Here’s how PhD students can make the best of their experience during COVID-19

PhD students face added challenges in the face of a pandemic.

By U2B Staff 

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Earning a PhD is highly valuable for those interested in pursuing a career in academia, but the journey will prove to be a test of one’s resilience and perseverance. Throw a pandemic into the mix and PhD students will find the experience as enjoyable as a tooth extraction. 

In ordinary circumstances, PhD students face numerous sources of stress, including challenges in dealing with their supervisors, meeting tight deadlines, financial challenges of low stipends to unpaid teaching positions, to name a few. With the pandemic, students face additional stress including shifting conference meetings, seminars and training to virtual meetings, further fuelling the loneliness of pursuing a PhD.


Despite that, the challenge is not without its benefits. 

PhD holders typically earn more than those with only a bachelor’s or master’s degree. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in doctoral- and professional-level occupations is projected to grow by about 13%, faster than the 7% average projected for all occupations.

Based on 2017 median annual wages, the bureau notes that the median annual wage was US$37,690 for all occupations in 2017. By comparison, the median wage was US$103,820 for doctoral- and professional-level occupations — the highest of any education level — and US$68,090 for master’s-level occupations.

For PhD students who are currently undergoing their programme during the pandemic, here are some tips for coping and making the best of the situation: 

Use your time as wisely as possible

The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (IUBMB) notes that during the pandemic, PhD students can use this time as an opportunity to widen their knowledge in their fields and read more papers related to their works. 

While COVID‐19 may suspend experimental works, students can use this time to catch up on literature, design new experiments, write and analyse data of previous experiments, write papers and widen their scientific horizons within their fields, they said. 

Students can also look into what academic support is being offered at their institution. The University of Reading, for instance, offers its students a free course called Preparing to Teach, which equips PhD students with the skills necessary for a potential career as an academic.

Seek mental health support when necessary

Studies suggest that PhD candidates are susceptible to mental health issues, making it essential for students to get the support they need before things take a sinister turn.

On The Conversation, UNSW ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes Graduate Director Melissa Hart, notes that supervisors cannot resolve all of PhD students’ issues. “While we can provide an empathetic ear, in many cases students need to be redirected to the mental health support our universities’ counselling services provide,” she said. 

Find out if your university offers counselling services and don’t hesitate to use this service. 

Enhance your communication with peers and supervisors

The pandemic can mean many students are stuck at home by themselves, which can be an isolating experience. This only accentuates the need to be socially connected. 

On Inside Higher Ed, Laura R. Micciche, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, encourages educators to check in with their students more than they might normally. 

“Ask how they’re doing, ask what they need and listen without feeling like you need to solve all problems — you can’t. Acknowledge that sometimes you’ll be at a loss for words,” she said. 

As PhD students, it’s also important to initiate communication with your peers to not only build rapport, but to learn from each other and act as a support system. Technology has made it easy to keep in touch, so use it to your advantage, be it virtual meet-ups via Zoom to chatting on Slack. 


Adopt a positive mindset

Just about every person in the world has been affected by the pandemic in one way or another, which makes it essential to adopt a positive mindset and to be flexible to adapt to changes that are out of your control.

There are free courses online that you can use as a resource if you don’t know how to get started. Yale’s highly popular course The Science of Well-Being, which is available on Coursera, will engage learners in a series of challenges designed to increase their happiness and build more productive habits. It can be completed in approximately 19 hours. 

At the end of the day, remember to take it each day at a time. “ Five small steps every day will look like a big step at the end of the week,” notes the American Society for Microbiology.