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A PhD student’s experience of the lockdown so far – it’s not all bad!

By Maria Thomas, on 27 April 2020

This blog has been guest written by PhD Student Anne Gaule, UCL MRC Doctoral Training Programme in Neuroscience and Mental Health and research student in Department of Clinical, Education and Health Psychology, UCL Psychology and Language Sciences.

school closed sign on school gate

Much like most PhD students I imagine, I followed the news over the last weeks of February closely, wondering how I was going to be able to continue with my research if we entered a lockdown. I am in my third year of the four-year UCL MRC Doctoral Training Programme in Neuroscience and Mental Health. My PhD focuses on social information processing in adolescence, and how this may be affected in children with a history of conduct disorder. This means that a key part of my project is data collection in schools.

At this point I have nearly finished collecting data for one task. I have also been developing new tasks that are engaging and suitable for children whilst having the power required for my stats. Fortunately, (and surprisingly) everything was going according to plan and I was on track to start my piloting and data collection. Unfortunately, I’d planned to start this in March 2020.

For some background, the three new tasks that I have developed need to be run individually with each child at their school and with experimenters present. I have also developed a child version of an adult questionnaire to complement these tasks that needs validation before it can be used. For the new behavioural tasks, I need at least 90 children to take part – on top of piloting.  For the questionnaire, 600 children must take part in order to run full analyses. To submit my thesis by the summer of 2021, I was hoping to have finished collecting data by October 2020 (the optimistic scenario), Christmas at the absolute latest. With around 250 questionnaires completed so far and my new tasks only at the piloting stage, I still have some way to go and the disruption from COVID-19 is putting serious brakes on this process.

My PhD project is a collaboration between our research team and the schools we work with and, as such, it requires time and organisation on both sides. When working with schools, whether mainstream or alternative provision, I am primarily working with teachers who are under an incredible workload. Despite already being overwhelmingly busy, they are generously offering to give up their time in order to help us to carry out this research – which we are all hoping may, in the long run, benefit the children they teach. I am hugely grateful to these teachers and I try my hardest to work around their schedule when setting up recruitment and data collection.

Practically, this translates to a huge number of phone-calls and emails – not to mention keeping track of who you’ve been in contact with and when. We also need consent from parents, which involves the school sending forms and leaving a two-week response period (and getting in touch with busy parents can be as tricky as getting in touch with busy teachers). Once we begin working with a school we need a quiet space on school grounds where we can work with the children relatively undisturbed – not necessarily easy during a busy school day. Finally, testing sessions themselves can also be challenging. We try our hardest to accommodate the children we work with, who are participating entirely voluntarily even if they have parent consent. If a child is having a bad day, we will come back on a different day, or break down the session into smaller sessions. The challenging behaviour of some of the children means the sessions sometimes won’t run smoothly or may take longer than planned. Consequently, an extended period of time has to be factored in for data collection on a project such as this. You can imagine how it felt when, after months of work to set up the data collection operation and with several schools having agreed dates in March for us to work with the children, I then had to cancel all of them. Naturally my anxieties about data collection are not comparable to the impact of this crisis on the schools that we work with – many of whom have vulnerable students whom they continue to support during this crisis. However, it’s hard to see how and when the face-to-face testing can move forward until there is more clarity on when we will emerge from this crisis.

Despite these anxieties, I want to reflect on the fact that I have also been incredibly lucky. I have received a huge amount of support since UCL has closed. For starters, my programme was very quick to notify us that, no matter what stage we are at in our PhD projects, we are all guaranteed an extension of some kind. This has been a huge load off my mind. My supervisor has provided guidance on how to adapt those aspects of my projects that can be conducted online (the questionnaire, for example, is easily transferable) and we have also discussed working on the literature review aspects of my thesis. As all the work I do involves children under the age of 18, whether vulnerable or not, I have had to submit amendments to my ethics in order to adapt various aspects of my data collection – such as taking parental consent online, and recruitment via social media instead of contacting schools directly. Here again I was happy to find that UCL has provided clear guidelines on which projects needed to submit ethics amendments for minor adaptations to protocol for online testing, and the best way to go about doing so. My department has been sending me updates about the UCL’s news and response to the crisis – including specific updates for doctoral students – and also immediately sent us guidance on how to set up to be able to work remotely, so I’ve had continued access to all of my files. My lab has set up regular meetings so that we feel less isolated now that we are no longer to leave our homes.

The immediate support from my programme, department, and supervisor has been a huge relief. I have actually started to enjoy the time I now have to read and to begin writing my thesis. I also believe that as the lockdown conditions ease, I may be able to collect data with the help of other team members, and complete my PhD on time.

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