The COVID-19 pandemic has affected research projects in a myriad of ways. This joint event invited staff and graduate students to reflect on how their research has been impacted by the current crisis.
The event was chaired by Dr Gordana Uzelac, from the School of Social Sciences, and involved brief presentations by academic staff and PhD students from different subject areas, followed by a general discussion. The staff presenters were Professor Svetlana Stephenson from the School of Social Sciences, Professor Gary McLean from the School of Human Sciences and Professor Klaus Fisher, Head of the Graduate School. Three PhD students also shared their experiences:
- Amy Beddows (Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, School of Social Sciences) is studying women’s experiences of victim blame from agencies
- Anthony Phipps (School of Computing and Digital Media) is looking at using audio techniques to improve cyber security
- Saima Siddiqui (School of Human Sciences) is doing research into immunoglobulin g and immunoglobulin, and their capacity to neutralise epithelium of human cytomegalovirus
Participants were asked to address the following questions:
1. What professional and personal challenges has the pandemic presented for your research?
Answering the first question, the workshop participants highlighted many personal challenges they have encountered as a result of the pandemic. In a situation where daily routines have been disrupted, people found it difficult to focus on research, manage their time or plan for the future. A lack of proper working space or access to professional software particularly affected PhD students. Added to that were mental health issues, anxiety about friends and family, experience of social isolation, including a lack of contact with colleagues or fellow students. Fears of not meeting the deadlines and anxieties about their professional future bore heavily. The pandemic also led to the closure of University facilities such as laboratories or recording studios, and cancellation of planned fieldwork. Lack of physical access to the library has also been an issue despite the excellent online service provided by the University.
The participants described how Covid-19 had interrupted self-care routines important to staying focused and productive, making it difficult or impossible to go out with people, have fun or travel. Inability to meet research colleagues could lead to a loss of feeling part of the research community. Additional issues included continuing to carry out research when caring for children or elderly relatives.
The situation of the graduate students was particularly troubling. It is well known that the pandemic exacerbates existing inequalities – affecting people from ethnic minorities, carers and those without stable internet access. Many London Met students are from these groups. International students are faced with the choice of whether to stay in the UK or go back home to be with their family. Particularly in case of women, they often face enormous caring responsibilities, and cannot do any research at all. Research conducted in the US shows a rise of generalised anxiety and major depression among graduate students. This needs to be acknowledged, as students in these situations may find it almost impossible to continue their research. Some of the students were fortunate enough to have finished their data collection, while others were at the beginning or in the middle of their studies.
2. What unexpected opportunities has the pandemic provided?
Despite the hardships that everybody experienced, there were also unexpected opportunities. Participants appreciated the liberation from the (sometimes lengthy) commute. Working from home provided more time for research, and although it was difficult to focus, particularly at the beginning, researchers gradually learned to plan their time, for example by dividing the day into blocks of time. Some reported that the lockdown provided time to work on unfinished research papers, others managed to complete new chapters of their thesis.
Enforced isolation also provided an impetus for learning to collaborate with colleagues remotely using video. The participants highlighted the value of online conferences and workshops, both those organised by the University and by outside organisations. These helped to make students feel part of a research community again and they were able to contribute by organising workshops, submitting papers to conferences, developing new and existing collaborations. Colleagues in other institutions were also clearly keen to build connections.
Participants also discussed how, after a period of disorientation and confusion, they were able to rearrange their work schedules and adjust data collection tools. In humanities and social sciences, online interviews and digital ethnography proved to be almost as good as face-to-face interviews. Joining existing Facebook discussion groups, asking the participants for one-to-one follow ups to group discussions turned out to be of great value. The lack of access to archival documents was partially compensated by the discovery of online sources. In those cases where researchers had planned face-to-face discussion of research findings with participants, it was often possible to use remote meetings, send information via email and make audio/video summaries of findings.
At the same time, online research comes with its own issues and the need to address the issues of privacy, the ethics of discussing sensitive subjects in isolation, and the importance of clear, honest communication with research subjects were also discussed.
Many participants described practising what could be called "patchwork research": picking up old projects, reassessing where they were with the current work and planning new projects. The pause in new research provided an opportunity to look at the data again that had already been collected and opened up space to analyse and write-up existing research, or complete the analysis that was largely finished. While unable to do new research, researchers took stock of unfinished projects, planned what was needed going forward, addressed the holes in the data and decided what what still left to be done. The pause in new research could also be used to prepare or complete grant applications.
Covid has become a magnifying glass for many issues that are central to research. For example, in humanities and social sciences these include local versus global processes, society’s expectations of what the state can do, plus the role of civil society activism during emergencies. The experience of the pandemic provided insights into the value of proactive approaches that agencies should take when dealing with vulnerable clients, and highlighted the implications of failure to provide feedback to people and keep in touch. For natural scientists at the University, the pandemic focused attention on research on human viruses related to coronavirus. Colleagues saw this as an opportunity to expand research, learn more about viral disease and help during the pandemic.
3. What advice can you offer to graduate students?
The participants offered a wide range of practical advice and tips on self-care, time management and adjusting their research plans:
- Do not lose heart when your best plans are up in the air, but also allow yourself to "mourn" the opportunities that are lost.
- Acknowledge the impact of uncertainty and disruption: humans do not like change! It is important to link up with people we trust, with friends, family, supervisors and other students. You are not alone in your feelings.
- Make sure that social media does not give you additional stress, try to limit your time on it.
- List the things you cannot control in your research and the things you do have control over – how you organise your office space, what you wear, what you have for lunch – this gives you a sense of control.
- Use support services: counselling, advice, financial options, the NHS.
- Be kind to yourself: we are all operating at reduced capacity and that is ok! In the middle of the pandemic we are expected to work, to write, and there is no way we can do this at 100% of capacity.
- Create some visible accountability for yourself in the form of a progress wall chart, blog or some form of publishing. Even if this is a simple grid with ticks of the tasks completed, it will be a visible demonstration of progress. Be sure to break down tasks into manageable chunks.
- Make progress every day, even if this is just reading one paper, or sending some emails. Just make sure the subject is alive and in your mind, so that you make steps forward every day. The longer the gaps between efforts, the longer it takes to get into or engage back into your subject.
- Be prepared to be upfront about the impact of the pandemic when writing up your dissertation and during the viva. Keep a reflective diary, documenting how you are trying to cope and how you are adjusting your research project. This will be handy when you are writing your thesis and when you are giving account of your research at viva.
- Join the PGRS WhatsApp group.
- Use the time to read other people’s work, write and analyse the data they have already obtained.
- Look out for online conference and seminars.
- As less time is available for the laboratory research or fieldwork, try to think of a fresh perspective for your project. Identify what is possible to do from home, and plan for research when laboratories or fieldwork opportunities open up.
- Always be ready to adjust your research plans. The pandemic puts into focus the need for scholars to have a fallback position when they are suddenly denied access to data. Be brutally honest with where you are; decide – do I have enough or do I need more data and how will I get it?
- Make sure you ask for advice as soon as it is needed. It can be easy to push on and to try to solve everything yourself but often when you look back you wish you had asked for help earlier!
- Ensure that you have regular catch-ups with your supervisors and be diligent in notetaking so that you capture all the important points of the meetings. Also email your supervisors with a summary of progress and key points from the meeting. This should include what the next phase of the research will include and a reminder of the overall plan.
- Keep a log file of all your key meetings, resources and other useful information. Consider also having a physical book version as the act of transcribing notes into a notebook helps you deepen your understanding.
- If you are working from home, make sure your environment is as comfortable as can be. This might require spending money on the things that you wouldn’t otherwise. This can be a challenge but there are things to consider like maybe buying second hand, borrowing items, seeking sponsorship or asking friends and family to loan equipment.
- Exercise regularly as it will increase your energy levels and resilience.
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Event: Academics and Pandemics
Joint Interdisciplinary Research Forum (IDRF) and Graduate School event: Academics and Pandemics, 24 September 2020
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