Working around Covid-19 and the benefits of collaboration and community

Sept 2019 Team Photo

The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in significant changes to the way most of us work and live. The unprecedent uncertainty and the lockdown enforced isolation have also created challenges for maintaining normal work routines and social wellbeing. PhD researchers Maria and Nicole talk through how being part of a larger research project has helped to counteract this.

For the past few weeks, we have all been inundated with messages about the unprecedented times we are facing due to the outbreak of Covid-19. While we do not want to belittle the realities of this disease and its consequences, we wanted to reflect on some of the ways that we, as PhD students working as part of the FIELD project, feel lucky at this current time. We also wanted to reflect on some ways that we have been able to stay sane and productive during this time.

What can we do

Firstly, the nature of our PhD research allows us to work remotely. This applies to us not just because of the FIELD project but given the nature of our disciplines too. Maria’s research lies in economic modelling which means her only requirement is a computer, while Nicole’s research in history has continued thanks to being able to access many historical texts online. Of course, there are limitations—Maria’s surveys have been delayed, and Nicole’s access to archives is shut down, preventing access to some materials. However, we are ultimately still able to be productive blessed as we are by the internet age and access to a good connection.

The lesson from this comes down to where we focus our attention. Rather than thinking about the limitations that working remotely poses and what we are no longer able to do, we have been trying to think about what we can get done. The list of limitations is long (including for us both), but there is usually an equally long list of ways to try and remain active researchers. Perhaps there’s a book you’ve been meaning to read to give your research extra contextual relevance, or perhaps it’s time learn new computing techniques that would boost your an analysis (in Maria’s case modelling) skills.

Staying connected

Secondly, FIELD has provided us with a much-needed experience in staying connected as a team while physically separated. The project itself is a collaboration between five institutions located across the UK, meaning that since the projects’ inception sharing of information and ideas across the internet has been an integral part. Regular online meetings and the use of Microsoft Teams and other data sharing services have been key for staying updated with each other’s research and collaborating on sub-projects – a core part of the interdisciplinarity that is fundamental to the project. Ultimately, our experience with FIELD has meant that the Covid-10 enforced learning curve for online collaboration tools has been relatively flat for us, given we were using these anayway. The current situation has illustrated how valuable these skills and technologies are for staying maintaining as normal as possible working practice during a pandemic, but these skills stay valuable once the disease leaves. One could argue that they increase one’s capacity to engage in global research projects. If you do not have experience with these platforms, a great place to start is Youtube, where you can find very informative videos outlining their use and how to make the most out of them.

A sense of community

Finally, and probably most significantly, is the community that we have access to. We feel that our experience would be much more isolating if we did not have access to the larger project group. Of course, our team is focused on academic enquiry, however it is also a collection of people who meet, talk, and relate to one another. Specifically, the Early Career Researcher meetings (pictured) in which we share readings and reflect on varying topics have been a great source of normalcy for us, and an opportunity to check up on one another across the country (and further afield). The takeaway—communication, and human contact (even if virtual) is immensely important! If you find yourself (as many PhD students do) working from home and spending many hours without social contact, try to set up a schedule for regular virtual interactions. One idea for PhD students specifically would be to start a virtual reading group or a ‘virtual vent’ session, to talk about the challenges and frustrations about working (and living) with the restrictions in place.

ECR Reading Group Online

Ultimately while this time is highly regrettable, and everyone faces new and unique challenges, we wanted to think about some of the silver linings and think about ways that PhD students (and other researchers) may be able to make the best of the situation. We know that for some the issues that we have discussed are just the tip of the iceberg and in no way do we want to downplay the challenges people are facing. However, we also wanted to pause and reflect on the amazing opportunity we have as part of the FIELD team; something that has been highlighted by the current situation.