Starting a PhD during a Pandemic: “Are you crazy?”

Written by

Nicole Beddard, Health Psychology PhD student at Teesside University, Centre for Applied Psychological Science. Email:

Late 2019 we heard of a flu-like bug that was sweeping across the eastern world. Let’s face it, nobody that I talked to believed that it was a serious matter. Even at the beginning of March 2020 I was off to Liverpool to go to a comic convention. In hindsight, I was very lucky to not come back from that with so much as a cold. Mid-March and lockdown happened. An epidemic spread across each country turning it into a global pandemic. Life as we knew it, stopped.

As much as I love my home, I hate being cooped up indoors and absolutely love travelling (although I am very introverted). I am always planning my next adventure either in the UK or further afield. I was trapped. I could feel the metaphoric walls closing in around me as I have been cut off from family and friends. Whenever I feel like I have lost control, I give myself a project. At first, it was to tidy my bedroom (although I had just bought the house my room became a dumping ground). So, bit by bit, my room became clearer. I was still working full time so logging off my laptop which was left on the dining room table, I would go upstairs and work on my room. That was complete and I was left twiddling my thumbs. What could I do next? I needed an office! So, I cleared out the smallest bedroom, added a lick of paint, put some shelves up and created an office. I love that I can close the door at the end of the day and forget about work.

It seemed that this coping strategy worked.  I was classed as clinically extremely vulnerable so I couldn’t walk out of the house and get my ‘1 hour’ outdoor exercise like most people. Every morning I woke up and immediately did a HIIT (high intensity interval training) class. I have a small garden so sat in there for fresh air on my breaks or weekends. I have never been one for calling people but this year I used video calling like it was going out of fashion. Then an idea popped into my head. I had always wanted to carry on my research that I started during my MSc back in 2016. I had always had it in the back of my mind but didn’t know when the right time would be to start in the realm of research again. After reaching out to who I wanted my supervisor to be, she believed that I was ready and could see passion for me to start a PhD.

I filled in the application and to my delight, I was accepted to start a part time research degree! Everything I did was online. I had already thought of my proposal a few years back, so it just required the finishing touches. My team tried to get some funding for it, but we got rejected for that, so, I went for it on my own. I won’t lie, the initial idea for the research degree wasn’t hard- it’s the fine tuning. I am researching a topic that most people have no idea what it is when I first say to them. This is both a blessing and a curse when it came to coming up with the rationale. However, I was helped through this by my proposed supervisor who was a great help to me. I could finally show the world my passion for helping others again. The full title of my research is: an exploration of the long-term psychosocial impacts and consequences of being diagnosed with Retinoblastoma. Retinoblastoma (Rb) is a malignant eye tumour that presents itself in new-born children. It does have a good survival rate, however the treatment that these infants must go through can have consequences both physically and psychologically. As they become adults, they may face difficulties that were unbeknown to them. I aim to bridge this gap so that adults are prepared for what they may have to face.

At the beginning it was full of meetings to get to grips with a potential timeframe for this journey. With them all being online, it meant that I didn’t have to ‘come into the office’ at an obscure time; I could sit there in comfy clothes chatting with a cuppa and a biscuit whilst talking through what needed to be done. Perfect!



My little office is now filled with things that make me happy so that it is not a chore to go there. I hung various programmes from theatre shows all over the back wall and I have a life-sized cut out of Ant and Dec propped up between the filing cabinet and the wall (a present from a friend for my last birthday). I enjoy being in there whilst working and doing this PhD. When I told my family and friends that I was about to embark on this journey they were very excited/ proud, but a lot did ask if I was crazy. Maybe I am, but aren’t the best people in this world? Anyone in the same situation can show that we are adaptable, solve issues in the face of adversity and we need to realise that doing this is already tough, never mind adding a global pandemic on top.

Being a student in isolation hasn’t been as bad as what people may think it is. I am introverted so I don’t like being in places that I don’t feel comfortable in anyway. There are times however, that I have found it hard. When the third lockdown was announced, it hit me like a train. Not because I wasn’t expecting it, but because I knew what it meant to be cut off from everyone. This is when I knuckled down in my reading and was so glad to be part of a team at work but also for the Centre for Applied Psychological Science (CAPS). There were regular meetings on MS Teams and they helped me so much more than people can understand. We had coffee mornings, catch-ups, and of course more formal meetings. All of these helped anchor me back from spiralling out of control. A challenge of doing a research degree during a pandemic is not being able to pop to another office and have a 2-minute chat with another person. As much as I like to think I can deal with a problem internally, I need to talk out loud to someone. 9 times out of 10 I solve the issue myself but that person being there helps me not doubt myself.

These first few months have taught me that not everything goes to plan, and you cannot control everything, but you can adapt how you react/ perceive the situation. This realisation is something that I have struggled with my whole life but because of the pandemic, I am learning to ‘deal with it’ and adapt much more to my situation. I am still early on with my research and currently doing a systematic review around my topic. I am on schedule according to my own personal timeline and I feel like I am in control at the moment. Once my ethics documents are completed and I have been granted ethical clearance, I will feel like I am in the thick of it all.

I believe that because I have started my PhD during this pandemic, I don’t feel like I’m up the creek without a paddle or trying to tread water with a brick attached to each foot. I have been eased into the process of research again. Maybe this can be classed as a coping strategy for what I can’t do because of the pandemic. When lockdown restrictions are lifted, I may feel differently. For now, I think I started this PhD at the best possible time.

If you are thinking of starting a research degree during a pandemic, then you should think about what your strengths are. If you love working by yourself with little interaction, then it is a great opportunity. If you are someone who thrives in a busy environment, then you may wish to think about starting it after it is all over. Video chats are a great way to bridge the gap, but they only go so far. Built up a great rapport with your supervisory team and you will have a great time. You have also got to be passionate about your subject. I think if I didn’t like the subject that I was researching then this would be a completely different story and doing this would be like pulling teeth.

My final piece of advice would be to make sure you are in an environment that makes you feel happy. You’ll be in that environment for a long time so it’s no good if it’s not somewhere that you can thrive in.