It is a special kind of passion (or masochism) that makes one apply for a PhD during a pandemic. While it is well-known that doctoral studies can be isolating compared to other student experiences, it is especially isolating to undertake this journey today and study in a foreign country. In this blog post, I will reflect on my experiences as an international student from India pursuing her doctoral studies in Leeds during the COVID-19 pandemic and how this has impacted my mental health struggles.
When the pandemic was raging in 2020, I was back in Gurgaon, India. It was uncertain whether there would even be a vaccine during those times. The idea for my doctoral project, in fact, was a product of being cooped up inside the house. I scribbled down my initial notes, got some reading done and thought of returning to academia after a brief break. My rationale was that if I had to do a PhD, it would be better to do it sooner rather than later. Moreover, reports said that more and more people were going back to college due to uncertainty in the labour market. I thought it would be better to go for it rather than wait for the pandemic to end.
All the while, I was benefiting from therapy for anxiety and depression. My depressive episodes had begun during my Master’s degree in India and had continued since then. Being indoors without social interaction made me paranoid and dejected. I knew I would feel better if I were closer to family and friends in Kerala, but my husband and I were living quite far away from our hometown at the time. The pandemic had already heightened my sense of loneliness and I saw the PhD degree as a goal to strive towards, an escape from the never-ending boredom of being indoors with little to do. And so, I narrowed down my options and applied to universities in India and abroad, reaching out to potential supervisors and checking deadlines for universities.
When I got an acceptance from Leeds Beckett, I was overjoyed. My supervisors were experts in the topic I wanted to work on and I felt lucky to have the opportunity to pursue it. The next step was getting through the paperwork for immigration. It was nerve-wracking and I was anxious something might go wrong at each step. My anxiety came through like never before and I remember getting extra print-outs for every single document while going to get my visa. My husband, who was accompanying me to England, shook his head when he saw the bundle of papers I was carrying to the visa appointment. Travel restrictions due to the pandemic meant we needed PCR tests to prove we did not have the virus, Passenger Locator Forms and proof of where we would be staying in Leeds, not to mention the masks, aprons and face shields we had to wear on the long flight and the mandatory quarantine that came after. Moving countries during the pandemic was truly like moving planets.
Although I had been to England before (and thoroughly loved it), this time it was different. The bleak and grey weather was more depressing with fewer people out and about. There were places boarded up, shut indefinitely or gone out of business. Our house hunting in Leeds was brief and my research work had begun two months before travelling to Leeds. I met my supervisors on MS Teams and it was clear that all this was new to them as well. My orientation was also online, which meant I knew my cohort who joined along with me only as names next to boxes, sometimes with faces and sometimes not. New phrases such as ‘Zoom fatigue’ and ‘new normal’ were bounced around. When I finally visited the University, it felt like going to a ghost town with no students buzzing around the cafes or open spaces. It was repeatedly hinted that this was not how things were supposed to be.
Homesickness and struggling to find my feet
In the first two months of being in England, I was constantly checking for news from back home. In the summer of 2021, the death rates in India were high and I was far away, anxious for my family and friends. The only way I could get any work done was to remind myself that I was in England for a reason. I saw on the news the confusing and sometimes contradictory information surrounding the virus, the possibilities of more deadly variants, controversies surrounding vaccines and the differences in approaches taken by different governments. I was conscious of the fact that my husband’s and my health was something we had to be careful about ourselves with our family and friends being far away. We knew nobody in the city. It was an anxious time with no end in sight and a consistent stream of bad news reported from all over the world.
My struggle with learning the ropes in academia was happening in tandem. The thing about pursuing a PhD is that it is a journey of creating knowledge rather than acquiring it or applying it. This means being acutely aware of the existing knowledge in the field and striving to add to it or fill the gaps that might be there in existing research. Learning how to do this involves being up to date about new research and knowing your research interests back to front. I was learning all this in a foreign setting with only my husband for emotional support. Perhaps, in more normal times, I would have had a peer group going through the same journey as I was. It might have been less isolating to do this. Even so, there were positives in my first year. My supervisors were extremely supportive and I passed my Confirmation of Registration and Annual Progression. I tried out different ways to calm my anxiety and to not get panic attacks, including scented candles, paper planners, digital planners, productivity apps, Studygram accounts by other PhD researchers, #AcademicTwitter and books about grad school. It is surprising how resilient PhD students have found ways around being isolated. Personally, social media has helped me to connect with those undertaking similar journeys, sharing tips and encouragement. I feel more connected to some of the academics I follow online than those who I know from my cohort.
My biggest struggle came during the October-November months of 2021. I was approaching the end of drafting Chapter 1 and was having trouble tying up a lot of loose ends. I was at my wit’s end, so to speak. I was also going through the struggle of whether or not to stop taking medication. My prescription from India was ending in October which meant I was supposed to wean off medicines by then. While trying to do this, I developed heightened levels of anxiety. I started losing sleep, experiencing anger outbursts and very low levels of motivation. I did not have the energy to take care of myself and I felt the familiar sense of hopelessness returning. That was the first time, and hopefully the only time, I considered dropping out of the PhD program and returning to India. I was so sure that I would not make it. The extreme sense of hopelessness made me announce my decision to my husband and my supervisors about ending my studies and going home to India. I was missing my family and friends, my support system, and the familiar sense of being comforted and supported. I was thoroughly burnt out and I was ready to give up.
Putting my mental health first
My husband’s logical response was to wait for a week or so before reconsidering my hasty decision. He insisted that I would feel differently once I had calmed down and felt like myself again. My supervisors reminded me that my work was good, and since they knew about my mental health struggles from before, they were sympathetic about how I felt. They also urged me to take some time off work, knowing that I had thrown myself into my dissertation and some extra projects, working even during the summer. Their words and encouragement made me realize that I was putting too much pressure on myself.
After a week, however, I was still feeling unmotivated, hitting a wall in my research and could not even read a page without giving up. My GP recommended getting back on the minimal dose of medication and restarting therapy. I followed their advice. It took some time, but I slowly felt like I was breathing normally again. I felt like I was coming out of a black pit, a place of sorrow and dejection that I was sure I would not come out of, even though there were people trying to pull me out. It was a place where I could not get any work done or find any interest in anything I enjoyed previously. It had been weeks since I had written any poetry and that itself was telling. I had stopped going out and had developed social anxiety. Extreme fatigue meant that even getting out of bed became a daily struggle. But slowly, I felt calmer.
Following my supervisors’ strict advice, I only read for pleasure during the two weeks I took off for Christmas. My husband suggested getting a jigsaw puzzle over the holidays and we enjoyed putting it together. We went on a short trip to visit the scenic Malham Cove on New Years’ Day. It was a month and half before I began feeling light and happy again. After taking a break from work, I slowly got back into a regular schedule in mid-January. Looking back, I am surprised I even considered giving up. There is, of course, no shame in leaving a PhD program, but I was putting myself under a lot of pressure. I know now that things do get better with help and that this journey is more about persistence and pacing myself. My biggest lesson was that I had underestimated my rate of recovery from my mental health struggles, assuming that there would be no recurring episodes. I learnt that although I thought I knew my early warning signs and had prepared for my symptoms, the symptoms could change and even be more intense. It is all the more difficult when you are far away from everything familiar to you.
I have learnt that adjusting to a new culture is more fun when you are not suffering from poor mental health and there isn’t a raging pandemic. I am sure that I would have had better experiences had I been doing my studies here in more normal times. But I do not regret moving here. It has been a learning curve.
I still have a few more years to go to complete my research. I am aware that there might come a time in the future when I’ll consider giving up again. But hopefully I will know from experience that those stressful phases are more challenging for me due to my personal struggles with anxiety, and that I can find ways to manage my thoughts and emotions. That said, I hope that I never have to go through it again. Perhaps, the COVID-19 pandemic will end this year or the next, and there would be some sense of normalcy in my PhD experience. Here’s to hoping for an in-person defence of my dissertation—as scary as that sounds at this point! Whatever happens, I hope to do well while not compromising my health. Whatever happens, I know I can succeed.