Finishing your phd during a pandemic

Sheena MacRae


My viva took place online on Monday 23rd March, the day lock down was officially enacted here in the UK. I received amazing support from the academic community online, which I’m sure was in no small part down to the vicarious enjoyment of my good news in the whirlwind of COVID transition. That said the online support was significant, I might not have been able to go out in the world to mark the occasion, but the academy celebrated with me nonetheless. In the mounting crisis there was a sense of purpose despite the growing understanding of the emergency we faced.  Scholars were meeting the challenge of the online transition and a definite camaraderie was developing. This camaraderie has continued to this day but it is also accompanied by an ongoing narrative of exhaustion from overwork and the cracks are beginning to show for everyone across the sector. For all that social media is given a hard time, many are still engaging and finding support despite the concerns of risks of doomscrolling our days away. There have been some lovely moments of community where we have explored the notion of what our social media means for us as academics.

During the transition online announcements arrived one after another as major conferences rightly cancelled or moved online due to safety reasons.  These decisions were supported well in the academy and many made justifiable claims that this process should usher in a new accessible approach to conferences. Alongside this I saw many PhDs and ECRs talk of their sense of loss of opportunity as they reckoned with the impact of these announcements as they filtered through. I felt this also, though I realised being in work if even for a short time, was insulating me from what so many graduate students were suffering in terms of isolation and financial hardship. This precarity cannot be understated. The economic situation faced by ECRs and later stage doctoral students is perilous right now. I felt this for myself given my new job was very short term and I had a child at home to teach. As a result the thought of missing conferences faded in my mind. Like everyone else I got on with the transition, in my case forging relationships with colleagues in a department I would not set foot in for the duration of my contract.

The notion of an international conference became unthinkable during lockdown and they will clearly not return to a physical form for some considerable time. Our use of digital platforms is adapting rapidly over the course of this year with more and more sophisticated options filling the conference gap. In order for these conferences to be effective, research on the efficacy of digital education can and should be used to enhance our planning of such events. The notion that we are the campus espoused by the University of Edinburgh surely must offer us a starting point for pandemic and post pandemic planning. If the notion of university can be decoupled from being seen as a singular fixed space the role of conferences can adapt to bringing academics together in alternative ways.

Online participation can be incredibly powerful but what is the solution for the isolation we may feel when working digitally was not the path we anticipated? According to a colleague at the University of York, regular weekly evaluations with students have been key to their successful transition to blended and online delivery. From this perspective, we can see this would be beneficial if we were to foster channels to engage academics on an ongoing basis as their needs shift. Finding a regular way to establish what ECRs and PhD students need in terms of collegiate support at this time is vital. 

A hopeful piece , I saw last week, spoke of levelling opportunities and connections fostered at conferences for PhD students during this time. I found its approach encouraging. There was a gap identified in this article which I noted, however. The writer, Mareike Smolka, pointed out that the positive experience she gleaned from the online interactions with her academic colleagues was largely contingent on one platform, Slack. Smolka herself noted that those who had not made use of this mode of communication were far less visible within this newly established online community borne out of these digital events. 

I can relate. I have found that online conferences can offer so much to engage with that I am overwhelmed.  I often find I just do not have the bandwidth to engage with all the channels open to me. I also find my tolerance for glitches and awkward interfaces is at an absolute minimum right now. This is where I miss face to face conferencing so much. At home there is no one there to share the frustration of an awkward timetable or not finding my way, these little acts of camaraderie in the physical space are important and I miss them. In physical spaces someone will always show you the way.  The daunting nature of entering a space in physical terms can be hard at conferences but once we are there they can’t really be avoided, and more often than not a friendly face can be found. I appreciate however this a fairly neurotypical view of these spaces, and that for many they are a difficult challenge and one that online platforms circumvent. For me I have found that I do not normally have the capacity for the social aspect of online conferences. Being at home means I can walk away, back to twitter, back to familiarity. 

Being physically at a conference forces our hand. Granted we could choose to stay in our rooms, but in the main we don’t.  The professional happenstance contacts we make at conferences are clearly incredibly important. However, often for many of us in an ECR context just being around other scholars from our field who ’get it’ is hugely restorative in a human sense, particularly when we work in increasingly market-driven contexts. There is cost, and there is value, and we must not confuse the two. That said, in recent years, for many of us the cost of large conferences had begun to be prohibitive, so our chances for interacting with our peers had begun to reduce.

When conferences go online, they are no less valuable, but they are difficult in different ways. We should recognise access issues exist also in online conference contexts. The competing nature of our home or office lives makes it incredibly difficult to remain engaged with conferences online, so we prioritise the professional and the social is neglected. And perhaps that is necessary for now, but this strategy is not without risk.

By de-prioritising the social are we acknowledging it is less important? By not being able to filter out the distraction at home, are we saying online conferences are a poor substitute? I would strongly argue no on both points. We must be extremely careful at this time that we do not allow assumptions like these to become entrenched in our thinking around scholarly communication. The contextual factors involved in these settings right now are clearly unprecedented. There have been good qualitative discussions on the practicalities of the experience of the move online and the loss ECRs face. However, I have only just begun to see people reckon with the impact of the stress of this loss on our ability to engage online. We have been far better in acknowledging this in terms of the student experience. The truth is ECRs and PhD students are exhausted from loss, workload, childcare and financial hardship; so much so that our interactions with the spaces provided for us are not what they would otherwise have been.  We are on a risky footing if we base decisions on what will work in the future on our conditions now, without considering the role of stress in our ability to engage effectively, and how that might skew our responses. In future being at home from work for a conference might be far less distracting, if it is a break from our normal routines, for example.

In my own research, women spoke of their capacity to cope with the vagaries of social media but noted that when feeling vulnerable emotionally, the smallest slight could be extraordinarily keenly felt. Affect in the experience of online space needs to be considered at his time in the planning of our means of communication academically. Our de-prioritisation of social contexts, often unknowingly, needs to be acknowledged as a function of the times and not a choice. We are not jettisoning sociality as an unnecessary feature; rather we mostly just don’t have the time or energy left to devote to it. Commensurately we must reckon with this context in any research into the efficacy of online space for academic engagement at this time. If the contingent nature of affect is not acknowledged in this research, we risk undermining the years of good practice and research in digital contexts, just as edutech businesses strive to assert their place within the University sector. Critical digital scholarship is crucial at this time to provide context to the response to our online transitions. Engagement with digital provision be it pedagogical or academic engagement must be evaluated incredibly carefully and with due consideration to the unprecedented context.

This generation of ECRs needs to watch out for one another as our entrance into the academy varies so widely from that of our predecessors. I have been lucky in many respects.  I have a good network of scholars I engage with in the UK, and abroad, and I have begun work with a small group of ECRs in Yorkshire to provide each other with support at this time. When we return to face to face, I imagine this will be in smaller groups of scholars in more local contexts. Make no mistake, meeting up again with colleagues will be extremely welcome. I just hope the right lessons will have been learned from our time in digital spaces that make for better communication in future, not act to curtail it.


Photo by Ian on Unsplash

Dr Sheena MacRae is an Early Career Researcher specialising in the digital mediation of sexual identity, as well as qualitatively exploring digital and creative sector inequalities.

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