Research During a Pandemic

The pandemic first affected me back in March 2020, a pandemic which certainly needs no introduction. I was nearing the completion of my undergraduate dissertation data collection when I was sternly advised to no longer travel to my research site. This resulted in a significant gap in my data and forced me to use regression analysis tools to predict further values. At an already anxious and demanding period, this came as a further setback. Being dyslexic, it was difficult to sift through unrecognised literature, have my contact time with peers removed, and dyslexia support transferred to an online environment. I had to revert to coping strategies I’d developed before my diagnosis; printing, cutting, and sticking key information like I was back in primary school! I was devastated that I could not conduct my dissertation as I wanted.

At the beginning, university was a real struggle for me, moving away from home and being placed in a surreal environment, I felt the pressure to ensure that my university experience lived up to the ‘hype’ everybody had given it. This led to my imposter taking control; my inner perfectionist was compromised, and I became an anxious wreck, riddled with depression. In my concluding year, I finally started to feel that I was conquering university, and my thoughts were set on making the most out of every last second.

The Summer of 2020 came with some relief, though my next anxiety heightened adventure was looming. In late August, the advert for the PhD thesis: ‘The Restoration of Cumbrian Peatlands: Quantifying the Carbon Benefits of Different Restoration Approaches’ was published by the University of Cumbria. After a summer of panic, heartbreak, and feeling like I had lost my identity, I knew this project was my calling. Within hours of reading the proposed plan, I had started my research. At the time, I was on holiday in Devon with my partner and her family; not quite the Barcelona trip which was planned, nor the previously cancelled New York retreat, but pleasant nonetheless. I sacrificed day after day of the limited relief 2020 had delighted me with to research and prepare for the application, and later interview process. In all honesty, this would be my first EVER interview, on my own, and online. Being ‘nervous’ does not even come close to accurately describing my emotions that October morning. I dressed in a suit that I had bought for the occasion, and despite being sat in my childhood bedroom, I tried imagining that I was in the same room as the panel. It was utterly confusing, extraordinary, and something I felt that I could not be totally prepared for.

I was extremely proud of my performance in the interview, I kept it together and for a few seconds afterwards, I considered some positives about researching in the pandemic: Perhaps if it wasn’t for COVID-19 intruding my dissertation, I wouldn’t have developed those self-taught literature sifting tools in preparation for the PhD application. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had the motivation to conduct my own research again, and perhaps I wouldn’t have grasped my dyslexia like I have; taking it from a disability to a superpower.

At present, I see two distinct sides of being a researcher during the pandemic; one side relates to how research is conducted. Whilst being out in the field is not an option, there’s still plenty of work which can be done. This side can adapt easily, and I find myself learning, reading, and writing more than ever before. It probably helps that I have started a PhD during the pandemic – ‘being born in captivity, I am unaware of what lies beyond the wall’. However, the other side, emotional and social wellbeing, is much more stubborn to change. It has been extremely difficult to adapt socially to the modern pandemic and I know this isn’t just something researchers are trying to overcome, but everyone across the globe.

Celebrating my 21st birthday alone in my university room was a low point; especially with my dissertation deadline breathing down my neck. It’s days like that which make the pandemic feel gloomy and unadaptable. We’re social creatures, even researchers! – and I don’t see humans ever being able to ‘adapt’ to this temporary social change. We therefore need to support each other. There’s a superstition that academic research should be conducted alone, but that’s simply not true.

Please talk, please debate and please discuss; whichever form of contact you feel comfortable with. Feel free to drop me a message on twitter – I’d be happy to talk about my own experiences, research prospects, or simply have a general chitchat.

We will get through this. It will all be OK.

Published by Jack Brennand

PhD Student at the University of Cumbria.

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