Peers for PhDs: Surviving the PhD AND Covid-19

Next meeting: Thursday 11 June at 10:00 AM.

NB The post below was first published 5th May 2020.

It’s week 6 of lockdown – it’s been six weeks since we left our university buildings, heads filled with disbelief and arms piled high with papers. For many PhD students, carefully planned research timelines have been scrapped. Junior researchers are in limbo, wondering how far their plans will need to adapt to this ‘new normal’, wishing things could go back to the way they were before. Although disruption has been experienced at all levels of academia, PhD students are so invested in just their one project – it’s understandable to feel that lockdown has really rocked the boat. 

As Peers for PhDs project leaders, we wanted to collect some tips for managing this time. These build on time and project management tools to help you make some progress if you are stuck. But it’s important that you look after yourself before your project – if you are struggling, speak to someone, whether your supervisor, IPAP reviewers, fellow PhD students or friends and family. We’ve included some advice on work-life balance and recognising stress, and hope you find the suggestions useful. 

Peers for PhDs is a student-led group to support the wellbeing of PhD students. We usually have regular group meetings, discussing a different theme each month as chosen by the group members. Recently we’ve moved onto zoom, and we’re meeting more often to allow more opportunities for PhD students to meet each other during this strange time. All postgraduate research students are welcome, so if you would like to join Peers for PhDs please email one of the project leaders (details below) to be added to the mailing list. 

 Our top 10 tips… 

 1. Build a comfortable working environment

First things first, are you working in a suitable environment? Is there anything that you can do to make it better? A tidy desk, an appropriate office chair, a scented candle – little touches can make all the difference to the feel of your work. If you can separate your workspace from the rest of your home, that’s even better.

2. Set your working hours

Your plan can include non-negotiable core focus hours and some fun or treats. I find I’m more likely to stick to my plans if there are perks as well as work in the schedule. Define your ‘off-time’ – you’re not expected to be on call continuously – and consider what notifications you might want to turn off over the weekend.

3. Prioritisation

To do lists are your friends, but keep them manageable – i.e. what do you have to do this month? If you’re not sure, try using the Eisenhower matrix to identify your urgent, important tasks and break down large work into smaller chunks.

5. Keep a record 

It can be helpful to record what you are doing each week, and you can archive these to look back and see how much you have done over the passing weeks. You might want to record one good thing each day, or note how you’re feeling, as a way of checking in with yourself too.

5. Let yourself off the hook

The productivity pressure is real! Avoid comparing yourself to imaginary others. Everyone has a different way of responding to these circumstances, they really are unprecedented, so it’s okay if all you’re doing right now is surviving. Don’t put more pressure on yourself than there already is.

6. Approachable goals 

It’s too easy, throughout the PhD, to set ourselves unattainable productivity goals and then beat ourselves up when we don’t manage it. Scale back your expectations – try to take baby steps in the right direction rather than a leap towards the finishing line!  

7. Pomodoro technique

Set a limited time for a task you’ve been struggling to do and set a timer – eg. 25 minutes. It’s an old trick but it’s a surprisingly effective way to make progress.

8. Connect with others 

Keep in contact with people, whether this is your supervisor, peers, friends, family, neighbours. Having a chat to break up the day is great for productivity and keeping connecting is really important for your mental health. Peers for PhDs has just started coffee mornings, which is an opportunity to meet other PhD students once a week.

9. Use technology 

There are so many productivity apps and hacks around – searching through them becomes procrastination in itself! I would recommend Mindful Browsing, which gives you gentle nudges away from distracting websites. There might be a new technical skill you’d like to learn or understand, and haven’t had time before.

10. Take a screen break

It’s important – not just for our eyesight – that we take some time away from the screens too. Can you mark some separation between work, play and sleep? Taking a whole day away from technology is an interesting challenge at the moment – but you might be surprised at the difference it makes.

Peers for PhDs is running regular coffee mornings each week. It’s a great start to the day and a relaxed way to meet people who understand the stresses of the PhD. You can join the mailing list or ask questions by emailing one of the project leaders:

Natasha Bradley natasha.bradley@liverpool.ac.uk 
Ella Fox-Widdows ella.fox-widdows@liverpool.ac.uk  
Mohamed Hammad mohamed.hammad@liverpool.ac.uk

Past dates of next Peers for PhDs meeting: 

  • Tuesday 5th May: 9:00 am
  • Thursday, 14 May: 10:00 am
  • Tuesday, 19 May: 9:00 am
  • Thursday, 28 May: 10:00 am
  • Tuesday, 2 June: 9:00 am

The LDC Development team have recently announced their programme for May, continuing the Writing retreats and introducing interactive Mindfulness sessions.

Natasha, Ella and Mohamed