PhDs, Pandemics, Productivity.

Don’t worry – this isn’t one of those ‘rise and grind’ type posts, encouraging you to make the most of self-isolation by completing your PhD in record time whilst establishing a new side hustle…

For some of us, PhD work will go on almost as normal during this stage of pandemic-related disruption. Disrupted field research, research trips and conferences aside, there’s always more reading and writing to do, a lot of which can be accomplished at home. But how do you get your head down and focus, when there’s a global pandemic to be concerned about? Checking the news every two minutes, checking supplies, checking in with family, following shambolic government press conferences…

There are more than a few distractions is going on right now, so here’s some advice on how to focus if you’re someone who’s able to keep working on your PhD project during this time.

Keep Things Small and Manageable

Faced with the prospects of weeks at home, thinking about what we should achieve in that time can feel a bit overwhelming. Amy King (Edinburgh Napier) recommends writing out to-do lists, but the key thing here is to keep them small. “When it comes to things that absolutely have to be done in one day, make a list of ‘5 Must-Dos’ (including chores and non-research tasks). It makes me more likely to get things done. For other things that need to be done but can be completed over time, keep them on another list so you can keep track of the deadlines and ideas.”

Considering my own ‘to-do’ list was a couple of pages long, categorising them has been a simple and effective way to make things feel far more manageable, and I’m spending less time panicking about it all.

Have Someone to Hold You Accountable

If you’re someone who must self-isolate/social distance in accommodation shared with others, it might be a good idea to tell them your daily goals so they can keep you on track. “The fact my partner’s working from home has certainly helped me stay focused, to avoid judgement if nothing else!” said Steven Harvie (University of Glasgow). Jenn Glinski (University of Glasgow) adds, “I second this. Knowing my husband is sitting in the room next to me and does not stop between the hours of 8 to 6 is enough pressure to keep things going. We will have to seriously re-evaluate his work/life balance at a later date!”

If you live alone, having ‘study dates’ over skype/zoom/WhatsApp, etc. is also a good motivator. You could consider embarking on virtual writing retreats where others will be in the same mind-set. You can read about the Virtual Writing Retreat group – and various other online PhD communities that may be of help right now –  here.

Trusty Ol’ Pomodoro

Cat Aitken recommends an old favourite during these trying times. “The Pomodoro technique! Working in small chunks is helpful, and if you do it with others you create support and accountability with your peers.” For those unfamiliar with the technique, it’s a time-management method where you typically work in small chunks (say, 25 minutes) before having a short break. Repeat as many times as necessary. It sounds simple, but it’s a quick way to boost your work for the day, keep you fully immersed in your work distraction-free and bring you closer to your goal.


Most importantly, be kind to yourself. We may all have deadlines and research to conduct, but this isn’t exactly a normal time. It’s normal for people to not be fully ‘switched-on’ for work when there are families, bills and our health to worry about.

If anyone would like to share tips from a different perspective – for example, if you’re a PhD researcher with children, or you are facing severe disruption due to any canceled field research – please feel free to get in touch, as the advice here won’t be suitable for everyone and it would be great to hear from others. For that, and any other blog-writing chat, contact

One thought on “PhDs, Pandemics, Productivity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s