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.
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For as long as I can remember I have always been a worrier; however, when I left the family home in the summer of 2012 to go to university, I do not think anybody (including myself) realised quite how difficult it would be. I suddenly went from being surrounded by a large support network whom I had shared all my worries with to being alone and bottling-up all my thoughts. This, alongside a doubt about whether I was good enough to be at university, led me to obsessively throw myself into my studies, an obsession which soon became out of control. Family members became increasingly concerned and eventually convinced me to reach out for help from the University Wellbeing Service.
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It took me personally 6 years to finish my PhD because during that period several major life events happened in my life (probably more than during any previous period of my life) which resulted in me taking three leaves of absence from my studies and one extension. I am living proof that you can still get your PhD despite many hurdles. In this blog I will talk briefly about my PhD journey, followed by some of the things that helped me deal with the surprising life events that came my way, and ultimately go on to finish my PhD.
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This blog is part of a special issue, released for World Mental Health Day. At Voices of Academia (VOA) we strive to make sure your voice and experience is heard. Dealing with loss is complex and an additional strain on our mental health during the academic process. The blog was recorded as part of a conversation between our guest, Jemima Thompson and Marissa Edwards (one of the VoA team) earlier this year. The blog is in two parts, and there is a link to the second part at the end of this post.
From Jemima: Since this interview was recorded in April, I sadly lost my father to COVID-19 the following month. In light of this devastating turn of events I wish to dedicate this interview to him and his memory, and to all of those who have experienced the loss of a loved one during one of the most challenging times in living memory.
Part 1: The Start of the Journey
Jemima (J): I’ll start in the beginning and how I ended up in academia because I think that’s an important part of the story for me. So, I’m 32 now. I came to academia quite late. It wasn’t like I went from 18 went through the Bachelors, the Masters, and a lot of people have taken that route where they’ve just stayed in academia the whole time. I’ve been in and out and done all kinds of weird stuff.
The reason that I ended up where I am now is partly because of what happened previously in my life. My PhD is in medical education looking specifically at doctor-patient communications and patient-centred care. The thing that made me feel that this is so important and why I want to do this was that my husband had multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed when he was about 24 and he died about five years ago. During that journey and all of those hospital appointments, I learnt about all of the multidisciplinary stuff that’s going on and the complex, complicated connections between healthcare professionals and the community and hospitals and even inpatients/outpatients.
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