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A PhD @ home: Covid-19 and the collision of ‘work’ and ‘home’ spaces

Written by Annabel Evans (Doctoral Researcher)

I was in the throws of what seemed like the 10th rewrite of my literature review, trying to surmise decades of work on understanding the problematic differentiation between the public and private spheres in relation to home.  It was a few weeks into the Covid-19 lockdown and I was doing so on a small laptop screen, trying to flip between multiple tabs and files, on a dining-table chair which was beginning to disagree with my back, with other family members chatting away on their work calls, while my nephew wandered in and plonked his lego creation down next to me announcing ‘I’m working too’.  If the erosion of the private and public, which was being discussed in the literature I was trying to review, had been undergoing a great process of change, surely it had been absolutely obliterated by Covid-19.

As someone who is researching ideas about and experiences of home, it was of huge interest to be able to address some of my research themes to my own living arrangements and working experiences. While my own research is focused on home in relation to migration and diaspora contexts, it has opened up a huge appreciation for our understanding of what is a ‘home-space’ and what is a ‘work-space’ and how we differentiate between the two.  This got me thinking about the role of home and work space in the PhD experience, and how this has been impacted by Covid-19.

Early on in my PhD I encountered the common problem of productivity.  Going from a 9-5 job with set-out tasks and measurable achievements, a PhD seemed both wonderfully liberating and scarily overwhelming.  To try and help me find some sort of productive motivation I found the differentiation of space really helping between my home being a place of non-work life and campus being a place to work.  As this included a commute for me this also imposed a time-framing of my day to try and beat rush-hour traffic. This commute was also a really useful time in preparing me for the day ahead and then reflecting on it, which helped entrench the divide between home and work.  I found that when I arrived home at the end of the day, 1/2 hour after leaving campus I was more switched off from my PhD work than moving straight from ‘work’ to ‘rest’. 

And then Covid arrived and all these techniques or models I’d utilisation were no longer feasible.  I knew I was fortunate enough that the inaccessibility to campus only affected working habits rather than access to labs or physical equipment which could have had a far bigger impact on my PhD.  Yet these patterns I’d relied upon to keep me productive had gone and I was now confronted with a quite spectacular collision of my home and work spaces. 

As a family we’d decided to come together during lock down to ease caring responsibilities, and as such my workspace was on the dining table where we also ate our meals. Any space I could call personal was also a nursery where calls where often interrupted for nappy changes. Sunnier days allowed for a few more options only to contend with the permanent ‘squint face’ to try and see the screen or frantically searching for a laptop cable.

I am sure episodes such as these have been common across many houses over these 3 months, this full-scale invasion of the ‘public’ (work) into the ‘private’ (home) being well documented and satired across social media.  Nevertheless, for the PhD researcher I think there are particular ways in which Covid has impacted our ability to ‘do our job’.  With much of our work being self-guided and dependent on self-discipline it can be difficult to motivate yourself. Often our research can also end up being highly personal projects, meaning they are constantly in our heads and with a lack of variety of spaces to be in and things to do, it can be hard to step away and get perspective.  We also really benefit from the tangential meet-ups that happen in research spaces which can help spark ideas and remind us we’re not on our own.  While more structured events are able to taken place online, these more informal meetings can be harder to re-create in a virtual format.

At this stage I would have loved to have been able to present my bullet-proof guide to over-coming these difficulties but doing so would be highly disingenuous.  I like so many other PhD researchers generally muddle through most days.  That said here are some of the ways I’ve tried to re-introduce those working patterns which helped me so much in my pre-Covid PhD life.

  1. Trying to find some sort of differentiated space for working and relaxing. This seems like quite a common one already, but I have found this one hard as space is not always possible.  I do have one rule though which is not to do PhD work on the sofa.  The sofa is for the hallowed activity of watching Netflix.
  2. Recreating some sort of commute between working and resting.  This might sound a little bit strange but rather than going straight from work-time to rest-time I have actually found it quite helpful to do some sort of menial activity in between.  This can be anything from emptying the dishwasher to taking in the washing, as long as it’s something which doesn’t require much brain power but equally isn’t truly relaxing just yet, so I can reflect on the work achieved that day and what might need doing tomorrow.  I then find I am able to enjoy my evening much better. 
  3. Finally, I have really enjoyed joining in the weekly ‘Heads Together’ sessions which runs every Tuesday from 12:00 – 14:00 as an informal research support space.  This is a peer-to-peer support group where we discuss common difficulties as well as share achievements of our own PhD journeys as well as the commonalities found amongst us.  I have found this a really great way to find perspective as well as support in doing a PhD during a pandemic!  If you would like to join us for our next meeting drop me and email at a.c.evans@lboro.ac.uk and I’ll let you know the details.
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