Emily Hooke is a doctoral researcher at the University of Southampton.
I always knew that finishing off the thesis was going to be challenging, but I never envisioned attempting to do so in the middle of a global pandemic. I know many doctoral students thrive in isolation: on locking themselves away with just their laptop and their ideas. I have never been one of them. I need noise, I need to be around people, I need to move around, I need to work in one place in the morning – preferably somewhere I can get a decent coffee – and another in the afternoon, usually a library where I can access the books needed to write a PhD. Trying to work without a proper workspace has been tricky: living in a house with three other people, I’ve been flitting between working in the lounge and sitting on the bed with my IKEA tray as a desk. It’s far from ideal, although I suppose my tray does have space for snacks. The lack of resources feels very strange at such a pivotal moment in the thesis. Often I find myself writing a note to check a book (once I’m allowed back in a library).
And then there is the mental strain: it is a real struggle to muster up the intense concentration needed to work on my research. It seems really frivolous trying to write about the past when the present feels so terrifying. Some people are finding solidarity with those they study in the difficulty of the present circumstances, and while I did have a slight twinge of recognition toward the women who had to queue up to get food in wartime France while waiting to get into Sainsbury’s, I don’t feel it really compares. While it was difficult for me to get certain foods early on when people were stockpiling – and my house were seriously concerned about the toilet roll situation for a short time – the unavailability of canned tomatoes or fusilli cannot be compared to the difficulties of wartime life and rationing. This is a horrible, terrifying situation, but – despite the language to British media insist on using – this is not a war.
One thing the pandemic has done is to put things into perspective and force me to have a little breathing space. In early March, the thesis felt incredibly difficult, and I was terrified I couldn’t do it, and that I would be letting everyone down. The pandemic has made the thesis seem a little less like the end-of-the-world. There is a very real crisis going on. People are getting sick, and people are dying. I don’t know when I’ll get see my family again. The job market—already stumbling – seems to have completely halted. We can’t make plans for the future. Our lives are completely different to how they were before all of this. Smaller. More constrained.
We have to look after ourselves. I have begun trying to simplify things, and to make it as easy (and pleasant) for myself as possible. Every morning I get out my Cambridge Satchel that holds my laptop, notepad, pencil case and planner, which makes me feel incredibly fancy and professional. I bought myself an Aeropress before all of this began, and my morning coffee has brought me a little bit of joy every day since. I have been reading more scholarship than normal lately. Reading research that I have found helpful and that I am glad exists helps remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing, and also inspire me to (hopefully) get a bit of writing done. Already a big writer of lists, I have begun to produce extensive, step-by-step lists for each chapter, so in the morning I can just pick something and go, without letting myself overthink it. I’ve been going to the online “Conversations in Research” and “Parkes Seminars” held by academics in my department to keep a sense of community going. I’ve spoken to people online about my own research, which has given me really useful feedback and has helped remind me why I love it. I am extremely lucky to have an excellent and supportive supervisor, who has helped gently advise and cajole me into getting work done, while emphasising the need to keep myself well.
On a personal level, I have been trying to find the small joys in this situation. I have been making myself get dressed and showered (almost) every day. I have been trying out the many, many lipsticks I managed to accumulate before all of this happened and found that I actually really enjoy wearing dark purple and bright orange lipsticks. I have begun turning almost anything into a toasted sandwich. Leftover butter bean stew? Lotus biscuit spread and a banana? Leftover ragu? All of them have made excellent toasted sandwiches since all this started. I have become very good at napping. A local cat has started to visit our little garden, and we have named him. (Mr. Pickles, for anyone interested). A nearby bakery does takeout, and they do truly wonderful donuts on Fridays. I am lucky to be living with my partner, who makes everything feel better. We’ve had a garden picnic (in the rain!), a cocktail night and are planning an ice-cream sundae feast soon.
Trying to finish a thesis during a global pandemic sometimes feels impossible, and I am trying to find the small joys in this situation. I’m not always succeeding, but I am trying.