Emillia-rosette Nlandu-Nzinga
PhD Student in Artificial Intelligence
Emillia-rosette Nlandu-Nzinga
PhD Student in Artificial Intelligence

Blog Post

Five Things I learned During The Pandemic As A First Year PhD Student

1 January 2021 phd
Five Things I learned During The Pandemic As A First Year PhD Student

I started my PhD in December 2019 when the world was still normal, there was no social distancing and certainly no mention of even the thought of a national lockdown. I had a desk at my university’s researchers office and, just like that my first year has come to an end. I still can’t believe how quickly it’s flown by.

2020 was not an easy year but despite all of the tragedies that have happened, here are the six key points that I have learnt as a PhD student in my first year of research.

  1. A strong relationship with your supervisor is key to your progression

As you might already know, one should seek the expertise of a supervisor before applying for a PhD and maintain that constant relationship during the study in order to ensure they have someone who they are accountable to during their studies and also a vital support system to help with their research.

The choice of a supervisor will determine the quality of one’s research and the journey it entails. The wrong choice could no doubt add unnecessary stress to a learning experience and take away the excitement in acquiring knowledge. In fact, more than 30% of PhD dropout cases are due to the poor relationship between students and their supervisors.

A great treat from a good supervisor I have learnt is that he/she will encourage you to look outside the box and find interesting angels to the research you are doing so much so that you discover something that has never been done before to help you secure a role after graduation. In short, a supervisor who complements your research and learning would be the key to being successful in your doctoral pursuits.

My advice when deciding on who to choose as your supervisor is to speak to current or former students who have been supervised by him/her to ensure that your interests and working styles are aligned. 

Remember !!!! A great lecturer or researcher is not necessarily going to make a good supervisor.

2. You research has to be in something you are passionate about 

 Yes, you read that right! it might sound cliche but your passion will determine your success in your research. 

I knew studying a PhD was going to require me to work ten times harder but I was not prepared to do research in the middle of a pandemic. Like many people, I was not able to concentrate on anything but the news because I was absorbed with fear. My focus on the latest Covid-19 updates more than reading research any research papers. 

Thankfully I was able to pick myself up however, I witnessed few research colleagues dropped out voluntarily, others postponed their researches and a few of us going part-time to maintain the balance. 

This experience has shown me the importance of being passionate about the research I am doing. Despite the circumstances, I learned that I have to be extremely passionate and commit 100% to achieve my research goals. The road might get rough but my eyes need to focus on the price, which is defending my thesis and publishing my work.

3. Maintain Work-Life Balance

I can’t advise this enough! Maintaining a work-life balance is the main key to achieving your PhD. 

I work full time, 40 hours of work a week and spend another 35 hours a week on my PhD research on top, leading me to work seven days a week for over 75 hours. 

It was not the easiest journeys, doing a PhD requires a lot of thinking and hard work. At the very beginning of my PhD, I would spend my whole weekend at the library and three to five hours a day during the week after work at the research office reading. Before I know it, I was burnout!

My life was out the window, I had no time to socialise what so ever, my family, friends and partner started to worry about me. I would wake up in the middle of the night with constant migraines and was no longer productive.

I knew at this point that I had to change the attendance of my academic research. I switched from full time to part-time to reduced my study time and I finally had time some time to enjoy myself every other weekend…well not much with all the lockdown restrictions but al least I had some time for self-care and catch up with friends.

And what’s more – every week I took a break, I would fully recharge to produce high-quality work.

4. Network with other Researchers 

Doing a PhD can be lonely. In fact, it is very lonely. Unlike in grad school where you are accustomed to studying with other students and learning different topics, a PhD is solely about the area of the research you are interested in.

Having said that, I have been very lucky to have met a group of amazing PhD researchers in online meetups who are either going through similar challenges or been and sharing their experiences on how they overcame these. These online meetings with other researchers have been extremely helpful during this pandemic as the support system within academia has been hard to access due to the restrictions.

For instance, when I had some complications with running some of the datasets I am using for my research, I met a researcher in one of our meetups who had just published similar paper and had some great advice for the direction I should be considering in my PhD. This has been without a doubt the best support I have received so far in my research and I was grateful for the shared knowledge and one-to-ones meetings he had put in place to support me!

This leads me to my next point to say that you do not need to be the smartest or know it all at the beginning of your research to make it.

5. A PhD is not about being the smartest but the most resilient 

Yes, you read that right! You do not have to be the smartest to success. In fact, the majorities of PhD candidates have not always been the smartest in their class but the ones who were not afraid to ask questions nor fail.  

The truth is that not everyone is made to be a researcher.  Switching from an academic system that favours memorizing and accepting what is being told to you by your teachers to a system where you have to think and create for yourself can be a tough transition.

I have to consistently remind myself that “If I made it this far, I must be smart enough.”. I had chatted with a lot of “successful” academics and one thing they have all told me is that the more you read and seek help, the easiest it gets. 

In a nutshell, I would say that I am a perfectionist and doing the first year of my PhD program during the pandemic was an emotional roller coaster. I am learning a lot about myself, the research and how to be an academic researcher.

I am yet to submit my research upgrade and I’m really looking forward to my second year🤩!