In the first of an occasional series, PhD student, Mary Fredlund, reflects on her experiences of adapting to our strange new world…

Just now I am in the process of re-threading the needle of my PhD in this different world. Until today all I have really done this week is sit at my computer, looking at the screen, with all the focus I can muster – while being totally distracted.

The last 10 days have been a whirlwind, with significant upheaval. In the course of moving to home working I decided not to take both my computer screens home on foot and commandeered a car. I fought an overwhelming sense of disobedience and parked in a normally prohibited spot to make loading them into the boot achievable. A few days later I overcame the sense that I was looting and was similarly reunited with my chair; for which my back and I are truly grateful. Now a tangible sense of calm is descending. I am able to experience a few moments of composure again, like the tranquillity after a storm. The smells and sounds of nature are shining through these beautiful spring mornings and the dust is settling down. Here, in this strange new world, it is clearer than ever that high quality health research is indispensable. My issue is how to do it well.

A PhD is training in such research. The process of becoming an effective researcher includes work to learn about the subject being studied and practice to develop competence in the methods and theories used. High quality research requires a researcher to strive for and sustain the highest standards of work they produce. Therefore on the journey of a PhD, each needle threaded is vital to the overall success of the project as is each stitch sewn to the well embroidered thesis that is finally handed in. Each step, no matter how small, is crucial.

This is greatly strengthened by candid enquiry in how to be well when working to do it well. In these extraordinary times there is an extra opportunity to attend to the self-care fundamentals that sustains a healthy researcher over the longer term. This may not be how it was meant to be but this is how it is on this expedition. Therefore now that the overwhelming waves of confusion and stress are abating there is an opportunity to regroup, to recover and gingerly resume my trek. The steps at this point are small but that is okay.

What has helped me at this time is:

  1. Reassurance that what I have been experiencing and feeling is normal and to be expected during such a time of traumatic upheaval. Reassuringly I have not been alone in feeling:
    • More lost at sea than a first year PhD student normally feels.
    • Unable to concentrate on work.
    • Unproductive and then stressed about my lack of productivity
    • Conflicted as how much to admit to my supervisors. To whom I want to present as capable; while feeling completely incapable.
    • Feeling alone in struggling with this situation.
    • Like this situation (or its impact on me) will not be understood or taken into account by the ‘powers that determine my future’.
  2. Responding with practical kindness. I have been therapeutically prescribing chocolate and cake as well as allowing myself to stop and sit quietly or do something else; cooking, resting and embracing my permitted daily exercise outdoors to feast on sunshine and searching for flowers in bloom.
  3. Recognising that the University is full of supportive champions; albeit in a virtual sense at this time. In my supervisors I have guides to encourage me on my PhD voyage. From the university ‘authorities’ I see the kind intentions behind the flurry of recent emails. The objective is, as has always been, to provide important hand rails and buffering supports to ensure I do not fall off the path and get stuck in a ditch. Even if the path has changed.
  4. Reframing things into successes. Each small action, each small step and each threading of a needle is a vital contribution to completing the journey. Achieving one small thing means that things are moving in the right direction. Doing nothing is really doing importantly vital rest. Remembering that successful meaningful work no longer looks like what was planned to be happening a month ago.
  5. Revealing what is really meaningful. A breath, each breath. In through the nose and out, slowly, through the mouth. An action, each action contributes to valuing, supporting and attending to the provision of health and social care; be that an action in the everyday of smiling at a stranger (from a safe distance), of checking in on a neighbour or in research. In the bigger picture it is meaningful to contribute to the production of robust health research that reveals and supports the care and support that we provide for those who need it in society. Students in the medical school are well placed to be part of that work.
  6. Reflecting on what has happen. On the loss and change that has taken place. Grieving for the plans I had and looking for the opportunities to study in deeper more meaningful ways.

I will be employing strategies most consciously over the next few weeks and months but hope they will become habitual over the course of my PhD and beyond.