Since finishing my PhD in the thick of the UK’s latest COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve been asked a torrent of questions by fellow PhDers, higher-ups and curious bystanders.
“What was the viva like?”
“How did you find the write-up in lockdown?”
“Do you have any advice on finding a postdoc in a pandemic?”
Now, full disclosure: I am by no means an expert and I am absolutely not suggesting that my experience is representative of wider trends. In fact, I wholly doubt that any individual’s experience can be “representative” in these strange pseudo-apocalyptic times, but as someone in a position of relative privilege, I am cautiously aware that I may have had it relatively easy. Nonetheless, I hope the below is helpful, informative, useful or even just distracting to someone.
23rd March 2020.
I awoke a PhD student with six months left on the clock, funding applications for postdocs underway and several months of doing everything but those final lab experiments behind me (it’s fine, that’s what the last few months are for, right?).
BOOM. Lockdown. The UK is closing up; last orders at the bar (or lab bench).
“It’s fine, this will pass in three weeks”, I hear from across the road.
“This is the new normal. Life will never be the same. Get used to endless video meetings in your pyjamas”, someone howls in Tesco.
“It’s the 5G towers, man! Government control is here to stay. They’ll start with our freedom and soon enough we will all have microchips in our brains and the BBC will only show re-runs of awful American remakes of classic British sitcoms”, someone probably posted on Twitter.
Anxious concerns and wild conspiracies aside, I doubt anyone was wholly unaffected by this announcement. My thoughts quickly darted toward the invertebrate samples waiting to be identified in a university freezer, the macronutrient analysis waiting to be finished on the adjacent bench and the recently-received request for experiments for manuscript corrections. My PhD schedule needed a bit of a re-think.
I won’t bore you with the details, but from there it took several months for the university to re-open in a reduced capacity (understandable given the incredible complexity of safely facilitating the return of hundreds of staff and students). I was in the very fortunate and privileged position of receiving a funded 3-month extension from BBSRC (who funded my PhD), without which I would have had to reframe most of my thesis. This was not, however, the case for everybody, as Max can tell you:
For PhD students that started their projects more recently, the pandemic presents a few different problems not likely to be experienced by those further down the PhD road. For example, those needing to conduct essential field work, as is common in the realm of ecology, have been hamstrung by the pandemic and its associated travel restrictions. International fieldwork has been more or less impossible. My own experience of this was extremely stressful. I wrote about it in greater depth here: https://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/a-phd-in-a-pandemic/. TL;DR: I was evacuated from my Mauritian field site because of a tropical cyclone, all my samples were left in the field-station, COVID stuck and I had to fly back to the UK with almost none of my personal belongings and none of my samples.
This saga continued though, given that I needed my samples to work on my PhD. For over seven months I was basically treading water when it came to the main thrust of my project. There were certainly things I could do, thankfully, and I received a lot of intellectual and emotional support from my supervisors and peers. Nevertheless, the idea that this is all made better with a 3-month funded extension from UKRI is a bit of a kick to the crotch. It’s better than nothing, but it’s half of what I need. Eventually my samples did arrive after a little pan-global tour and I could continue progressing with the colossal task at hand.
The pandemic woes do not end there for students in a similar place to me. Many of us have had to restructure our projects and rethink what we can do to produce a valuable thesis. This comes with the associated concerns about employability given that these new directions may not be quite as publishable or confer the necessary/desired skills for an intended career path. You’ll therefore be very unsurprised to hear that the pandemic has badly affected the experiences of students at all stages of the PhD road (myself and Jordan being examples of these different stages). Who knew a global pandemic could be so frustrating? As ever, my Twitter DMs are open to anyone that needs a chat or to vent about these things.
The Pandemical Viva
Delays, extensions and mitigations aside, I successfully submitted my PhD in late November with the date set for a December viva (viva voce, from the Latin for “living voice”, is the name given to an oral defence/examination of a PhD thesis in the UK, elsewhere often dubbed a “defence”). Vivas can vary between institutions (and even more wildly between countries), but the general format for Cardiff University is a ~3+ hour discussion of the work with one external examiner (an expert in the field from beyond the institution who leads the examination), one internal examiner (someone within the department with relevant expertise who also examines the work) and a chair (who ensures it all goes swimmingly). This is traditionally done in person.
Until COVID, of course!
Since the arrival of the most banal apocalypse that you could ever expect from a Hollywood blockbuster (I’m looking at you, 2011’s Contagion), Cardiff vivas have been hosted on Zoom. This presents some novel challenges (connectivity issues, the all-encompassing ‘Zoom fatigue’, etc.) but also some excellent benefits! No longer are you constrained to the M4 corridor in your selection of external examiners. Suddenly your trusty ‘old man slippers’ are perfectly viable footwear for this event of formality and ritual. You have every home comfort at your disposal!
Then the Zoom ends. You’re not doing the triumphant march back to your office of cheering comrades that you practiced after every successful PCR. You see the same four walls that you saw when you silently sent the thesis submission email, or finished your breakfast earlier in the day. Rather than the climax of four years of tenacious work, it feels a little like the awkward silence between episodes of your latest Netflix binge. I was fortunate enough that my incredibly supportive wife was there to cheer with and, in many ways, this understated alternative to the moment I had envisioned for years was far more pensive and personal, but I can see how this experience might be incredibly underwhelming for many.
I was also fortunate that my lab mates and supervisors had set aside time to Zoom afterwards, simulating the post-viva jovialities as best we could. I was, however, incredibly “Zoomed out” by the end of this. All in all, you can make a great event of a Zoom viva! Sure, it’s not the event you’ve watched countless peers emerge from in years passed, but it has its benefits and I honestly hope that many of these (e.g., international examiners) are here to stay beyond the pandemic.
The Post-pandemic Postdoc Pursuit
One of the greatest challenges of a 2020 best-before-date on my PhD was finding my next step. Despite many turbulent times over the four years, I was mostly steadfast in my desire to do a postdoc. I deeply loved research throughout my PhD, especially when I had the autonomy to independently design and carry out large components of my project, so a postdoc seemed a natural next step. I had prepared from day one for this path, attempting to tailor my CV through publications and other outputs to suit this. At the start of the pandemic, I even had two funding applications submitted or close to submission (and a third shortly before that, but rapidly rejected).
The pandemic had some fairly immediate employment implications. My grant applications were all rejected (I like to tell myself that more people stuck at home meant more applications submitted so more competition, but really they probably wouldn’t have made the cut either way). Hiring freezes were enacted in universities across the country (and many other parts of the world) rendering academic vacancies gold dust. The difficulty involved in getting people to fieldwork and into labs meant that many projects were being delayed. All of this ultimately culminated in a very competitive job market and an increasingly anxious me.
I initially poured applications into postdocs in the UK, but with each rejection my geographic specificity waned until I had applications from the USA, through Scandinavia to the Middle East. But how did I find all of these opportunities? Many people recommended websites like findapostdoc, but these advertised next to nothing in my field. Some recommended searching the websites of labs I was interested in joining, but these were largely empty or didn’t even exist. Another website, jobs.ac.uk, provided some leads, but as soon as the UK pool emptied, this did too. Trusty old LinkedIn gave me one of my first bursts of relevant opportunities, but duplicate advertisements and poor keyword optimisation made this a frustrating resource at times.
Then, on a desperate day of dejection and panic, I turned to Twitter. I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter (erring mostly toward love, but we have bad days) and I largely use it to keep up with the scientific community, so why not search for jobs there? I’d seen a few postdocs advertised there before, but wasn’t sure how to find them now. As it turns out, Twitter’s search bar takes Boolean search strings (e.g., “(spiders OR insects) AND (postdoc OR postdoctoral)”). Suddenly, a few ‘AND’s and ‘OR’s later, I was finding more opportunities than I had time to apply for! By refining the search, I found a couple of incredible projects that sounded utterly ideal, including the one I am ultimately preparing to start now.
Hopefully this ream of text confers some degree of comfort or consolation to someone, or at the very least documents this peculiar blip in the rollercoaster that is the 21st Century from two entomological PhD perspectives. A PhD is a bizarre rollercoaster at the best of times, so the additional challenges imposed by the global shutdown of everything are bound to be excruciatingly arduous for most in this position. Uncertainty is rife in the precarious path of the early career researcher at the best of times, so this is bound to throw more than a spanner in the works of most PhDers, particularly where existing challenges historically increase the difficulty of their journey. Perhaps in the near future normality can resume and a better, kinder society will prevail. All we can do in the meantime is begin building that future by caring for and looking out for our peers as we navigate these murky waters together.