Another Covid-year comes to an end, and the turn of the year also marks another milestone for me: I’m now halfway through my PhD, can you believe it? I certainly can’t. Although it actually has been a long and sometimes challenging way to come that far, it definitely doesn’t feel like that – I just started a month ago, right? So, I would like to take you – and myself – on a journey through time to recap how I got here and what happened on the way.
Let’s go back to the end of February 2020: I was invited to Durham for an interview for an Early Stage Researcher (ESR) position in an exciting international training network, i-CONN. This opportunity sounded incredible interesting but to be honest, I never thought that I would be chosen for this job. I mean, they wanted someone to study human-environment interactions in the past (I can do that!) by using network analysis and simulation modelling (I think that has something to do with computers?). However, for some reason, I got a call from my now supervisor, John Wainwright, the next day telling me that they offer me the position. Just, wow! I couldn’t believe how lucky I was! I would begin my PhD in June, so I started planning my relocation from Germany to Durham right away. I couldn’t wait to go there. And then – Covid and lockdown.
So, what now? Within i-CONN, it was discussed to postpone the start of our contracts for a few months. For some of us ESRs, this was the case because their host University was not able to provide them with remote contracts. We ESRs in Durham were really lucky that the University agreed for us to start working remotely until we were able to move Durham. That was a relief but it didn’t solve the question of when I could actually move. We could only wait and keep an eye on Covid restriction to find a moment when it would be more or less safe to take this step.
For me, that moment was in August 2020. Another plus was that my partner Raphael also began his PhD at Durham and we could come here together. This helped us both through the almost six-month lockdown the UK entered in November. As an introvert, spending time alone at home doesn’t really bother me. Still, after a while, even I began to miss socialising with other people, especially in a foreign country. We tried to reduce the effects of being locked up with long walks in and around Durham thereby getting to know our new home a bit better. Thankfully, Durham is really beautiful and there’s a lot of nice places to go and landscapes to discover.
But not only the relocation and settling in was a lot more difficult than in pre-Covid times. Starting a PhD in this situation was a huge challenge as well. It was hard for me, especially in the beginning, to not be able to meet my supervisors or other PhD students, chat a bit and exchange experiences, work together and get reassured that everything is going well even though it didn’t feel like it. Zoom meetings are just not the same as sitting in the same office, meeting in person or just having a little chat during lunch or in the corridor. I have to admit, I was pretty desperate sometimes and couldn’t figure out how to do this PhD. With the support of Raphael, my supervisors and the other ESRs (especially our Durham peeps), I survived this challenging time. When Shubham and Mel were able to move to Durham in December and January respectively, everything got a little easier as we finally could meet (outside in the cold, but still!).
Once lockdown ended and restrictions were eased from March on, the three of us got involved in departmental life and could finally meet other people and cautiously begin to make new friends, work in our office in the department and generally socialise in this new environment. Julia arrived here in June and our little i-CONN group was eventually complete. Over the last months, we have grown together and enjoy spending time with each other, whether cooking, exercising, going out or just relaxing and having a good time. The lifting of the lockdown and the contact with other people helped me not get lost in my research and get more confident and positive about my work again. As they always say: You’re not alone, everyone is struggling sometimes but you’re still capable of doing this. I kind of lost my ability to believe in this but slowly gained it back and am now more enthusiastic, motivated and confident than ever.
Covid impacted all our lives in various ways but I think for academia, it might have provided some new perspectives and opportunities. For example, I participated in numerous conferences, workshops and webinars that all had to be moved online. If they had been in person, I probably would have had to choose some of them or may even not have been aware of them at all. Despite the Zoom fatigue that accompanies such events, for me, it was a chance to learn things that I might have missed in a non-Covid world. Universities and schools were forced to provide online tools and services for their staff and students and although the transmission was far from being smooth, this can be the way forward in a more and more globalised world.
For us as i-CONN on the other hand, Covid was a real drawback. In a network based on collaboration, secondments and network events, it was not the best thing to only be able to meet virtually. But it also made us more aware of the others, forcing us to find ways to work together after all and get creative, be it with online parties, beautiful pictures of Cyprus as Zoom backgrounds to at least get the feeling of being there or research blogs like this one.
All in all, starting a PhD during a pandemic is neither good nor bad, as with everything in life. It certainly posed some challenges for me but I also see the opportunities that arose from it. I still hope though that the next year will be a bit better so that we can actually be the international network we’re supposed to be and meet the other ESRs and network members to discuss our research – as we all know, the best ideas evolve over a pint of beer or two!
With all that in mind and my fingers crossed for 2022, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and relaxing holidays!