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We didn’t see it coming…

13 Jul 2020 | Dr Kautsar Ramli and Dr Savita Verma Two recent PhD graduates from the University of Leeds, Dr Kautsar Ramli and Dr Savita Verma, share their personal reflections of the impact of COVID-19 in their immediate post-PhD period.

As PhD researchers, we often discussed how life was about to change for better. Time went by, we succeeded and were optimistic to start an exciting career and building our personal brand in academia. We were about to embark the new phase in our life. Little did we know, there is a thing called ‘the post-PhD depression’. Being trapped within this depression has made it very challenging for us to plan further and stay focused. And as if to make matter worse, the pandemic hit. It has been a difficult phase; however, we think that it is worth sharing how we feel because acknowledging the situation is a necessary step to be able to cope with it and move forward.

As postgraduate researchers, we were encouraged to be actively involved in teaching. Given clear responsibilities, we were very happy to be a part of the community. But then everything suddenly transitioned to working online and we, personally, were no longer needed to either teach or assist teaching. This change was abrupt for everyone and there was great feeling of uncertainty – nobody saw it coming! Rarely has the post-PhD period been as complex or as uncertain as it is today.

In our recent experience, recruitment and employment opportunities are either cancelled, postponed or suspended – depicting the current instability of education sector.  A very significant issue may be the substantial decrease anticipated in student enrolment in the upcoming terms, but as ‘non-native’ graduates, we have to strategise on our next step. What kind of assurance do we have if we decided to stay? The dilemma further warrants our anxiety about bigger concerns including our visa and its expenses. How do we keep up with the government’s requirements regarding our work permit?  Even part-time assignments have been cancelled due to budget restructuring. Many people have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and here we are hoping to find our dream job, which is even trickier due to immigration constraints amidst the uncertainty.

As an early-career researcher, the reality continues to hit you hard knowing that academic jobs require significant academic contributions and work experience. And with the current time of upheaval, publication plans and research-related projects, other than those ‘within the immediate national interest’, have been massively disrupted. Research events and conferences are usually for academics to network and socialise, these too, have been either cancelled or postponed. Everyone is forced to work from home; so it can be  tough to be productive, when you are faced with so many challenges.

While the time is ticking, our university affiliation is also nearing expiration. Not having a graduation ceremony appears to be a much smaller concern now. Nevertheless, being academics, we tend to find solutions to difficult problems. How do we navigate our lives in these uncertain times? There are certainly issues we have no control over, but we have some lessons to learn from all this and plan our next steps. We can wait until the crisis is over, but it does not mean we have to be passive in the meantime. Therefore, we need to spend our time and energy on what we do (or think to) have control over. And one of the most important things we can do is to be in control of our ‘emotional hygiene’. Hence, take a moment to be compassionate to yourself instead of putting yourself down.

On the plus-side there is increased demand for researchers to share their work in response to the outbreak and inviting contributions to tackle and understand this situation better. There is an increment of funding directed towards research related to Covid-19  which we can start looking into. However, as 2020 PhDs, we hope employers will be understanding when they spot the gap between the end of our PhD and our first role – job are not as not easy to come by in the current climate.,

Finally, some recommendations to overcome ‘Post-PhD distress’ and find some direction in these unprecedented times: now is the best time for introspection. To do that we can turn to the good old ‘IKIGAI’: a Japanese concept to identify what you are good at, what you love, and what the world wants/needs? The intersection of these three is what we should strategically spend our energy on. It instantly broadens our horizon. Secondly, as early career researchers, it is a good time to work on publications to strengthen our profile. And, any skills or certificates that we can acquire right now might be helpful with our job applications later post-crisis, including blended teaching, online delivery, etc. In essence, we must be prepared to face this crisis and come out of it stronger.

Kautsar Ramli and Savita Verma are both recent PhD graduates from Management Division, Leeds University Business School. Kautsar was a doctoral researcher at Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies (CEES) while Savita was at Centre for Operations and Supply Chain Research (COSCR). (We are pleased to say that since writing this blog Kautsar has been appointed to a role in a UK university.)


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