Isolation Station: Beating the Pandemic Blues as a Researcher

Ph.D. work can feel isolating at the best of times. With a pandemic going on, and having to stay put for safety, being a doctoral student can become an even lonelier experience. Maria shares some tips to help you regain a sense of community.

Ph.D. students live and work in a colourful international community, which is often the source of long-lasting friendships and professional bonds. I think back on the years of my doctoral studies as some of the most engaging of my life – I made friends and acquaintances who hailed from all over the world, and we had many an exciting conversation about all topics under the sun.

Despite this, my time as a Ph.D. student was also one of the most isolating periods of my life, as I was frequently holed up in the library or at home, planning, researching and writing up my thesis, worrying over a lesson plan or a conference presentation, or spending hours at a time filling in applications for part-time jobs that would keep me afloat.

At present, I am in a stable, full-time job outside of academia. While I normally get to be in an office environment abuzz with creativity thanks to a tightly knit team of imaginative minds, because of the pandemic I have found myself working from home, a throwback to some of my most intense Ph.D. days. And this has made me wonder: If I am feeling as isolated as this, how much worse must Ph.D. students – who are often in “solitary confinement” at their desks anyway – be feeling now that they must stay put because of the pandemic, unable even to travel to see family and friends?

So I’ve been thinking about some of the things that have kept me going at times when I was feeling lonely, both in the past and in recent months. Here are three of the things that have helped me the most – and that may help you, too.

  • Regular video calls

Don’t underestimate the power of video calls – not just with friends, family members, and probably your supervisor, but with colleagues and other peers, too. For example, a few weeks ago, colleagues that I had lost touch with reached out and suggested that we resurrect a reading group that we used to run as postgraduates…except via Zoom this time, of course. These sessions have been doing a lot to keep me happy and motivated, because I get to talk to people I don’t often talk to otherwise, I get to read more for leisure, and to carry intellectually rich conversations with others who are just as passionate about literature as I am.

  • Contribute to a cause or do something with others in mind

Something else that has helped me reduce my sense of isolation has been doing something for others, or with others in mind. Of course, working to complete your PhD, and possibly having teaching commitments, too, will keep you busy. But if you’re feeling lonely, having a cause to support, or a more altruistic purpose might help restore a sense of community. I have offered to run errands for neighbours whenever possible (such as doing some shopping for them at the local market, for instance), written posts on my personal blog in the hopes of entertaining others, and done my best to support independent local music venues where I often attended events.

  • Have a little private project

A little project to take your mind off of the pandemic – and any stress associated with PhD work as well – might also help. In recent weeks, for me this has been building an indoor nano-pond (I was inspired by this one) and documenting its evolution. I have found this to be both soothing and engaging, and I love to watch my water plants growing and changing their microcosm. My tiny pond also gives me a great excuse to focus my mind on something other than any anxieties or insecurities I may be feeling in the moment.

What strategies have worked to help you feel less isolated at this time? I would love to hear from you in the comments!

Maria Cohut completed her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick in 2018. Currently, she works as a medical journalist and moonlights as a writer and educator. You can reach her on Twitter @mariascohut, or through her blog Encyclopaedia Vanitatum.

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