Six lessons from a pandemic PhD student

If you’re starting a doctoral programme later this year, particularly if your institution is still facing COVID-19 restrictions, Ciara O’Brien has some advice.

First printed in nature magazine 6 May 2021. See here for original article

Ciara in the Vincent Building Labs at Cranfield University.
Ciara O’Brien working in the laboratory at Cranfield University, where she started her PhD programme amid COVID-19 lockdowns.Credit: Cranfield University

In September 2020, I started my PhD programme in plant science at Cranfield University, a postgraduate-only research institute in the United Kingdom. I struggled with many aspects of the transition from undergraduate to PhD study at the beginning — particularly with the added challenges of lockdown. With varying levels of restrictions still affecting many researchers, here are some of the things I learnt.

Manage your expectations when setting goals

I had grand expectations of what I would achieve in the first few months of my programme. I did manage to move from Ireland to the United Kingdom, and got myself set up at the laboratory — but I had also expected to have almost completed my first draft of a literature review, designed experiments and started my own lab work.Sign up for tips and tools to help you work smarter in the new normal

Those ideas were swiftly torpedoed. During month one, I did almost no science. I moved to a new country, which meant finding accommodation without viewings and opening a bank account without a credit history. This is normally difficult enough, but I couldn’t visit banks in person and relied on automated systems. Thankfully, I moved before Brexit and didn’t have to quarantine — but simple steps still took longer because of lockdown. I spent hours on the phone with the university’s information-technology department, trying to acquire and set up a work laptop. Once I got it, I did an online safety-training course (only to find I had to redo it because my browser crashed and didn’t save my progress) and filled out form after form to get my student number, student finance stipend and lab-access credentials.

Having not achieved anything resembling PhD research, I was terrified of letting my supervisors down right at the start. But when I spoke to them about my (minimal) progress in reading papers and designing experiments, they had anticipated that these tasks would take a lot of time and reminded me that although filling out every form under the sun might not feel like science, it is work.

Volunteering to help others helps you in the long run

Most PhD students will start at a university that is new to them, which means meeting a new set of supervisors, technicians, professors, administrative staff and more. Once you do get to know these people, it’s a lot easier to know who to ask for what.

But it’s more difficult to go through the ‘getting to know you’ process online. Volunteering to help out with ‘dirty’ jobs helped me to get to know people and brought me into the lab to meet others face-to-face. I also garnered favour among others in my team. I spent a week defrosting freezers, and another week moving sacks of potatoes from one room to another. I can’t count how many hours I spent cleaning our lab equipment that had been in storage! But now, I know nearly all the technicians in my department — so asking for help or guidance is less daunting.

This also gave me a sense of ‘family’. Lockdown meant that numbers in the lab were kept to a minimum, so I didn’t meet many people as ‘organically’ as others might have in normal circumstances. I also couldn’t travel home without putting my family at risk. Christmas would have been unbearable if not for the people I met in my first few months, and now we all have a support network.

Take ownership of your project

Just before I started my programme, my supervisor sent me the grant application she had used to get funding for my project. At first, I stuck to it like scripture, focusing mostly on the references used in the application rather than getting a feel for the field in general. Even when some parts of the project didn’t fit with the others, or I found gaps in the literature that I could and wanted to address, I didn’t have the confidence to claim ownership of my project.

But as I started to design experiments and develop hypotheses, I wanted to delve deeper into some aspects of the project and scrap others. Some of the proposed experiments were just not attainable with the allotted time and resources, and once I explained why to my supervisors, they were really supportive of my changes. One of the initial goals of my project was comparing harvest times of fruit, despite early- and late-harvested fruit being used for completely different purposes. My corporate sponsor, Orchard House Foods, doesn’t work with one of these harvests, so I would have had to source options from different farms just to do a study that has already been done several times. After three months, I finally asked whether it was really worth investigating this, giving my reasons, and we scrapped it.

Even though I didn’t design my PhD project from scratch, taking ownership has allowed me to ‘pitch’ changes to both academics and industry partners and has been one of the most valuable skills I’ve developed so far.

Your style does not have to match your supervisor’s style

My two main supervisors are food scientists Mari Carmen Alamar and Natalia Falagán. Mari Carmen is known for running around the lab and yelling everything, so you can always hear her coming. Natalia is calm and collected, keeping everything scheduled. If you set her lab coat on fire, she’d probably just take it off and get the appropriate extinguisher.Collection: the PhD

At first, I tried to mimic their styles as closely as I could, switching to match whoever was working with me at the time. I tried making lists and timetables in Natalia’s style, but was adjusting the times so often that it was more complicated than winging it. If Mari Carmen ran, I ran after her — and couldn’t last long because of my short legs. I needed more coffee than my heart could handle to match her intensity. This turned out to be a waste of energy spent trying to be someone else, when what I needed to do was accept my own working style. I still run, but only on rare occasions, and my to-do list is written on the back of my hand rather than scheduled in a diary. If you see someone with a working style that you like, adapt yours to include it. But, just because someone is your supervisor, that doesn’t mean you should model everything you do on the basis of how they do it.

Manage your expectations of yourself

When I first started my programme, I tried to work all day, every day — including weekends — thinking that’s what was expected of me. From hearing presentations of other PhD students and seeing the work that goes into publishing a manuscript in a journal, I thought the only way I could keep up with people ‘smarter’ than me was to outwork them. Of course it wasn’t, but I was comparing myself with an ideal that doesn’t exist. This was made worse by not having much contact with people further along on their PhD journeys, because I was working mostly from home. Putting this pressure on myself was emotionally and physically exhausting, so, when I was getting constructive feedback, I took it as criticism instead of help. I expected myself to do things perfectly the first time. I didn’t take breaks when I needed them, and ended up having to take longer ones later. Admitting to yourself, and your supervisors, when things are overwhelming early on will end up saving you time and sleep.

Always enjoy the small achievements

There are a lot of setbacks in a PhD programme, but there are just as many achievements. A presentation went well, someone complimented your diagram, you finished an hour early: these are all things worth celebrating as much as losing the post-it note you were writing on is worth stressing about.

I’m someone who worries about the little things — as much as I try not to — so making sure I am as vocal and celebratory over small achievements is important for my balance. Papers and grants are not the only things worth congratulating other people for, too. After finishing my first draft of a literature review (in month seven), I took a full day off to eat pizza and watch daytime television. And I will forever be keeping a pint of ice cream on hand to celebrate finishing that analysis or getting through a progress review.doi:

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

Socially distanced networks – 5 Reasons PhD students should engage with social media now

Ema Talam

Jon Fairburn

March 2nd, 2021

1 comment | 57 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Peer support, finding a place within academia, staying up to date with the latest research, communicating research to wider audiences and navigating life after PhD. Ema Talam and Jon Fairburn outline five ways in which social media, and in particular Twitter, can make all the difference to PhD research at a time when regular academic life has been severely disrupted.

Doing a PhD is hard: lack of work-life balance, uncertainty about the future, diminishing satisfaction with the PhD programme over time, isolation, harassment and discrimination are all too common experiences. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these challenges.

Whilst by no means a panacea, at a time when undertaking a PhD is even more of a fragmented and disjointed experience, social media provides an important space for connection. We – a PhD student and an experienced researcher with over 25 years of experience in academia – put forward the five following reasons why PhD researchers at any stage of the process can benefit from engaging with academic social media and why it is more important now than before COVID-19 pandemic.

Peer Support

Let’s start with the peer support. With universities in lockdown and many PhD students working from home, the informal support that comes from working as part of a research community has diminished. Despite its sometimes hostile reputation, peer support is strongly present on Twitter. Readers new to academic Twitter might consider following general academic hashtags, such as #AcademicTwitter#AcademicChatter and #AcademicMentalHealth, or specifically PhD centred discussions on #phdchat and #virtualnotviral. Whilst a hashtag is not a peer support network, in difficult times they provide pathways to resources and opportunities to meet likeminded people that can make all the difference.

You may even find your peer group is larger than you anticipated. The sudden shift to remote teaching and learning early last year, placed experienced professors and PhD researches running their first classes from all fields in the same position of learning to teach remotely for the first time. The hashtags above as well as being links to a wider research community have also been an invaluable resource for teaching tips and tricks, learning resources and even free training. Do not be afraid to ask questions related to teaching or any aspect of academic life.

Whilst a hashtag is not a peer support network, in difficult times they provide pathways to resources and opportunities to meet likeminded people that can make all the difference.

Finally, Twitter can also be used as a tool for co-ordinating and engaging with existing PhD communities, for instance through organising synchronous and a-synchronous events, such as remote writing retreats.

Navigating your academic discipline(s)

In a similar way hashtags can also be used to find academic communities, for economists #econtwitter is a good place to start as is RePEc’s list of economists on twitter. Learned societies and their social media accounts, e.g. in our fields the Royal Economic Society or Regional Studies Association, also provide useful points for finding the latest news from a particular discipline and often provide tailored advice for how certain disciplines approach social media.

For better or worse, social media is a surveillance network. By following academics whose work you are interested in, you can not only directly engage with them, but by simply following you can develop a sense of the research, networks and events they are interested in. These can help you orient your research towards academic communities and projects that may not be represented within your own institution.

While approaching people at conferences can be intimidating, it is almost impossible on Zoom events due to lack of time dedicated for informal networking or even any breaks at all

Social media can also be a source of inspiration for looking beyond your immediate discipline. The shift to digital as a result of the lockdown, has considerably lowered barriers to attending conferences and seminars. These events are regularly advertised via social media and are a great opportunity for you to attend new areas of research and expose yourself to new ideas and methods that can benefit your PhD.

While approaching people at conferences can be intimidating, it is almost impossible on Zoom events due to lack of time dedicated for informal networking or even any breaks at all. Fortunately, the back channel provided by social media, such as Twitter, can provide a means of keeping the conversation going. Look out for event hashtags, which can be used to preview your work, or just to signal your presence and highlight what you found interesting. Finally, in digital environments where genuine engagement can often be minimal, a considered question or engagement is invaluable and can even lead to future collaboration.

Keeping up to date with the latest research

Not all academic dialogue resides in published academic papers. Many academics post and discuss newly published papers on Twitter. Social media such as twitter, are also central to sharing non-standard research outputs like blogposts, infographics, or even datasets. As COVID-19 has demonstrated much influential research has circulated via social media in the form of preprints, long before final publication. These can all be very useful for PhD students to track new developments in their fields of study.

Communicating your research to wider audiences

COVID-19 has also demonstrated the importance of social media as part of the public sphere and having a profile has become increasingly important for making your work visible to important stakeholders, the media and the general public. Established organisations, such as NGOs, or even your university, are likely to have significant audiences on social media and present opportunities to share your research with non-academic audiences.

This could involve simply tagging potential interested stakeholders in posts or taking part in more structured engagements. Simply being on social media does not guarantee public engagement, but it is a platform that allows you to connect to potential research users, which can be invaluable at a time when social contact of any type is minimal.

Life after PhD

Institutions and academics often share information about the job openings on Twitter. Following academics in your field of study can ensure that you have information about new job openings. Twitter makes it easy for information about job openings to be shared – your network can either tag you in posts about job openings or send a direct message. By building your social networks around your research interests, you are more likely to find relevant information about job openings in the field(s) of interest, whether in or outside of the academia. Many government agencies, firms and universities also have their professional profiles on LinkedIn, where they share information about new job opportunities. Additionally, on LinkedIn, you can easily indicate your openness to work or share your CV should you wish to. Both platforms can be used to seek for advice regarding job applications and help write stronger applications.

PhD students (and their supervisors) are sometimes sceptical about the use of social media and the time that will be spent on social media. Engaging with academic social media does not have to involve huge time investments – it can involve only several minutes per day and directly depends on what you want to get out of it. We would argue the benefits of using academic social media far outweigh the costs.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Image Credit: Adapted from Jon Tyson, via Unsplash. 

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About the author

Ema Talam

Ema Talam is a final year PhD in Economics student at Staffordshire University. She is interested in the topics of firm-level productivity, innovation and exporting, as well as innovation policies. Follow Ema on Twitter on @ematalam.

Jon Fairburn

Jon Fairburn is Professor of Sustainable Development at Staffordshire University. He teaches on the MSc Digital Marketing Management amongst other courses. Follow him on Twitter @ProfJonFairburn.

HS2 Student Placement in the Colne Valley

Photo Credit: Samantha Brummage

A blog post by Samantha Brummage (PhD Archaeology)

In 2018/19 Birkbeck PhD student Samantha Brummage was successful in gaining access to a placement supported by the AHRC funded CHASE DTP. In the piece below you can read about Samantha’s experience on the placement and the skills she acquired through it.

Strategies and support for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in ecology and evolutionary biology

The article below is written from the point of view of PhD students in the United States. It describes the experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of colour within a particular field of research but it is an informative framework to consider issues of importance for postgraduate researchers in other disciplines and for the wider postgraduate research community.

Click here to view article from the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (July 2020)

Life as a first year PhD student and NHS Mental health worker

A BGRS Blog post by Ogechi Anokwuru (PhD Psychology)

Hi my name is Ogechi, I am currently a first year PhD psychology student at Birkbeck and an NHS Mental Health worker. My previous studies are Master of Public Health (MPH) and BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science.

My PhD journey has been great so far, acquiring new skills and knowledge in psychology. I have been very lucky to be a part of the Department of Psychological Sciences, and am grateful to my supervisor and mentor. My research is on medical help-seeking behaviours amongst the BME community which crosses over to my line of work in the NHS on a daily basis.

As well as registering my systematic review on Prospero, lecturing about what I do in work gave me a sense of joy to share the knowledge and attitude around how health psychology interventions are practised in NHS and NHS Mental Health settings. In these uncertain times, it can be quite challenging, but it is very important that everyone looks after their mental health during this time. 

Balancing work and studies can be quite challenging as a mature student, but I’m determined that this will bring more benefit to the world of research and the field I am heading towards. COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill and has shown us the possibilities of adjusting to this potential new normal. It has also highlighted the health inequalities and disparities seen in the BME community which is in line with my research, medical help-seeking and the barriers experiences by this group making it very relevant to today’s climate. 

I hope the next time I write another blog post, it will be me sharing my published systematic review for all of you to share and read.

Stay tuned and stay safe!


Ogechi Anokwuru, MPH, BSc (Hons)

1st Year PhD Psychology Student

Department of Psychological Sciences

Birkbeck 3MT Winner Gabriella McGrogan talks about the 2019 competition

Gabriella McGrogan (Department of Criminology) was overall winner of the 2019 Birkbeck 3MT competition for her entry, “Against our Community Standards’- “Outsider” Witnessing of Atrocity and Social Media Censorship”.

Birkbeck doctoral researcher Gabriella McGrogan tells us about taking part in the 2019 Birkbeck 3 Minute Thesis Competition

Trying to figure out how to condense something you’ve been passionately thinking about and shaping over many months, into around the same amount of time you spend brushing your teeth before bed, seems beyond tricky. My supervisor suggested that the Three Minute Thesis competition would be a great opportunity to refine the key points of my project and give me a handy synopsis to roll out at conferences, meetings and in the pub. This seemed worthwhile, if only to avoid the baffled looks my poor friends give me when I’m trying to explain what I do now.

Developing skills

Having worked as a TA in secondary schools in London and Paris, I thought I might have had an advantage in the public speaking stakes. What could be more terrifying than getting 35 teenagers to first, be quiet, and second, listen to you? As it transpires, academic conferences are. Put on by famous institutions and renowned journals, full of ‘grown-up’ academics who have earned themselves the blue tick on Twitter, my first attempt earlier this year was nerve-wracking. The competition was such a brilliant opportunity to develop skills and alleviate imposter syndrome!

Speakers and members of the audience at the 3MT reception

Communicating research

Almost exactly three years ago, I submitted an application to study for Birkbeck’s MSc in Global Criminology. Up until then, I had completed two degrees in Literary and Cultural Studies, but realised that I wanted a change. It’s an understatement to say that the existence of Birkbeck has changed my life for the better. I think the competition, and ensuring my research is accessible and comprehensible to as many people as possible, is a great way to embrace and celebrate the ethos of the college. My research will benefit hugely from the interaction and input of those outside of my discipline and academia in general. Most importantly, I got to engage with students from other departments and learned some fascinating things from their presentations!

I’d strongly encourage any students considering taking part in future to do so. The tips I gained from the training alone were well worth the time spent and I’ve definitely noticed I can explain my project with ease in the aftermath!

Speakers and members of the audience at the 3MT reception

You can read more about the 2019 Birkbeck 3MT Competition here.

Are you beginning your 2nd year? The BGRS would like to hear from you!


Are you just beginning your 2nd year as a Birkbeck PhD student?

As the new 2018/19 academic year begins we hope you are looking forward to diving back in to your research. In order to give our new intake of PhD students a better picture of what their first year might entail, we would like to hear from those of you who are just beginning your second year as a doctoral researchers at Birkbeck.

We would aim to include your answers in a profile piece on the BGRS blog during the Autumn term.

For those who are willing to take part we would ask you to reply to some of the following questions  about your first year as a research student; and you would be welcome to add any other experiences that you think are relevant:

  • Were there any aspects of beginning your PhD that you found especially challenging and how were you able to overcome this?
  • What are the key achievements or milestones from your first year and how do these fit with your aims for the second year?
  • What role has your supervisor played during your first year?
  • What advice would you give other students who are just beginning as doctoral researchers at Birkbeck or to staff who have responsibilities for supporting or supervising PhD students?
  • What were the highlights of your first year?
  • What are you looking forward to most as you begin your second year?
  • Was there any training or resource that you would particularly recommend to first year PhD students?
  • How well have you been able to balance the work required to begin your PhD with other family, work or other commitments?

Tea and coffee invitation

Those who agree to take part will be invited to share some free tea and coffee in G20 with others who contributed to the piece, later in the term.

Contact us

Please do contact us if you would be willing to share your experiences for this blog piece, or if you have any questions.