Hannah Sawyer, Psychology, University of Liverpool, 2018 Cohort
Due to COVID-19, we have all been working from home since March. This unprecedented situation is something that I, like many others, was not expecting or prepared for when I started my PhD only five months ago. My PhD routine prior to lockdown consisted of coming to the office every day and having face-to-face meetings with supervisors, as well as including a social aspect of receiving peer support through regular coffee breaks and in-person chats. This came to a halt 11 weeks ago and since then I have been working, alone, in a make-shift “office” in my living room.
Needless to say, life in quarantine has changed my PhD experience greatly, with online meetings and lab presentations becoming the new normal. The change has definitely been a huge learning curve and something that I have not always found easy. As a result of trying to keep up with university work whilst taking some time to look after myself, I would be lying if I said there has not been days where my motivation has been at an all-time low. But I have come to learn that if some days you find it hard to be productive, then that is okay – after all, there are so many other things occupying our minds at the moment.
One of the biggest challenges I have faced in terms of my PhD is the shift of my research from conducting experimental studies to designing a study that I can work on from home. Instead of testing children in schools and nurseries like originally planned, I am now in the process of conducting secondary data analyses on transcriptions of children’s speech. This analysis involves using different programming languages such as Python and R, something that I do not have a great deal of knowledge in – my prior experience in R ultimately involved a lot of trial and error and endless google searches. Fortunately, the Computational Biology Facility (CBF) at the University of Liverpool hosted an “R for beginners” online training course which I attended at the beginning of June. The training course introduced R from the very basics and taught different methods of visualisation and statistical analysis, all of which will be considerably useful as my PhD progresses. However, when the opportunity of attending this course arose, I was sceptical about doing online training. This is because it would involve you primarily working on your own without the option of getting face-to-face support, something that I greatly valued on previous courses I have attended. I knew that since I was trying to learn a complex coding language, I would inevitably need this type of help at some point during the course. Despite this, I decided to attend the course as I needed to learn the R skills that this course offered and I am very glad I did.
I realised that my preconceptions of online training were incredibly wrong. In fact, I found this course to be a fantastic opportunity to learn R, with hands-on examples, and online support available from demonstrators and other attendees. The format of the course consisted of live sessions at the beginning and end of each day, pre-recorded lectures and working through detailed handouts on your own with help only a short video call away. Although attending a course in person has its advantages, I actually think I preferred completing this course online. I found that one of the main advantages of attending a course this way was the option to be able to work at your own pace. There was no pressure to keep up with anyone else or move on to a different section before you were ready or finished. I also found it much easier to get one-to-one support than when you are in a classroom environment. The process to get help was simple, you would send a simple chat message “I need help” and then one of the demonstrators would video call you and they also set up different channels for each work book we had to complete which was useful to keep all related content in one place. Overall, I found that this course was a great opportunity for me to have a break from manually coding for my secondary data analysis, but still being productive and learning a skill that I can use as my PhD progresses.
Ultimately these first months of my PhD have been quite different from how I expected them to be, but quarantine life is not going to be forever and hopefully in the near future we can get back some sense of normality. In the meantime, if you’re beginning to feel a little cooped up after spending several weeks at home and are finding it difficult to keep motivated, have a look at the online training opportunities available. They are not only a great way to learn something new and useful for your PhD but they will develop transferable skills that you can use as your career progresses. Attending a course keeps your brain active and engaged, and is a productive change of pace from your current PhD work. This CBF course (and others) are available via this link: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/computational-biology-facility/events/ but there are also many others online so take a look. If you have any questions or would just like a chat please feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.