Coping as a PhD Student During COVID-19 by Alex Wakeman

Prologue – February 2020: Pre-pandemic in the UK

I’ve spent the morning traversing half the length of Britain. The chill of winter hides in every shady corner but is powerfully countered by direct sunlight, resulting in a day of constantly putting on, then taking off, then putting back on my coat. Maybe I’m just restless because I’m on my way to a PhD interview. At King’s Cross I take a smaller, more tightly packed, less ventilated tube along the Victoria line. In the five-minute walk between Victoria station and the location of my PhD interview I bump shoulders with more people than I’ll see in the next ten months of the year.

When I’m ushered into the interview room, I’m informed that the panel of ageing academics will not be shaking anyone’s hands today – just to be safe. I’d like to think that despite my many insecurities, I am capable of admitting when I’m wrong, so I won’t make out like I was some sort of Nostradamus. The amount of people I’ve been in contact with throughout my journey seems normal, not skin-crawling and so the lack of handshaking strikes me as more rude than cautious, I think it’s a little overkill for ‘just some flu in China’. The UK had yet to officially register any coronavirus related deaths, but there had been a few confirmed cases. Two of which had been international students at the University of York – where I’d spent the day interviewing for a different PhD funding scheme just a few days prior.

“Don’t get COVID!” my family joked to me the day before I left for York. And it was a joke.

October 2020: Starting my PhD

The London interview didn’t go well. Luckily, I’d done much better in other interviews and so, six months later, found myself moving to Leeds the weekend before the city’s second lockdown (I apologise to all non-English readers; explaining the British government’s dynamic policy changes regarding lockdowns would make this post several times longer than anyone would want it to be. To summarise, at time of writing this the city of Leeds has transitioned in and out of four separate lockdowns). 

My first night alone I lay awake in fear. I’m not sure what I was afraid of, or why this fear had only taken hold of me when I turned out the lights. Maybe I wasn’t afraid so much as my body was exhibiting the symptoms of fear and I was along for the ride. An anticipatory homesickness, for the isolated months to come. I was living in the centre of a city, with 700,000 people living around me, but I didn’t feel the presence of a single one of them; that first night I felt as if I’d been jettisoned into a vacuum. No family, no friends, no acquaintances. Perhaps a year ago it would have been an exciting scenario in an adventurous new beginnings kind of way. But what about now? Could I meet new people? Would the rules allow me to get close enough to anyone to get to know them? Would I even be allowed to leave my flat? Reflecting on these thoughts now, I realise that the city was surely filled that night with similar people struggling with similar thoughts. It was the start of an academic year during a global pandemic after all. Though each person’s mental health will have been affected in their own way (some may have responded to the situation with panicked anxiety, some with hopelessness, some with sudden anger, some with fingertips bitten raw), in that early Autumn of 2020 many terraced houses surely contained similar anxieties to my own.  

Despite this first sleepless night, in the light of the morning sun I really was glad to be here and the excitement of starting my PhD was strong enough to keep me moving for the first few weeks. Having nothing to occupy me until Monday I laced up my trainers, trying to ignore the feeling that my legs had doubled in weight and had ached at the joints, like they always do when I’m worried. I push myself out the door and start running anyway. As an undergraduate I learnt what a powerful antidote to negative thoughts exercise can be and by the time I’ve reached the large park on the edge of studentville I’m already thinking how lucky I am; the idea of a gym has always repulsed me and now my own preference for outdoor running is pretty much the only sport that still enjoys government approval. 

December 2020: Winter approaches

The days are short, cold and dark, though relatively dry. I don’t think I’ve been so aware of the weather in all my life. I feel a marked difference between a 9 degree day and a 12 degree one. A day of relative warmth is a triumph. My body conserves heat by contracting into itself, but eagerly responds to a glimpse of the ailing December sun and my tense fingers relax like the unfurling leaves of a fern. I am, of course, interested in the subject of my PhD on an academic level, but working in a 20-something degree greenhouse every day makes me enjoy it on a rather simpler level. 

Everyone on the planet has learnt some deeply personal lessons this year. One of mine has been the importance of having something on the horizon. Not something big. Not even something particularly exhilarating or stimulating or special. Just something. Some small embellishment to break up the structure of my life, some beautiful, unnecessary illumination to decorate my daily black and white. This is a difficult lesson to learn when going anywhere besides my work and flat is forbidden and human interaction is separated by two metres. My attempts at injecting these small novelties into my week mostly end up involving food. By now my new flatmates are no longer strangers. Communal eating is a strange sort of luxury – there can’t be many people in the whole country who had the chance to sit round a table with five friends and share food this winter. However, these large, whole-flat meals are irregular, usually reserved for birthdays or events like Chinese New Year and Ramadan (perk of living in an international flat is more regular excuses to celebrate/eat).

Often, my regular food-based attempts to de-monotonise my week involve more solitary, less homemade food. The cycle that accompanies this involves a guilt that is eye-rollingly predictable. I haven’t really done much about it; sometimes it’s not possible to take care of myself in all the ways I’d like. Sometimes I just have to pick between two un-ideal options and living mid-pandemic, mid-winter puts me in a frame of mind where regularly eating unhealthy, expensive food that I know will drop my energy levels the next day is marginally preferable to the horizonless British-grey tedium. I try and remind myself of this fact. I try to cut my losses and just feel guilty before I begin to cycle through to guilt about feeling guilty for such a minor pleasure, an emotion likely to be followed by guilt at this guilt-guilt because if this thing is so minor, then why don’t I just not do it? “Try” being the most pertinent verb in that sentence – in a post such as this it would be more than incredibly  ingenuine to pretend that I was successful even some of the time, it would be irresponsible. 

Of course, discussing things to look forward to in the context of the end of the year means that the possibility of Christmas eventually began to rise over the horizon. The few days I was fortunate enough to have with my family recharged me in a way I was unaware I needed. Of course, I was aware that had I missed them, that I missed human contact in general, but I hadn’t fully appreciated how the lack of such a human necessity had seeped into and affected all parts of my life. Not only my mood, but my concentration, my energy levels, my patience, my kindness – all seemed replenished. It was a powerful moment, recognising that a lack of hugs had contracted my ability to focus, one of those strange connections that makes you realise that when it comes to health and wellbeing, the mental and the physical don’t really inhabit separate spaces at all.

January-March 2021: A New Beginning 

Despite the recharge of Christmas, January and February had a similar lethargy to the last few months of 2020. By the end of February however, things begin to change. I complete my first viva; it’s mostly a box-ticking exercise, but nevertheless the box ticked says I’m at least somewhat of a competent PhD student and it gives me a little boost. Then in March the changes come as a cascade. The weather improves significantly and temperatures in the double figures can be assumed (note: a non-English friend has asked me to point out that my insinuation of such weather as “warm” is a matter of personal opinion and not fact). Lockdown relaxes to allow people to meet outside. My birthday comes at the end of March and my lab throw me the closest thing to a surprise party that’s allowed; everyone sits in a circle on the grass eating brownies, no one even minds that we still have to maintain our distance, it’s just nice and human and personal and almost (if you squint your mind’s eye) normal. Most people who’ve taken time to reflect on their mental health are aware of the all-too-common spiral of negative reinforcement, where mental health affecting actions and thoughts, perhaps manageable individually, conspire and conglomerate to form an unmanageable anchor to your mood. But that reinforcement works in the other direction as well. Small changes – whether derived externally or internally – far too minute to stand up to such a dense blackness of mood alone, can compound, link arms and help each other along towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

A few days later a friend of mine is feeling burnt out. We go to the park and sit in the sun. A part of me is scared, conditioned into cringing at the sight of hundreds of people gathered in one space; a greater part of me is smiling – the first time that latter part has won out since lockdown easing. I feel an intense heat my skin hasn’t felt since I moved to this city. My runs are now paved with fresh flowers and birdsong. Routes I’ve been running for almost half a year, that I’ve always known as icy and skeletal are now lush and welcoming. There’s a nearby primary school, whose pupils evidently spent a previous spring planting tulip and daffodil bulbs in clumsy, irregular clumps on small islands of green space along my route. I think I’ve figured out how to recognise sparrows by their short, immediate call. The opposite street’s guttering, which I can see from out my third-floor window has exchanged murky cold rainwater for bright flashes of goldfinches. There is a long way to go, but the present seems bright and thus, so does the future.

Alex Wakeman

Alex is a 1st year PhD student in Leeds, UK. His research focuses on the way the biochemistry and genetics of crops like wheat determine how their seeds develop. When he’s not working on his PhD, Alex enjoys long, muddy runs followed by long, cosy reading sessions. Sometimes, he writes something of his own and can be found at @al_wakeman.