refine my skills and gave me more confidence than any course or module could.

Since the pandemic started, translating such social interactions to an online setting has stunted the development of these casual support networks. To address this, we may, as a research community, need to advertise our skills more explicitly among our peers.

A recent initiative by Dr Daniel Padfield is an exemplar of how support networks may be set up in the current climate. As a coding and statistics expert, Dan is a “go-to” for those who need extra help. To make himself more accessible to students who may be too shy to privately approach him, Dan set up weekly help sessions in the medical school where students can drop in. These, in effect, replace the casual office atmosphere where people would drop by Dan’s desk to ask for help.

Opening up such sessions need not be a place where individuals have their work done for them. Instead, staff and students can learn how to overcome hurdles and barriers to their learning. Sometimes those barriers come from self-confidence and having a supportive peer can help them overcome that block. Personally, I now tutor undergraduates in statistics; helping students work-through their problems and relaying my own past struggles has helped some students drop the adage that they are simply “useless” at statistics.

Sign up to be a mentor/tutor, check in on your peers, set up a dop-in session. Sharing skills and knowledge is at the centre of what it means to be a researcher. If we are to encourage the next generation of scientists then we need to develop support networks between all levels of academia: from undergrad to masters and PhD, post-doc and beyond.

Scientist without a lab

Jennifer is now a third year PhD student in the biosciences department. Jennifer looks at how elevated CO2, commonly found in fish farms, impacts lumpfish growth and behaviour. Lumpfish are farmed to be deployed into salmon pens across the U.K. and Ireland to remove sea lice, a parasite which graze on salmon and can make salmon vulnerable to infections and breathing difficulties. Jennifer has 4 main parts to her research; a partnership with Ocean Matters (the U.K.’s largest lumpfish farm), experimental work in the University of Exeter Aquatic Resources Centre (ARC), sample analysis in the biosciences department, and data analysis (the dreaded deskwork). 

When the first lockdown hit in March 2020, I was ~ 18 months into my PhD. For students in biosciences, this is upgrade time (the meeting in which MPhil students are assessed and a review panel decide whether you have made enough progress to ‘upgrade’ your degree qualification from MPhil to PhD). I felt that my upgrade could not have come at a worse time- I was suffering from pretty much every ‘classic’ symptom of burnout which was not a great start to working from home; I felt tired, unmotivated, easily frustrated, and like nothing I did was right. I wasn’t used to trying to sit at my desk for 8+ hours a day and it was really getting to me, and those around me. I eventually had to push my upgrade until I felt ready, which was a couple of months later; my assessment panel were really supportive, reassuring me that I was not supposed to feel normal right now- we were in a pandemic, and it was ok to feel down and unproductive while we adjusted to working from home.

Back in ‘normal’ times I would be at my desk on campus, off tinkering with my experiment in the ARC, running samples in the lab, or in meetings, all in a day. Looking back, this ‘all over the place working schedule was hectic but felt normal, and it made me feel productive. When lockdown hit, I was suddenly a scientist without a lab, without fish, without new data, and I really struggled to adapt my day to being sat in the same place for hours on end. I had so much time on my hands, but I wasn’t doing enough, I wasn’t being productive enough…

Back in March 2020, I was a couple of weeks away from starting a long-term experiment having just transported hundreds of lumpfish from Ocean Matters to Exeter (only a 500 mile round trip…), which was not great timing. This experiment would have informed two thirds of my thesis and is still on hold, almost a year later, which still fills me with stress as I can feel the hand in clock counting down.

Thankfully, I was able to get back on campus in August 2020 and completed a short experiment with the fish I brought back 6 months earlier. Not the experiment that I was originally planning, but one which has progressed my lab skills and will inform a future experiment that I hope to complete later this year. In August, I was so glad to get back on campus, back working with my fish, tinkering with my experimental set up, and learning in person, but that feeling didn’t last long… Lab life felt slow and I started to feel all of the things which I had been feeling working from home- the burnout, the frustrations, all of it. I actually missed working from home!

Working from home has definitely allowed me to gain appreciation of what productivity means to me. The little jobs which I often left to fall to the bottom of my to-do list have become incorporated into my day. Thanks to my reduced commute (3 seconds rather than 30 minutes), I don’t feel guilty taking time out of my working days to do some chores, run errands, or to take a long lunch break to do some exercise. Each day is different, some days still feel long and like a massive struggle, but I no longer feel the same pressure to be constantly working and constantly be ‘productive’.

We are still in a pandemic, we still can’t hug our friends, and we still can’t knock on our supervisor’s door when we need help.

Upon reviewing the past year, I know that I like to stay busy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean lots of meetings and lots of running around. To feel happy and like I am making progress with my PhD, I need to focus on one or two projects at a time, learn all that I can, see them through to the end, and really try to get them right. For me, mixing campus work with working from home is what is best, at least for now. Every day I try to listen to my body and my mind and make sure that I put them first, because nothing is worth the feeling of burnout that I felt last year.

Plan A to Plan D

Rev Nicolle Sturdevant is a PhD Candidate with the College of Humanities, Penryn researching shared sacred landscapes in Scotland and Wales. She is supervised and supported by Prof Joanne Parker and Prof Philip Schwyzer. She lives in Scotland with my husband, two children, mum, two dogs and four cats. She is also the Honorary Pagan Chaplain at University of Aberdeen. 




In 2018 I began my PhD at Exeter to explore sites that have ancient sacredness along with active Christian architecture. The purpose was to see how those who actively engaged with these sites such as members of the churches, the spiritual community and tourists viewed this shared landscape. I had already planned out how I would conduct my research. Everything was structured, logical and organised down to the last detail. Fieldwork was to begin in October 2019 and run for a year. This would include focus groups, interviews, surveys at sites.  All of this was approved and encouraged by my supervisors. I was excited to get started!

Then I made a small, ever-so-slight change. My supervisors and I realised that I would collect the majority of my data within a six-month window so it was logical to shorten my time frame. It would save on travel and money, plus I could focus on the fieldwork and analysing data exclusively instead of writing my other chapters at the same time. I had already completed the initial prep work so this was a very minor change. Again logical, purposeful and Plan B.

All of that changed in March 2020. I received an email from the ethics committee that all fieldwork was stopped due to COVID-19 and could only be conducted online via Teams or Skype. Not only was my logical order in chaos, but my fieldwork was in danger of not taking place at all. With the agreement of my supervisors, I decided to remove the survey portion of my research as that relied on tourism, and put off my focus groups until we had further guidance from the government. So this was now… Plan C. The hope here was that I would be able to conduct the fieldwork in Winter 2020 and/or Spring 2021. Then of course, that changed again with extended lockdown at the beginning of 2021.

So now I am on to Plan D. I have conducted several interviews and another practice focus-group utilising Teams, which seem to work. None of this is ideal as the human connection is being missed. Instead of tea and biscuits together I am confirming they have received/read/sent the forms via email and can connect to Teams. For participants that do not have internet, they are being interviewed individually, in addition to the ones that were to be interviewed from the very beginning.

On top of all of this, archival research has been restricted. My original submission date of September 2021 has been pushed back to February 2022. I know I will finish my thesis, however all of these continued changes have caused anxiety over when. As a parent, spouse, chaplain and tutor for secondary school students, the pandemic was already affecting my daily life. This now felt like one more roadblock in my research yet my supervisors have been supportive the whole time. Plus, the PGR Writing Group has been instrumental in keeping me ‘sane’ during all of this. It is one thing to be told you are not alone, but to know this is invaluable. The takeaway here is find your support network and if this research is something you really want to do, they will help you find a way.

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.

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)



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?



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.


Challenges of PhDing as an Older Student

Philippa Juliet Meek is a PhD student in Theology and Religion. Her research examines public perceptions of fundamentalist Mormon plural marriage based on media representations and what those representations look like in comparison to the realities of Mormon polygamy as it is practiced today. Philippa has previously gained degrees from the University of South Florida, Durham University (where she was a member of University College), and University of Wales, Swansea. She has been surviving lockdown with her partner Richard, who is a commissioned officer in the Royal Navy, and their two dogs: Khaleesi and Jenny.

Tackling a PhD is undeniably a challenging and daunting task fraught with financial concerns, and the pressures of publishing, presenting conference papers, and networking in order to create links that can hopefully lead to success once one enters what is an extremely competitive job market. For older students with established lives, which may include additional financial commitments and families, life as a PhD student can become even more of a challenge. Particularly in cases where one has been in the workforce and has to give up a good income to return to university.

Yet while PhDing as an older student can include additional challenges and commitments, it can also be an enriching experience both for the student and their family. There are some tricks to make the transition easier, as well as ways in which PhD life can fall in sync with family life. A great one for me has been to mirror my partner’s work schedule and leave periods, rather than the university holidays. This has ensured that we get to take time off together at the same time. Fellow ‘older’ PhD students with children have also told me how they have been able to sync their work schedules with the times their children are at school or otherwise engaged.

When living with a partner who also has a demanding full-time job, it can be a challenge to make sure work schedules don’t conflict too much so that childcare needs, or pet care, are taken care of while also giving students the opportunity to attend conferences and travel for research. My personal situation is compounded by the fact that my partner is in the Armed Forces and therefore the demands of his job are perhaps more rigid than those whose partners work in the civilian sector; with frequent moves being par for the course. However, we have been able to make things work by using shared diaries on apps such as the calendar on our phones and planning ahead. Other families have their unique circumstances that will affect their personal situations.

In other aspects of life, especially in lockdown, we have managed to figure out some tricks that help things work smoothly, such as utilising separate rooms to work in if conference calls would distract the work of one another. Many times, the words, ‘I’ll cook dinner tonight’, can be a Godsend when I’m on a roll and want to get a few more words written down before ending the workday. Likewise, ‘why don’t we finish early today and go for a walk’, can be heaven-sent words when suffering from a tired brain suffering from writer’s block.

Recently, during my upgrade viva, my partner took our dogs out for a run and then entertained them in the garden so that they wouldn’t cause any disruption. He was also on hand with a cold bottle of champagne in hand to celebrate with me afterwards. While entering into a PhD as an older student can be a tough family decision, it can also provide the student with a level of support that they may have missed out on if they entered their PhD at a younger age, which can ultimately make for a positive and enriching PhD experience.

Written by: Philippa Meek

Twitter: @philippajmeek

My Virtual Viva

Gertjan obtained his doctoral degree in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter in March this year, after successfully passing his Viva in one of the first examinations that entirely took place digitally because of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the first three years of his Doctoral studies, Gertjan was a beneficiary of a studentship of the Centre of Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter. He is currently residing in the Netherlands, where he is a lecturer in the Middle East Department at the University of Groningen. Previously, Gertjan taught at Durham University as a Teaching Fellow in Middle East Politics and at the University of Exeter as a Post-Graduate Teaching Assistant. In 2011, Gertjan earned his M.A in Gulf Studies from the University of Exeter,  while two years earlier he earned a M.Sc. in Political Science from the University of Amsterdam.

Following the submission of my PhD thesis, the day of my Viva had been set on the 27th of March. I was very excited about it, as my supervisor Professor Marc Valeri had assembled an excellent examination panel and I was looking forward to return to Exeter to defend my PhD in front of them.  However, things would go differently as originally envisioned. Following the announcement of the closure of the universities in the country I am currently residing, the Netherlands, I decided to contact my supervisor to discuss the opportunity for an online Viva. Soon it became clear in the following week that an online Viva was the only viable option.  Thankfully, the examiners and the chair agreed to this.

As the examination policy had to be revised by the Doctoral College to make a virtual Viva possible it took a bit time before we received the green light. But thanks to the determination and very hard work of my supervisor and Natalie Bartram of the Post-Graduate Research Administration Office the Viva could eventually take place on the original date. In advance Natalie kindly provided me with all the necessary information about how to set up my laptop by attaching it to the modem through an Internet cable (going back to the old days) and instructed me how to test that the Internet connection at home was suitable for the online Viva.

On the day itself it felt very weird to prepare for the Viva in my own house knowing that such a big day in my academic life would take place. When it was time to log into Skype, I sat in a messy office/storage room behind my laptop, hoping the examiners would not  anticipate the presence of a professional bookcase in the background. Thankfully, the chair and examiners did a very good at putting me at ease, while to my great relief the connection was fine and everybody could hear and see each other well.

The Viva itself was challenging but at the same time an unique opportunity to gain feedback on my work. When I was asked to leave our Skype conversation I had mixed feelings about my own performance, but was very pleased about the excellent feedback I had received on my PhD from the examiners. After the official examination, the (psychologically) long wait started until I received after approximately 15 minutes a Skype call through which I could return to the Viva. To my big delight the chair and examiners congratulated me and announced their decision that I had passed the Viva without corrections.

The moment after passing the Viva was surreal, celebrating it in my own living room. Thankfully my parents were able to join me quickly in my celebrations and we opened the usual bottle of champagne to rejoice. I missed my friends and all the wonderful persons at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Institute who had supported me throughout the years of PhD, but thanks to the technology I could video call them to tell them the good news.

Although the experience of a virtual Viva was slightly odd and not what I had envisioned when I started my PhD, I am very pleased that I opted for it in order to avoid further delay to the completion of my doctoral degree. Because of this, I am very grateful to have been granted this opportunity thanks to the support of my supervisor, the Doctoral College and the members of my examination committee.


Written by: Gertjan Hoetjes

Completing a PhD during a pandemic


Richard was recently awarded a PhD by Publication in Biological Sciences by the University of Exeter. His thesis on the role of citizen science in assessing biodiversity trends for British butterflies and moths was supervised by Dr Ilya Maclean from the Environment and Sustainability Institute at Penryn and Dr Rob Wilson (formerly in the Biosciences Dept on the Streatham campus). He was one of the first Exeter students to have an online PhD viva examination.

When I handed in my thesis on 14th February, coronavirus still seemed a remote and unlikely threat to the normality of life in Devon and Cornwall. I’d done the hard part, my papers were published, my extended introduction was written and now it was just the final, nerve-wracking hurdle of the viva to endure (or enjoy as I kept being told by everyone I asked for advice). My examiners had been appointed (two external and one internal for a PhD by Publication) and the date had been set in late April. All that was left to do was to read and re-read my thesis and brush up on some of the key papers that I’d cited. I’d even attended a University workshop entitled Preparing for your Viva, which was excellent and I would thoroughly recommend everyone to attend.

And then, of course, the lockdown happened. Initially, the viva was pushed from the front of my mind by concerns about family and friends getting ill, dealing with school closures for my teenage children and adapting to changes in my job (I work full time for the charity Butterfly Conservation). However, before long I began to think about the viva again. Now though, my main worry wasn’t about being asked tricky questions about the statistical techniques I’d used in Chapter 3, but about the viva being postponed indefinitely into the post-pandemic world.

It was a great relief, therefore, to be contacted first by my supervisor and then by the University PGR admin team and offered the option to have a virtual viva. The speed with which the University moved to get new policies in place to allow online viva examinations was fantastic. With the addition of another person, a Non-Examining Independent Chair, to the panel, the stage was set.

I did have a few additional worries – would I be able to join the meeting OK at the appointed time without having a frantic scramble to reboot the software as the minutes ticked by? – but I would have had alternative worries for a face-to-face viva (car breaking down, forgetting to put trousers on etc. – oh no that was just a bad dream!). So, I had a few practice runs to make sure I was completely familiar with the software and hoped for the best.

Three and a half hours later and it was all over. The technology worked smoothly and without a hitch, there was no off-putting time lag and the examiners were really well organised enabling the conversation to flow easily without the awkward pauses and speaking over each other that is a feature of some online meetings. It was thorough and challenging, but yes it was enjoyable. Top tip for a question to expect and prepare for (neither of which I had done!) – which of your chapters is the strongest and which the weakest and why?

My supervisors had joined the meeting at the start to greet the examiners and then came back online at the end to help with the celebrations, which was a really nice touch. Having never done a face-to-face viva, I can’t make a true comparison, but I don’t think that the online viva was any more difficult an ordeal than a traditional one. Indeed, without the stress of travel and the formality of being in an unfamiliar room with a panel of examiners, it was probably a more conducive environment to enable me to defend my work effectively and have stimulating discussions on wider issues. Best of all, being able to sit my viva and complete my PhD despite the lockdown enabled me to take something really positive from these dark and difficult days.


Written by: Richard Fox

Twitter: @RichardFoxBC

Starting a PhD during a pandemic

Léna is a first year PhD student at Exeter University Business School in Penryn. She investigates the design of regenerative agriculture community-based systems that could potentially address both deforestation and food insecurity challenges. Léna collaborates with the NGO Cool Earth which creates partnerships with indigenous communities to tackle deforestation and climate change. Her research focuses on the projects Cool Earth has developed in Peru with Awajún and Asháninka communities. 

I was only 15 days into my PhD when I left Cornwall to return to my home country: France. I did it with a heavy heart: I had just settled in Falmouth, had been warmly welcomed by people at university, as well as my flatmates. I tried to reassure my family by telling them this crisis was far from us, but they insisted it would reach us soon and that I should be back home as quickly as possible.

I booked my tickets and left three hours after. After a 17-hour trip including two trains, a long walk, a nap in Kings Cross station, a bus and a plane, I arrived in Toulouse two hours before France started its lockdown. It was on 17th of March.

I feel a lot has happened since that day, although when I think about it I mainly have been sitting in front of my computer or reading a book in my garden when sun shows up – which fortunately happens quite often in South of France!

Maybe this impression comes from all the emotional stages I have been through since the beginning of this crisis. First, it was denial: the pandemic would never hit us, I was safe in Cornwall (hence the fact I bought and cooked food for approximately a month the day before I left…).

Then, fear appeared: I was suddenly back home, and I did not know how I would be able to continue – or I could even start – my research. I was also scared about the impact of the virus on the indigenous communities I hope to be able to visit for my field work in the future. They have been able to block the access to their territories and therefore limit the spread of the virus for now. But in the case some of them would get sick, there is very little access to healthcare in the remote regions they inhabit. This situation could also worsen some challenges communities already face such as food insecurity. In fact, some villages are highly dependent on food imports, and difficulties in accessing external markets could result into a dramatic decrease of the amount and the quality of food included in their diet.

After fear came anger. I was recently talking to some friends in Mexico who were explaining to me that most of the Mexican population would not stay home. Many of them cannot afford to respect the lockdown since they are daily workers. Indeed, in Latin America and in many countries around the world, people have often to choose between staying home or feeding their families. This raises the question of inequalities among human beings to deal with this crisis. The disparities are not only economic but also social and educational. For instance, in France, up to 8% of children have not been able to attend online school.

This led to a phase of gratefulness. I focused on how lucky how was to have a job that I loved and that I can do remotely. Although it is hard to start a project from home, since it is a crucial period to train on research methods or build a network; I am aware that the work of many researchers has been deeply more affected than mine. All my wishes are with them and I really hope that solutions will be found to support them effectively.

I am also thankful for the constant support I received from University and especially from my supervisors. I am also able to keep in touch with the NGO I am collaborating with so this also means I can have regular updates on the situation in the communities.

Now, my goal is to stay positive and even become hopeful. Yes, the situation is dramatic, and life will very unlikely return to normal anytime soon. But is back to normality what we should be aiming for? Could we not take advantage of this unprecedented challenge to imagine a new societal organisation? And has not this change already started?

In France, for example, local food distribution channels have soared, and there is currently a big push from consumers to develop this system in the future months rather than going back to long and blurred supply chains.

In short, my current way to deal with the situation is to see it as a warning, an opportunity for us to change a system – which has many times shown and once again demonstrates its limits and dangers – as well as our own behaviour. How will this pandemic impact my projects in the medium and long term? Can my research contribute to presenting an alternative?

Staying home is an effort we are all doing. When we will be able to go out, where will we go? And what will we do?

I hope to be able to come back to Cornwall as soon as I can and connect with my peers to share opinions and perspectives on these open questions. In the meantime, I will be happy to do it remotely!


Written by: Léna Prouchet

Twitter: @LenaProuchet