What it’s like working on a PhD from home (COVID-19)

Hello everybody, it’s Anaïs, writing from Montréal, Canada.

Quebec just rose to 40 000+ COVID-19 cases between early March and early May. We are under non-strict confinement which basically means social distancing and working from home. McGill University closed its doors mid-march. I have now been working on my PhD from home for six weeks and my productivity rose from absolute 0 to ~90%. And my mood went from -8000 to ~80%.

I wanted to share my tips but also my experience with failing at working from home during these difficult times. 

PhD COVID-19
Working from my kitchen table

Waking up in chaotic world

The first weeks were absolutely chaotic. I was in shock, I felt lonely and my world was slowly shutting down with every travel ban, as part of my family lives in France, another in the USA, and another in Korea. I felt trapped in Quebec while every disaster scenario was playing on repeat in my head. Between the constant news regarding COVID-19 and the stress of being far away from my family, it became hard to focus and get motivated. Zoom meetings kept me sane, whether they were lab meetings for actual progress or just hangouts with friends. Yet, I felt incapable of doing anything work-related, and kept on refreshing the worldometer website to see how many cases were detected every minute. I also got really frustrated, for not being able to cope better, and started slowly hating myself.

Post-grieving PhD productivity peak

It took me a couple of weeks to settle in and find a routine that works. This “routine” fails approximately 30% of the days but I try to stick to it as good as I can. In this post, I will write how a good day goes for me at home and then I will tell you guys some tips that worked for me, on how to efficiently work from home. Please keep in mind, I am only a grad student and this is just my opinion.


Here is how a GOOD day goes now

Morning

After I wake up, I like to drink my morning maté (I hate coffee). Every other day I like to go for a run on an empty stomach. I am not a pro-runner but I like how I feel after a 25ish min quick run. If I do not run, I try to work out with weights on my strength.

After my workout, I will get started on work. At the moment, I am working on 

  • revising my first paper (from my master thesis) and resubmit it for publication, 
  • writing my first PhD paper 
  • preparing a literature review
  • getting ready to start my second PhD paper 

It is a lot of work. And it is a loooooot of reading and writing, which is my least favorite part. 

Around noon, I eat something that makes me happy, usually with veggies (I am a vegetarian).

Weekly vegetarian lunches
Some of the food I make, full of colors and vitamins

Afternoon

I used to have no motivation after lunch because I was switching on the news to get the daily speech for Quebec’s prime minister, François Legault. He would announce the number of cases for Quebec that day along with new restrictions. It felt so depressing so I ended up shutting my access to the daily news. I think I check it once a week now, just to make sure the rules are still the same. Since I stopped watching the news so much, my motivation came back and I can usually resume work after lunch until I get too mentally tired (usually around 5 pm). Then I stop everything and stop responding to my emails (unless they are urgent).

Night time

After my daily call with my mom, I’ll either call or chat with friends or my sister, go get some groceries, pet my cat, clean my apartment, watch youtube, etc. Then if I have time, I switch to the blog, with a glass of wine or beer. Then I usually cook something for dinner, eat in front of a k-drama (or The Office), and cuddle with my cat until it’s time to go to bed and start over the next day.


If you want a couple tips on PhD work during COVID-19

I have managed to find a routine that kind of works for me. It is not ideal but at least I am able to get some work done and get motivated. There are definitely days where I do not get much done. And that’s ok, we are all human after all… There are days I barely want to get out of bed, it happens too, AND there are days where I cannot believe how productive I am (these days are the best). But I have found a bunch of things I can do to help to be productive. Want some tips? Here are some on top of my head: 

  • When you cannot seem to start working on something, whether it is reading a paper, writing a paragraph, or something else, try setting a timer 30 minutes later. Then work on your task for 30 minutes. If it is too hard to get into it, you’ll be free when the alarm goes off. Usually, I find myself motivated and into the task by the time the 30 minutes are over. I just end up working on it longer. It is a super nice trick I found.

  • Make sure to have space where you can work undisturbed. This can be super complicated if you are a parent and if you are, you have my absolute respect because you are so brave and strong. If you can work undisturbed, I found it is better to set up a work station somewhere in the house. I am guilty of working in bed sometimes, but I find that I am more productive if I sit at a table/desk.

  • Have some roommates that are not working? kick them out of your personal space when you are trying to work. It helps with keeping sane and productive. I had issues with this at first and became quite difficult to live with because I could not accept that they had no work to do while I had a ton of things to write that I was not capable of.

  • Talk to your labmates or university friends. We are all in this together and talking to people facing the same struggles can help a lot (Special thank you to Hannah, Nas, Adam, Megan, Nadia, Elena, Rose, and JP).
  • Do not stress out if you cannot get too much work done in one day. This is a stressful situation. Everybody is stressed, just like you. They get it. Try to forgive yourself. It helped me a lot. This is work. Your health (mental and physical) comes FIRST. And I found myself smiling more by forgiving myself for a non-productive day.

  • Try if you can to get ready for the day in the morning the way you would normally get ready. You can put regular pants on, not just sweatpants. It helps with the motivation I found. 

  • Don’t forget to reward yourself at night. I usually have a glass of wine or beer or chocolate or a treat, and it helps a lot. Although I think I have had too much chocolate in the past weeks, I need to slow down … ????Doing your nails, or applying a face mask can feel amazing too.

  • Lastly, don’t forget to call your family. They are as worried as you and it will help to hear their voice, I swear. I feel 150% better when I have my sister or my mom on the phone. Same if you can call your best friends.

Good luck everybody. And if your need someone to talk to, come chat with us down below:

Anaïs Remili
Stay protected, wash your hands, wear your mask, and stay positive ❤️
 | Website

Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.

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