Isolated – but together: Discussing the doctoral experience during COVID-19

By Leanne Cameron

Doctoral studies are, by definition, a solitary activity: the research is your own. Even for doctoral student researchers in education who look at classrooms, school systems, and teacher groups, the often chaotic whirl of data collection is followed by a period of solitary analysis and write-up. In the past month, though, that isolation has become nationally mandated in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, and doctoral researchers must abandon even collective workspaces to self-isolate within their homes. A Nature study (Woolston, 2019) of 6,300 PGTs across the world found that a third have sought help for anxiety or depression, and the two most-cited worries are uncertainties about job prospects and work-life balance. COVID-19 adds another layer of uncertainty, and for now, work and (an isolated) life co-exist under the same roof.

Fourteen doctoral researchers from across the School of Education programmes in Bristol and Hong Kong met for a Zoom discussion organised by CIRE this past Friday. The conversation focused on the intersection of challenges – the virus, recent faculty strikes, and ongoing political tensions – that have shaped their academic work during this school year. We compared virus lockdown procedures: the two Hong Kong researchers present reported that more strict guidelines had just been issued, but until that point, restaurants and cafes had limited parties to four at a table and police checkpoints were in effect. Bristol researchers conveyed our situation in which everything except supermarkets and pharmacies were shut down, with one outdoor exercise period allowed per day. Or, as Zibah so poetically put it, “exercise or extra fries!”

There was a point of immediate agreement: the lockdown is not some form of vacation or writing retreat. The “uncertainty” already associated with the doctoral journey is further compounded by near-daily changes to national guidelines and virus infection rates; international doctoral researchers specially spoke of keeping an eye on the UK situation along with the unfolding situation in their home nations. Shimmi reported her worries about her home country, Maldives, which has managed to contain the virus but is beginning to suffer from the worldwide shutdown: the nation receives almost all food products from outside of the islands. India and other key trade partners have shut down shipping and transit in their own efforts to fight the spread. Further, with Ramadan coming in the next month, she wonders if the desire to participate in religious rites and gatherings will counteract isolation protocols. Together, the mental strain of uncertainty and worry for family members serve to impede the sort of “deep think” required for doctoral-level work.

Like workers across the world, researchers who are also parents must juggle their work with their childcare duties. Sian made it halfway through a self-introduction when her sweet, precocious toddler climbed into her lap and announced that she 1) has chickenpox, 2) just got a new kitchen, and 3) was attending (until this week) a new preschool: “Half a sentence and I get interrupted.” The other women with children in the group agreed; for Jill, being at home with her children and trying to keep them focused on their schoolwork means that “it’s difficult to even think about my thesis at the moment.” Cecile agreed that, even with the shift to online-based classes and meetings, “I can’t really do anything with kids in the house.” This was a common theme especially for parent-researchers who are the sole adult in flat.

A Bristol-based researcher, Martin, got home from fieldwork just in time. He had been working in Ethiopia, collecting data for his work on refugees and policy when the WHO issued the pandemic declaration and nations began to lockdown. A day after he booked flights to return home early, he got a flurry of emails from his funder telling him to return to the UK. “It was lucky because the night that I flew out, [Ethiopian Airlines] cancelled flights to thirty countries.” He was able to set up interviews with stakeholders and policymakers who could communicate online; for refugee participants, this was less of a possibility and thus the data collected will probably alter his outcomes. Other researchers worried about extensions for funding and thesis submission, and it is our hope that the university puts student well-being first and allows more time and funding for researchers trying to work through this difficult period.

With all of this uncertainty, there were bright spots. A discussion like this managed to connect Bristol and Hong Kong researchers, allowing for interaction that often feels impossible or complicated due to packed workday schedules and time differences. We agreed to continue weekly meetings during the crisis, to both discuss our frustrations and have conversation about anything besides COVID-19 and the thesis. But most importantly, the fourteen of us were able to remind each other to be gracious to ourselves and those around us and allow ourselves time to care for day-to-day needs rather than produce an opus of a thesis – for now.


Woolston, C. (2019). PhDs: The torturous truth. Nature575, 403-406. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7




2 thoughts on “Isolated – but together: Discussing the doctoral experience during COVID-19

  1. Thank you for your eloquent and relatable post, Leanne. The honest discussion between everyone really shows the different layers of the intersection of challenges faced by doctoral researchers. As you said, hopefully “the university puts student well-being first and allows more time and funding for researchers trying to work through this difficult period”.


  2. Robin Shields

    Good to hear that doctoral students are continuing to meet despite all these challenges. I think a sense of community and a shared sense of purpose is really important for making the best of a challenging situation



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