I’m writing this fresh from a crisp Winter jog near Pontyclun. I moved to the area recently and, not knowing many places to explore, tried a run that I’d seen others complete on a well-known activity tracking App.
Someone commented that the route was deceptive, but with a steady pace and the top in sight I thought to myself, “that wasn’t so bad!”. What I didn’t appreciate was that the ‘summit’ I’d reached (picture, right) was fake news – and several bigger climbs were needed. Three miles later, my beetroot face and I finally reached the top.
On my plod back home, I was thinking about how my morning summed up a typical PhD journey. After all, we sign up for a PhD despite people eagerly pointing out how strenuous the route is. However. we’ve not run a ‘normal’ post-doctorate challenge; the Coronavirus pandemic forces us to tackle some of the trickiest elevations and undulations. As we continue to work from home, many of us still need to juggle our academic endeavours with other uncertainties. As a part time PhD candidate with a young family, I’m still ‘dealing with’ unforeseen childcare needs and competing pressures from my non-academic employment. However, I press on because of my wish to make a difference in a subject area that’s of long-standing interest – investigating the nature and organisation of waste crime in Wales. You can read more about my research here.
My interest in this area comes from my non-academic work for the organisation responsible for regulating the waste industry in Wales. With these connections you’d assume that my methodological approach is straightforward, even in these uncertain times, on account of an ‘insider’ status benefiting access to data and participants, and the development of professional experiences that enable strong challenges and opinions.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been that simple. Waste management has been affected enormously by the pandemic, with huge increases in waste production (especially clinical waste), household recycling centres being closed for long spells, and regulators modifying the way they police the industry to ensure staff work safely and in line with Government restrictions. These factors are all seen as causes of increased illegal waste activity during the pandemic… something I’ll look to explore!
However, from a methodological viewpoint these developments have completely changed the nature of the industry, the validity of regulatory data and the availability of participants. I’ve also seen first-hand the pressure on regulators and policy makers to respond to the pandemic, whether by publishing temporary regulations to act to certain matters, by coping with staff shortages, or by needing to support mutual aid requests from other agencies. These factors, combined with key contacts juggling their own complex personal circumstances, have (understandably!) put my PhD way down their list of priorities.
In the early stages of the first lockdown, I used my time to discuss plans, and potential alternatives, to address these setbacks. As time’s passed, I’ve come to realise that the changes we face aren’t temporary, and our challenges aren’t going to be resolved by simply extending our deadlines. It’s been important for me to move beyond the “list of worries” or anxieties over the future of my project, towards a state of mind that looks to find alternative perspectives on the challenges I’ve faced academically. In doing this, what I’ve realised is that running isn’t just analogy for the PhD. There are many things enshrined in my weekly routine as a runner that have helped me.
I thought I’d share three key ones with you.
- Run a different route
When the Welsh Government restricted the amount of time we could exercise, it meant that I was forced to find shorter, more local runs. While completely understandable, there was a frustration that I couldn’t safely continue my status quo. In fact, these different routes have greatly improved my running experiences – so whilst being creative and going out of my comfort zone, I was still achieving the outcomes I wanted: fresh air, a clear head and fitness. Within the context of my research, I’ve taken new paths to address my research questions. I’ve scrapped plans to ‘get out’ in the field, deferred data requests to ease pressures on key staff in participating agencies and staggered my interviews. I continue to make changes to my research questions – even in year 3 – so it really is never too late to think about a fresh perspective or element for your project. Have a chat with your supervisors and read as broadly as you can around other methodological techniques.
- Don’t train alone
On a race day I rely on so many people: spectators, fellow runners, volunteers and pace setters. Ultimately, we can only perform at our best when surrounded and supported by others. Our research is no different. In a post-doctoral environment, it can be hard to ask for help when we’re struggling, particularly when working virtually and dispersed. However, we’re all surrounded by understanding research participants, inspiring peers and supportive supervisors, so make sure you learn from – and encourage – the people around you. Pose questions. Test ideas. Ask for advice. And don’t forget… there are still loads of opportunities to discuss your ideas with others. I recently presented my progress to the Cardiff Centre for Crime, Law and Justice, which was the perfect way to get fresh ideas for my project, practice presenting some results and plans, and get feedback on them.
- Measure your progress positively
I regularly scroll through my activity tracking App to check the progress I’ve made. The issue is I only really focus on two measures – the number of miles I’ve run and the pace I’ve set. The same can be said for our research. We always seem to focus on the number of hours we’ve sat at your desk or the number of words we’ve written.
For anyone reading this who’s new to the PhD I’d encourage you to look beyond this kind of #GoHardOrGoHome progress monitoring. After all, the pandemic continues to generate more significant and long-term realities for us. So it’s vital we focus more on things like the quality of our outputs, on our creativity and innovation during challenging times, and on the skills, expertise and academic nous we’ve picked up along the way. You never know, the latter point might come in handy… as when the time comes to justify our methods and approach to external examiners, the effects of the pandemic on our work, the mitigations we’ve chosen and our justifications for these will surely be the perfect answer.
Mentioning ‘external examination’ has probably made us all daydream about our post-doctoral finish lines. This is some way off for me, but I hope that this blog has helped to remind you that, in spite of the unique, challenging and sometimes overwhelming nature of our PhD journey at the moment, the sense of achievement and the experiences gained at your end point will be a sure way of forgetting the slog…
Pob lwc a dal a ti pawb. Good luck and keep going everyone!