5 Steps to Successfully Submitting your PhD during a Global Pandemic

Margot Tudor, Development and Humanitarianism in an Unequal World, University of Manchester, 2017 Cohort

Completing a PhD at any stage of life and circumstance is a significant achievement and demonstrative of an unwavering commitment to your field of scholarship. I was approaching the last six months of my PhD in March 2020 when lockdown was implemented across the UK. My original plan for these months was not entirely dissimilar to the restrictions of a national lockdown; my mug, library books, and desktop screen all waited for me on my desk in the PhD office and I planned to hunker down and get the job done. The main goals were to revise my four case study chapters and write my introduction and conclusion sections before my 31st June first draft deadline. I knew I would need to keep focused during these next months in order to submit by the end of my funding in September. However, when the global pandemic hit, things did not go entirely to plan and keeping focused whilst the world was on fire proved impossible at times.

However, by working on my thesis as an escape from the news, I managed to submit at the beginning of this month. Here’s how:

  1. Try (and fail) to not get Coronavirus

I was in Paris on annual leave at the beginning of March as a last treat before the last six months dialled up in intensity. As we returned from the week away, I realised I was not feeling well; I was feverish, tired, and my head hurt. By the next day it was clear that I had (what felt like) a flu. The next two weeks were a blur as my flatmate tried to locate paracetamol in the supermarket. As a thank-you, I gave her the virus (sorry, Ceri!). The NHS was not yet doing tests for those calling 111 with symptoms so I just stayed in bed and slept. Not a productive start to the last six months of the PhD, but I was lucky to recover after a fortnight.

Catching COVID in Paris!

2. Construct a self-distancing sisterhood with flatmate

As the university campus closed and our local writing spots were shut due to lockdown, my flatmate was, thankfully, able to lend me a desktop screen and a keyboard. We set up a little improvised office in our living room. I did not have a desk in my bedroom so this was a life-saver for my thesis. We also had regular coffee breaks and catch-ups, emulating the normal office environment that we both missed.

My flatmate, Ceri, showing off our set up

3. Confirm all deadlines and goals with your supervisors

In June I had a changeover of supervisors as my primary supervisor returned from parental leave. It was important, therefore, to gauge their reaction to my new deadlines and academic plans as I approached submission. Shifts to your supervisory team or committee are very common during the PhD for a myriad of reasons. During your last year it is particularly important to stay in control of conversations about your viva examiners and plans to embargo despite transitions to your supervision team. If you are like me, the best thing you can do is to keep in communication with everyone and clarify each deadline in writing. This avoids conflict down the line and keeps you motivated towards an agreed goal.

Printing out a copy of all my chapters helped with keeping to my final draft deadline

4. Try not to panic about the collapsing academic job market

Does anyone else procrastinate on their main source of anxiety by concentrating on other areas in their life that cause stress? The past six months saw me: 1) using valuable PhD-writing time to draft a post-doc proposal that I would not be submitting until October 2021; 2) refreshing jobs.ac.uk approximately four hundred times a day; and 3) writing cover letters for positions to which I was not qualified. My job anxiety was exacerbated by the pandemic context, but I think few grad students/PhD students would argue that the job market was in a healthy place before COVID. In hindsight, drafting a post-doc proposal was an incredibly useful task as I considered the big picture of my PhD thesis, but it also caused a lot of unnecessary stress and distraction at a crucial time during my revisions.

Advice to past me: I know it’s hard but focus on your PhD!

5. Post-Submission, organise to get your thesis bound

Even though a physical copy was not required for my submission, due to COVID restrictions, I knew that getting a copy officially printed and bound would be a great way to mark the occasion. I lose a lot of the PhD processes, rites of passage, and pub-based ceremonies due to lockdown but having a bound copy of my thesis allowed me to see the culmination of the last three years’ hard work. Although I’m still planning a trip back up to Manchester to celebrate with my cohort and colleagues once it is safe to travel.

Mother and child

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