Surviving the ‘isolation’ phase

It’s Friday night and you’re alone again… in your room, staring at the same words on the computer screen that you’ve seen for the past three years staring straight back at you. It doesn’t feel great, but you know you can’t escape this. Jenny Mak offers some quick hacks to hopefully make the isolating phases of the PhD ride smoother…

Many PhD students experience a phase (usually in the final year) where they go into ‘isolation’ or ‘lockdown’ mode to write up and submit their thesis. This tends to be an extremely intense period where it can feel like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. You find yourself alone in your room/office/lab/library at odd hours, while the rest of the world are going about their normal lives. And while I’d love to tell you otherwise, the cold hard truth is that you can’t escape this. It’s a rite of passage and the only way out is through.

But the good news is that you’re actually closer to the end than ever before. Stay strong! Here are three quick hacks that helped me power through this challenging time.

Man wearing denim pants and a hat is sitting alone in the middle of a stadium in the bleachers. The seats are varying shades of green.

Hack #1: Play Youtube videos of people studying in the background

Loneliness can really bring you down during the isolation phase, but at the same time you can’t avoid being physically alone for long periods to get your work done. Yet this isn’t healthy or productive in the long run because you need to feel positive and optimistic to be able to keep going. During those lonely work sessions, especially if you’re working from home, I find that playing Youtube videos of people studying in the background offers a sense of motivation and company. These videos shouldn’t be a substitute for human company, but they can be great supplementary support tools. Medical student Jamie from TheStriveToFit has been my go-to virtual study buddy.

Hack #2: Listen to motivational podcasts and videos

I’ve started listening to motivational podcasts and videos during my lunch hour. Being deep in isolation mode, I want to hear how other people handle challenging times when they’re hustling and trying to get their projects done against all odds. Life coaches and entrepreneurs like Marie Forleo and Brené Brown offer golden nuggets of wisdom that can fuel your drive. TED talks are also great resources for advice. Ultimately, listening to these speakers reminds me that everyone faces their own challenges that might feel insurmountable. At the same time, everyone needs encouragement to remind them that they will get to the finish line in the end.

Hack #3: Pick your regular exercise workout

We all know the importance of keeping fit and healthy. Whether we actually do it is another matter. But cultivating the habit of moving your body for thirty minutes to an hour every other day (or every day if you’re up for it) can ensure that you are in good condition to endure the immense stress that you’re under. Having this level of fitness also means that if you get sick during this time, it’ll probably be easier for you to bounce back. So pick a workout that you enjoy doing—running, dancing, swimming, kickboxing etc. My workout of choice has been spinning. While it keeps me fighting fit, I’ve also learnt valuable lessons on endurance and stamina that I’ve written about in this post and that train me to be resilient during this phase.

Black and White Photograph. Person standing alone in a parking lot, low lighting.

Are you feeling isolated? What are some ways you have found that are helpful and encouraging to you as you get through this period of your PhD? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.



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