It has been a while since we wrote a blog post, the end of January to be exact. A post was partially planned for early March, but we all know what happened then. So here at the start of the academic year of 2020/21 we reflect on the past year and our PhD’s in general.
This post is less about parallels between our work on disease, death, and the dead in the early modern period and the Covid-19 pandemic, and more about our personal experiences while studying these subjects during said global pandemic.
In the build up to lockdown measures being announced on the 23 March, both of us were involved in various projects and activities alongside our PhD research and writing. These included seminar teaching, internships, consultancy work, tutoring, writing papers for conferences, a 0-hour contract casual job, organising the Graduate Research Symposiums at Birkbeck, University of London, and general family life. A full and busy schedule that we are sure is an overly familiar sight to fellow PhD students.
As countries around the world gradually went into lockdown some of the blogs on our site began attracting a lot of attention, especially ‘All such as shall be shutt upp of the sicknes’: the response of St Dunstan in the West to plague in 1665′, and Aaron specifically received comments about parallels between his work on plague and what was happening across the globe.
Aaron was invited to participate in a podcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with his supervisor Professor Vanessa Harding and Professor John Henderson (both Birkbeck). The resultant podcast explored the response to pandemics in history with a specific focus on bubonic plague in Europe from the late fourteenth to late seventeenth centuries –The Terrors of the Time: Lessons from historic plagues – It was certainly not a stretch to draw parallels between the anxiety of governments and concerns with compliance around lockdown regulations. Or, as pubs closed, gigs and other events were cancelled etc. people’s sadness at the removal of opportunities for social interaction and connection.
We waited for what was inevitable, the UK lockdown. When it was announced Anna had to move the seminars she was teaching online, the Graduate Research Symposium was cancelled (later to be resurrected online), jobs were lost, conferences postponed or moved online, libraries and archives closed, and general confusion reigned. Finding a new rhythm was important.
Over the first couple of weeks adjustment was key and to be honest little PhD work was really done. Home schooling, teaching online, getting used to other people working in the same environment as you (some whom have very loud phone conversations and tap very loudly on their keyboard), anxiety attacks for one of us, and issues around replanning and organising a new way to work were all problems that needed to be confronted.
After a couple of weeks of adapting (and as mentioned very little PhD work), a certain rhythm and routine developed. More work was able to be accomplished. Supervisions were picked up again online, plans were put into place for the Graduate Research Symposium to be held online too. Some things did continue as planned. Aaron was involved in said podcast whose subject matter was now more poignant than ever. We both presented papers at online conferences over the summer – Aaron at the Reconsidering Illness conference and Anna at Death and Culture III. We were hugely grateful to the organisers of these events and the semblance of normality being involved in a conference offered. Both of us were lucky enough to have plenty of work we could carry on with at home as large parts of our archival work had already been completed and we were both writing thesis chapters. This is not to say there were no longer struggles. Frustrations were real (one of us almost threw their laptop out the window at one point). We couldn’t just pop to the library to check something, and some days PhD work just didn’t happen at all no matter how hard we tried and even if we spent the day in front of the computer.
Maintaining momentum and enthusiasm was tricky but we were both focused on the lockdown not hindering our schedules for completion. Even so, some days were easier than others. Balancing home schooling with the need to spend focused time writing was an issue for one of us. Finances were certainly a concern, with tutoring jobs lost due to the cancellation of GCSE and A Level exams (Aaron) and the closure of theatres and the loss of a job there (Anna). Whilst we were both able to continue writing it was difficult not having the option of working in archives or certain library spaces we enjoyed and took for granted prior to the lockdown. A big part of doing a PhD on London history in London is spending time in the spaces and places that are located amidst the places and spaces where the people we researched once walked. Although completing a PhD is a reasonably solitary experience, and long hours spent alone in archives and alone writing away are part of the experience, we did miss meeting other Birkbeck PhD students for our monthly pub catch up, and just generally to touch base and encourage each other onwards. Luckily, we were able to organize some zoom quizzes with said other Birkbeck PhDs and some online drink catch ups…although sitting in your living room with a glass of wine/beer/tea/coffee and talking to a computer screen isn’t quite the same. Supervisions are an incredibly stimulating and enjoyable element of the PhD experience. Whilst we were thankful that supervisions could continue online, we both missed meeting with our supervisors in person.
Now we are in another odd position. Lockdown was lifted, we were able to have a catch up with each other in person and catch up with other friends and family. One of us picked up a pub job, purely out of necessity to help with rent, schools went back, and despite the new rules some of our favourite things were available again. With some archives now open (with restrictions and booking systems in place of course), we are looking forward to some time back in them, especially looking forward to visits to the London Metropolitan Archives. We are also looking forward to seeing other Birkbeck PhDs in the not too distant future, but we are also not disillusioned. There is a chance that another lockdown will occur (in fact it is probably a given) and this time hopefully we can find our rhythm and routine far quicker.
We learnt things from the first lockdown that we will use, not just for another lockdown but in general. We learnt that the show must go on. We were and are both lucky to have a safe place to live during this strange time and despite financial issues we are more privileged than many. Despite the lockdown and uncertainty and the fact archives and libraries closed overnight, the work still needed to be done. We both feel that although the going has been tough, we are there or there about where we expected to be at this stage of the PhD…well almost.
To finish off this joint blog post we thought we would write down twelve bits of advice to help those who are about to embark upon their PhD journey in these uncertain times.
1. Be kind to yourself! This is so important; you will hit many bumps in the road as you make your way through your PhD. People around you may not always be kind to you, but you can always be kind to yourself. You are doing a PhD that is truly awesome!
2. Take time to rest! Granted this is a hard one but it is important. Do take time to rest from the hustle bustle of life and its stress. Have a holiday where you do not do any work, lie on the sofa and binge a TV show or have a movie marathon for an entire day, give yourself a weekend off, take short breaks. Also take breaks throughout the day, and sleep. Sleep is so important!
3. Sometimes you fail, it is OK! You may not get the feedback you wished for, you may be rejected for funding, a paper you have poured your heart and soul into may be disregarded for a conference or for publication, you may not be given a position you desperately want. First, you are not alone, all or some of these things happen to everyone, we know because they have happened to both of us. Second, it is alright, honestly, it is not the end and it will pass. Keep going, we promise it will be fine.
4. Surround yourself with good people! A support network, both within and without academia is so important. Do remember the network that lies without academia, it can be refreshing to vent to someone who has no idea about any of this.
5. None of us really know what we are doing! It may not feel like it but most of us are stumbling along. Imposter syndrome is real, we all feel this at times. Figuring it out as you go is part of the PhD. It may feel like other people at the same stage as you have their s**t together, but the reality is they probably feel the same way you do. Imposter syndrome also does not end…
6. Your Supervisor is so important! Find someone who will put up with you and support you. Both of us have been extremely lucky in this regard and have amazing supervisors, but there are some horror stories out there. If it is not working switch supervisors. Here we are not speaking from experience, but it seems that sticking with a supervisor you do not gel with would not be worth doing.
7. Save everything and back it all up! One of us had our computer explode one day, and it was the most terrifying couple of hours. Luckily, everything was backed up.
8. Finances are going to be a pain! If you do need to work during your PhD that is alright, too many people do not acknowledge this. Ignore the snobs and work if you need to. Some of us are first gen, did not get enough funding, or any funding, and at the end of the day we all need to pay rent / have other expenses. It is worth thinking about the finances for the duration of you PhD, plan it out at the start, you will thank your past selves for doing so.
9. Network! Even if you hate it and are extremely awkward at it (like one of us), it is useful. Find the way that works best for you, is it via twitter, at seminars and conferences, emails, or stalking people in libraries and archives (don’t stalk people in libraries and archives), just find which way you are most comfortable with and do it, even if you want the floor to swallow you up most of the time. The cliques within academia can be truly horrible and demoralizing, it is hard to ignore but ignoring it and finding the good people is key.
10. Make sure you have a work life balance! Even if you have to work a job while doing your PhD do not let your life be the job and the PhD, get a hobby (drinking beer can be a hobby), do a dance class, run, ride a bike, and exercise in general, make things, garden, bake, it does not matter what it is just make sure there is more and the life part of the work life balance is not disregarded.
11. It is your PhD! Plan it out, take charge of it, be prepared to revise it (a lot), listen to advice, but it is yours and only you can get it done
12. Enjoy it!
As we near the end of our PhD journeys a lot of this is still relevant advice for the preparation for our vivas and hopeful postdoc journeys…we are not disillusioned we know the industry is in a bit of a state, we just choose to live in hope. We may need to remind ourselves of this list quite frequently.
Good luck to all the new and continuing PhD students. Here’s to a good academic year 2020/21.
Aaron Columbus and Anna Cusack