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Starting a PhD in the wake of COVID-19: a survival guide for new students

guest blogger13 September 2021

Claire Grant, first year PhD student at University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, provides tips for starting doctoral studies in unusual times.  

I found out that I’d been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) studentship to complete a PhD in Epidemiology and Public Health in March 2020. In the following months, the situation in the UK and around the world unfolded into what we now describe as “unprecedented” times, and the world has since changed. Completing a PhD in any time is known to be an overwhelming, challenging and sometimes stressful experience – but there are some unique challenges in the wake of COVID-19.

This blog post offers an insight into my personal experience of starting a PhD at UCL in 2020, with the aim of sharing some tips for navigating the specific challenges of home working and remote learning. It goes without saying that this list is by no means exhaustive, and that each student will face unique challenges and opportunities as they embark on their studies. This is simply a reflection of my past year and a message of hope to new starters.

1) Ask questions

Starting anything new can be daunting. Understanding how things work, making sense of departmental norms and university culture is difficult, especially when you are working from home. My advice is to ask questions from the start.

The reality is, there are many questions you will not know the answer to and a lot of these can be easily answered by friendly and knowledgeable staff/students at the university. Knowing who to ask for what will become clearer the more communication you have. Asking peers, supervisors and departmental staff for ‘best contacts’ to deal with concerns will help orientate you and your position in the university.

2) Create a good home working environment

If you are working from home, you will need the appropriate equipment and environment to do so. Funding bodies and even departmental funds might be able to support you to buy the software, equipment, and resources you need to work. I assumed that being a student meant that I wouldn’t be entitled to support – but this was not the case (see point 1 – ask questions).

From the beginning, try to create a working environment that is separate from your home life. This can be challenging, especially if you’re living in a place with limited space. If possible, try to work in a separate room to where you sleep, and if this is not possible, set-up a separate working station within the ro om. As tempting as it is to sit in bed all day, the environment you create to work in will impact on your motivation more than you might think.

That said, I will admit that in an effort to create my ‘ideal working from home environment’ earlier this year, I purchased a cheap computer desk from Facebook marketplace. The questionable instructions (see pictures) and my lack of craftsmanship mean that the unassembled planks of wood are still lying in my kitchen.

3) Network

A PhD is a solo venture, but nobody can complete it alone. In the absence of happen-chance meetings on campus, it is important to remember to opt-in to networking opportunities. Sign up to mailing lists on topics and methods that interest you. Email peers in your cohort and arrange Zoom coffee breaks. Download Twitter and follow accounts that relate to your work. Attend departmental seminars, and if you’re feeling brave, even ask questions! The more virtual rooms you enter – the more people and opportunities you will be exposed to.

Networking doesn’t just have to be PhD related. The Department of Epidemiology and Public Health did a great job at organising informal catch-up sessions for students over the past year, and the conversations were mainly structured around Netflix recommendations and lockdown recipes. The Students’ Union at UCL also have a wide range of clubs and societies for postgraduate students to get involved with. Building a social network of likeminded people with similar interests will help you find your place.

4) Set boundaries

               Your working day

Structure a day that suits your project and working style. Nobody is productive all day, yet we can feel guilty for taking breaks, particularly when working from home. I’ve learnt that a long lunchtime walk listening to a podcast (usually the Guardian’s Today in Focus) makes me feel brighter and more ready for the afternoon than if I eat lunch slumped over my laptop. If you’re required to do a lot of reading on your computer – make an active effort to schedule time away from your screen throughout the day. Your eyes and mind will thank you for the rest.

Being online makes us more accessible than ever. This is exciting as we can attend more events, seminars, and trainings than ever before. However, be realistic and thoughtful about how much you can do. For example, don’t try to complete other work tasks while attending online seminars or training. You wouldn’t do that in person. Allow yourself the same time and energy you would offline. This is much easier said than done.

Your personal life

Set boundaries with ‘PhD life’ and ‘regular life’ as you would any other job. Your research will be more important to you than it is to most people, and it might feel all consuming. It’s also likely that you’ve chosen a topic of particular interest to you, making it difficult to switch off. There’s always more work to do, more papers to read and more ideas to talk through. It can feel as though you should be doing something all the time. At the beginning, I found this difficult to manage.

I also found it strange not having the same sense of completing a task as I did when I submitted course work in previous taught courses. At undergraduate level, I remember the feeling of relief after sitting exams, knowing I’d be enjoying some well-deserved time off before being informed of a definitive result – ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. From my experience, this is not the case in a PhD. Feedback from supervisors usually leads to more work. Good project management will account for the much-needed breaks in this academic marathon. When you do take time off, try to detach completely. Let your supervisors know you won’t be available, turn off email notifications on your phone and wait until you return to reply to messages.

Importantly, life continues as you study. Make sure to carve out room for friends and family. Make time for hobbies and interests. A PhD is only one part of your identity.

5) Trust your abilities

You are probably already doing better than you’re giving yourself credit for. It takes time to get used to this new way of working and the beginning of such a mammoth task can feel daunting. Remember that every project is different, so try not to spend time comparing your progress to your peers. Your supervisors will help guide you and there are various UCL check-ins along the way to make sure you’re on track (such as Thesis Committee reviews).

One of the most common anxieties among new doctoral students is ‘imposter syndrome’ – the overwhelming feeling that you’re a fraud. Take note: you have started on a training programme and that is merited on the basis that you have the abilities required to succeed. Trust the process and know that everyone else is probably thinking the same about themselves.

6) Be flexible with your project

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, your project might have to be adapted or changed completely. You are not alone if this is the case. Over the past year many students have faced dilemmas with methodologies and research topics that are not easily modifiable to the world of online learning. Be open to potential alternatives and listen to the experiences of others in your field. There are many learnings from the past year which will be useful to consider when thinking of alternative approaches to your research.

7) Be kind

To yourself, to your peers, and to staff.

Students and staff at UCL have worked tirelessly to adapt to new ways of learning over the past 18-months. It has been a tough time for everyone, and we have all been impacted in some way. Try to acknowledge this and be compassionate to yourself and others. Remember that staff are also facing some of the same challenges as students and will appreciate your understanding.


Enjoy the journey & best of luck with your studies!

Taking the me out of social media

guest blogger9 October 2019

Emma Walker, second year BBSRC-ESRC funded Centre for Doctoral Training in Biosocial Research PhD student at University College London’s Institute for Epidemiology and Health Care, describes how getting involved with research on social media helped her to reflect on her own usage. 

It’s 00.23 and I should be in bed. I’ve got lots on tomorrow but I’ve spent the last 45 minutes scrolling. Scrolling through the profiles of Instagram “life style coaches”, yogis, models; each collection of photos perfectly curated to appeal to my desire for millennial aesthetic.

Everything feels so much better than anything I have. And actually, in the world of Instagram, I know that everything is much better than what I have. Number of followers or number of likes on each post has conveniently quantified this for me.

The next evening, as part of my public health PhD work, I’m reading Professor Yvonne Kelly’s paper laying out the effects of social media use on the mental health of girls. I diligently make notes “.. greater social media use related to online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem and poor body image .. ” “..girls affected more than boys..” and pause periodically to check my phone.

All my friends are at the pub having a great time, another friend just put up a post where she looks amazing, it already has 50 likes. I get to the methods section of the paper “how many times in the last 2 weeks have you felt miserable or unhappy; found it hard to think properly or concentrate; felt lonely; thought you could never be as good as other kids…”.

Then the penny drops. Why do I think I’m immune? I’m like the lifelong smoker who’s confused by their cancer diagnosis: “I never thought it would happen to me.” The idea starts to filter in: I don’t need this in my life. In fact, I need this to not be a part of my life.

The next day I deactivate my Instagram account. That day I meet a friend for coffee in a hipster café and don’t take a picture of my coffee. That night I get to sleep by 11pm. The next day I work more productively than I’ve worked in weeks.

An opportunity to get involved comes up: the National Literacy Trust are really interested in Yvonne’s work and are keen to put together an event for young people. A great group of undergraduates and I devise a series of activities to find out what young people think about the research.

The first section would involve 4 zones at the front of the Renaissance Learning centre room for Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree and Strongly Disagree we put a series of statements on the board and ask the pupils to move to a zone and explain why. We include statements on a range of topics including cyber bullying, sleep deprivation, self-esteem and body image and parents and social media.

On the day, the 50 enthusiastic 11-14 year olds from 3 schools across London jostle about, keen to share their opinions and to hear one another’s. I’m amazed at the diversity of ideas, overall willingness to get involved and the mental health literacy of many of the students.

Some responses are predictable; the boys happy to appear less concerned about body image, many keen to state in front of their teachers that social media does not in any way disrupt their studies. Some are surprising; only a handful of pupils had been on social media before arriving at the event that day (a significantly lower proportion than the adults running it!) Other responses are hard to read; were the gaggle of girls laughing at the very idea of social media posts making you feel left out, honest or desperate to seem not to care?

A clear feeling was the young people’s frustration at their parents use of phones and social media. Many expressed irritation at the rules their parents have established – no phones at the table, in bedrooms, after 8pm – that they, themselves constantly break.

One boy described having to ask the same question 3 times before his dad will look up from his phone. The idea that our event should be run for parents was cheered.

Next we presented them with the evidence base for the possible impact of social media and mental health then asked them to make public health campaign like posters with top tips that could go up in their schools. We were presented with a beautiful collection of posters with thoughtful advice, carefully put together information, clever slogans and eye catching drawings. Audio recordings from the day gave further insights from the young who readily offered tips and advice for younger children.

Overall, I think the event was a success. My main impression was that these young people are actually very well equipped to protect themselves from the potential mental health impact of social media. That in fact it may be people in their 20s, who have grown up in the full glare of social media and its pressures, who are at the greatest risk.

It was a real privilege being able to discuss this topic with young people and the message that stood out the most from them is the opportunity parents have to make a difference by practicing what they preach.  Chances are they’ll benefit from switching off!

As for me, it’s now been 6 months since I deleted Instagram and whilst it hasn’t been plain sailing – I have got this itch for the buzz of an influx of likes –  for the time being I’m happy and I would wholeheartedly recommend it!

Anti-social working hours: Are they making women depressed?

guest blogger12 March 2019

The rise of globalisation and the 24/7 economy are fuelling demands for people to work long hours and weekends.  But what’s the evidence about how these ways of working link with depression? Gill Weston and colleagues from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at UCL and Queen Mary University of London found such working conditions are linked to poorer mental health in women.

Across the globe, the effects of overwork are becoming apparent.  In eastern Asian countries the risk of death due to overwork has increased.  In the UK, work-related stress accounts for millions of lost working days every year.

Within the EU, a significant proportion of people have to work unsociable hours – with nearly a quarter working most Saturdays and a third working at least one Sunday a month.  But despite this, there isn’t much clear evidence about the links between work patterns and mental health.

Some studies have found a connection between unsociable work patterns and depression.  But many of the studies only focused on men, some only looked at specific types of worker or workplaces and few took account of work conditions such as whether workers had any control over how fast they worked.

To address these gaps, we set out to look for links between long or irregular hours and depression using a large nationally representative sample of working men and women in the UK.  We particularly wanted to look at whether there were differences between men and women because research has shown that work is organised, experienced and rewarded differently for men and women, and because men and women react differently to overwork and time pressure.

We used data from Understanding Society, which surveys people living in 40,000 households across the UK.  In particular we focused on information about working hours, weekend working and working conditions collected from 11,215 working men and 12,188 working women between 2010 and 2012.  They had completed a questionnaire designed to study levels of psychological distress.

Who works the most?

We found men tended to work longer hours in paid work than women, and having children affected men’s and women’s work patterns in different ways: while mothers tended to work fewer hours than women without children, fathers tended to work more hours than men without children.

Two thirds of all men worked weekends, compared with half of all women.  Those who worked all or most weekends were more likely to be in low skilled work and to be less satisfied with their job and their earnings than those who only worked Monday to Friday or some weekends

Which workers have the most depressive symptoms?

Women, in general, are more likely to be depressed than men, and this was no different in our study.

Independent of their working patterns, we also found that workers with the most depressive symptoms were older, smokers, on lower incomes, in physically demanding jobs, and who were dissatisfied at work.

Are long and irregular hours linked to depression?

Taking these findings and other factors into account, when we looked at the mental health effects of work patterns on men and on women, the results were striking: while there was little or no difference in depressive symptoms between men who worked long hours and those who did not, this was not the case for women.

Those women who worked 55 hours or more per week had a higher risk of depression than women working a standard 35-40 hour week.

Similarly, weekend working showed differences for men and women.  Compared to workers who only worked on weekdays, men who worked weekends also had a greater number of depressive symptoms, but only if they had little control at work or were dissatisfied with work.  Whereas for women,  regardless of their control or satisfaction, working most or all weekends was linked to more depressive symptoms.

Why might women suffer more than men while working these antisocial hours?

There might be a number of reasons why women might be more affected than men:

  • Women who work long hours are in a minority – just four per cent of them in our sample worked 55 hours or more per week. This may place them under additional pressure.
  • Women working longer hours tend to be in male-dominated occupations, and this may also contribute to stress.
  • Women working weekends tend to be concentrated in low-paid service sector jobs, which have been linked to higher levels of depression.
  • Many women face the additional burden of doing a larger share of domestic labour than men, leading to extensive total work hours, added time pressures or overwhelming responsibilities.

What should be done about these risks?

Our findings should encourage employers and policy-makers to think about how to reduce the burdens and increase support for women who work long or irregular hours – without restricting their ability to work when they wish to.  More sympathetic working practices could bring benefits both for workers and for employers – of both sexes.

Long work hours, weekend working and depressive symptoms in men and women: Findings from a UK population-based study by Gill Weston, Afshin Zilanawala, Elizabeth Webb, Livia Carvalho, and Anne McMunn is published in the  Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which is published by the BMJ.