This piece is part of a series collecting the experiences of researchers during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Sam Brady is an AHRC CDP PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching the socio-political and technical history of the sports wheelchair in collaboration with the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. He also excels at eating, worrying and obsessively tweeting @SamB24. In the following post, Sam reflects on his situation in light of lock-down
Lockdown, self-reflection and privilege By: Sam Brady
It feels very strange to think about the time before lockdown, even though it was only a few months ago. I remember the start of March as a very stressful time. I was coming up to my first APR (annual progress review) and I’d taken extra shifts in my part time job. I was planning my future trip to Glasgow, as I am a remote researcher, and had just organised a summer placement working with an archive. I was trying to make more time to socialise (I hadn’t seen many of my friends in weeks because of how busy we were) and my girlfriend and I had tickets to a few concerts. It was stressful, to be sure, but still normal for me. Since I began my time at university, I have always kept myself busy, with my studies, paid work, social events, music or shows, you name it. I was used to doing a thousand things at once and not relaxing at home. But, like for many people, the lockdown dramatically halted so much of my regular life.
I’d like to acknowledge the fortunate position I am in, due to my circumstances and in my PhD. Personally, I am young, relatively healthy and in a supportive relationship. I don’t have children or parents to care for, and no-one close to me is particularly high risk. Moreover, I began my PhD in October 2019, so whilst lockdown interrupted my summer placement and research timeline, it wasn’t a devastating blow. I wasn’t mid-field work or in the final stages of writing and, as a Sociologist, I didn’t need access to labs or physical equipment. Sure, the library was closed, but I was used to mainly using online resources before this. I was affected by lockdown, and the last few months have been hard, but I’m very fortunate to have not been as affected as others.
Researching under lockdown gave me ample space to consider the privileges associated with a funded PhD. The majority of my friends and family were furloughed from their work, and before the government announced their support for furloughed workers, a few people I knew had been made redundant. I know many have struggled with lockdown and being furloughed, so to have the normality of continuing research from home was in some ways a blessing. However, my ability to maintain focus on my work was completely destroyed, leading to many wasted hours re-reading articles or half-making notes. Thankfully, almost everyone I spoke to experienced the same thing, from undergraduates and fellow PhD students to postdocs and professors.
Yet the guilt of ‘not doing anything’ still haunts me. I’ve always struggled with this attitude towards my work (something which seems to be common in researchers) and I found that lockdown only exacerbated this feeling. Some days are just harder than others, after all, and it’s unfair to expect too much of yourself at the best of times. At the start of lockdown I saw many people say this was the time to learn a new skill or write that article and I tried to have that mentality. But it was incredibly taxing, and after a few weeks I ended up being more burnt out than before. As part of this, I also found myself questioning if my research was important. For reference, my project explores the history of sports wheelchairs and touches on the history of Paralympics, which is an under-researched topic. But it was hard not to think whether my time would be better used volunteering, for instance.
Thankfully, I’ve managed to get closer to a state of ‘normal’ in the last week. My APR seems to have happened, I’ll be submitting my ethics forms soon and I’ve started to organise my (now remote) fieldwork. My focus has definitely improved, and I feel more confident about my work than ever before. But I know that things will continue to be difficult going forward, so I’m trying to recalibrate my thinking and introduce more changes to my work habits. For instance, knowing that other people faced the same challenges as myself helped to curtail feelings of guilt, and this also helped me to realise how I could better support my friends and colleagues. Now, I better understand the value of regular socialising for my mental health, and the importance of setting small, achievable targets during the workday.
For myself, lockdown has provided a time to reflect on my research and my work habits, alongside the privileges of my circumstances, which can only be a positive thing. I hope, however, that self-kindness becomes more normalised after lockdown, and that positive reflection can continue to improve things once it’s over.