How PhD life has changed this year

Embarking on a PhD is stressful and difficult at the best of times. And then came 2020, adding further challenges to an already daunting task. We invited our current research students to share how the coronavirus pandemic shaped PhD life this year – read the collated responses below.

This blog is part of a series we are running throughout December focusing on the success and resilience of our research students despite the adversity of 2020.

What’s been the most challenging part of PhD life in 2020 and why?
How did you manage your time differently during lockdown?
Have you discovered any new ways of working that you intend to continue using in the future?
What do you like and dislike about everything from lab meetings to conferences going online?
What are your top tips for staying motivated and working effectively from home?
And finally, what are you looking forward to as we move into 2021?

What’s been the most challenging part of PhD life in 2020 and why?

  • It was difficult to stay motivated when working from home, I definitely missed the energy of the lab and the office
  • A change of supervisor combined with a pandemic was challenging enough... but also, getting my first journal and conference papers accepted was quite a big task to deal with
  • Not being able to have face-to-face discussions with colleagues
  • Although we have regular meetings and talk through Teams or Zoom, it’s not always convenient or efficient compared to in-person conversations
  • Working on a slightly different field this year was challenging in the beginning when I was trying to build up a background, but things made more sense when I was able to relate new stuff to my past research experience, and somehow, they just connected
  • Lack of social interaction and not being able to quickly ask for help and share ideas with colleagues
  • April lockdown was the toughest part. I am a numerical scientist, so was able to continue working from home. Nonetheless, the absence of habitual relaxing and socialising seriously affected my wellbeing during lockdown
  • A lack of social interaction has been a major challenge – not being able to go for a drink at the pub after work only makes research that much more difficult!
  • Not working amongst my peers, where we share, discuss and review ideas and help each other out. Having to work from home has made the experience more isolating and difficult to sustain a work-like balance
  • Keeping a regular working routine – especially when spending 10+ hours per day in one room!
  • Not being able to interact with colleagues in the office, and the ideas that originate from this, has been noticeable – sometimes it’s better to have a fresh pair of eyes physically look at what you’re doing
  • Working from home! My research is mainly lab based, so it was difficult to get used to remote working at the beginning of lockdown

How did you manage your time differently during lockdown? 

  • The labs were closed so I focused on numerical simulations and theoretical research
  • Most of my time was spent reading papers and running simulations. My aim was to get simulation results complete, ready to compare with experimental data when we are able to get back to the lab
  • I shifted my research to being entirely theory-based. I wanted to do this anyway since I think there are some exciting opportunities with machine learning and network resource management which are yet to be fully explored
  • Being stuck at home really limited my progress, but lockdown was a good time to read through the research literature, and to reinforce my theoretical understanding of my work
  • I am not experimental, so thankfully my workflow has been roughly the same as it was before
  • Not being lab-based, I was able to progress well whilst working from home – I’m about to submit a paper!
  • I spent the time studying some of the principles behind optic fibre communication through simulation and planning for future experiments
  • I work mainly on simulation studies, which I can do remotely. I tried to keep the same rhythm as before by working 9-5 although prolonged home working has meant my schedule has been creeping into my evenings more and more
  • I felt quite upset when the labs closed, but I mainly focused on thesis writing and literature review, which has actually helped me to get a better understanding of my research project

Have you discovered any new ways of working that you intend to continue using in the future?

  • The annotations functionality in Zoom, and Zoom in general
  • During lockdown, whenever I had a meeting with my supervisor, I always made slides to summarise my results in context to the research questions I am asking. Before I would simply open Matlab and show figures on my laptop
  • I am now more familiar with a range of tools such as Teams, NeoVim, Git, WorkFlowy, the Linux kernel and using remote servers, all of which will continue to be useful for my future work
  • Starting work earlier is easier since there is no commute, and it’s nice to have more free time to cook and exercise after a full working day 
  • I spent a lot of time working on simulation tools and scripts, which really helped me organise and structure my code in more efficient and readable ways. I intend to continue to make my code more digestible and modular, to make it easier to go back to in the future
  • The tools used for remote collaborating have evolved very quickly and we’ve all learned more about these than before. I expect to be still be using them in the future even if we work more in-person again, they allow for a lot more flexibility
  • Working from home is a good alternative to going into office. Later, I plan to mix these two workstyles
  • I began to understand that the number of hours you work is not proportional to the results you deliver. I use the app Focus To-Do to stay focused and manage my productivity per day

zoom meeting

What do you like and dislike about everything from lab meetings to conferences going online?

  • Meetings can be more efficient online but also less engaging
  • I don’t like the recording of presentations in advance of a meeting – listening to yourself during an event without the ability to change or add anything on the go feels weird. Visiting Mexico from my room in London was a poor travelling experience
  • There’s less feedback from online meetings compared to in-person, and this is often where new ideas and collaborations come from
  • Not commuting or traveling saves time and money, but sometimes you can feel a bit disconnected 
  • With everything online there’s no spontaneity – you can’t get a feel for the hot topics at conferences, for example. There needs to be a balance in the future
  • Sharing ideas is more complicated. In the office, it’s easy to be active, but online it is difficult to interact sometimes
  • Online meetings tend to be more concise, but lack the conversational aspect of in-person meetings
  • I dislike not being able to give and receive presentations in person. It’s difficult for the presenter to gauge if the audience is engaged because everyone is usually hidden and muted, and for the audience it can be very draining to stare at a screen for long periods of time
  • Online meetings are good because they can be more practical and accessible, but I miss travelling and meeting new people at conferences. And those great conversations in pubs!
  • It’s harder to get points over or demonstrate ideas with online meetings, and they feel less involved. Network issues are also frustrating! But the flexibility of online meetings and remote working in general is great
  • It’s easier to arrange and attend lab meetings online since schedules are more flexible, but the stability of an internet connection can affect the quality of meeting

What are your top tips for staying motivated and working effectively from home?

  • Work in a different room from where you sleep, if possible. Take a daily walk to disconnect from your home office
  • Make a to-do list every morning and review it at the end of the day
  • Go for a walk when it’s sunny, and in the morning before starting work to help get focused for the day ahead
  • Pomodoro works quite well for me when I don’t feel like doing any work – start with 10mins and gradually build up momentum
  • Have clear goals and deadlines for yourself, make an effort to stay in regular contact with your colleagues, and make sure you’re getting out of the house whenever you can!
  • It’s important to keep in touch with your colleagues and friends to avoid isolation. And take regular breaks 
  • Breaking down bigger goals into smaller ones, so they seem less overwhelming and then you’re more likely to make progress
  • Keep a regular schedule, start work at the same time each day, and stop too! Make time for other interests in your life, and keep in touch with friends and family

And finally, what are you looking forward to as we move into 2021?

  • The end of the pandemic and travelling for conferences and holidays as normal 
  • Hopefully no more lockdowns and more in-person interactions
  • With the development of the vaccine, I hope we can go back to regular PhD life in 2021
  • Based on all the theoretical work we’ve done in 2020, I’m looking forward to great progress on the experimental side
  • Group meetings in the Barlow room (a favourite meeting room of UCL colleagues) with cakes, snacks, coffee and tea!
  • If things stay as they are, the end of it!
  • I would really like to continue to work remotely some of the time 
  • It’ll be exciting to finally start getting some results after building the baseline (lots of software) for my project for past 6 months!
  • Making progress on my research in the lab, and also being able to safely meet everyone in person again
  • Hopefully we can get back to the office and labs so that we implement some of the experimental work, and it would be great to see everyone again in person
  • The return of more face-to-face interaction and the chance to go to some conferences
  • New experiences with industrial partners during my secondment, and roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine so I can visit my family

And on that note, here's to a healthy and less challenging year ahead for all. And to our research students: we applaud you for the diligence, perseverance and resilience you have all demonstrated this year. Thank you for being part of the TRANSNET Programme.

Contributors: Callum Deakin; Hubert Dzieciol; Robin Matzner; Xun Mu; Josh Nevin; Vladislav Neskorniuk; Pedro Freire; Alessandro Ottino; Christopher Parsonson; Zak Shabka; Ronit Sohanpal; Jiaqian Yang; Wenting Yi and Zichuan Zhou.