Two Years of a Pandemic PhD

This week, Blogger Vesna Curlic talks about her experience of doing a PhD in a pandemic. She reflects on two years of researching in this new world and how it has changed the course of her life and thesis.

It’s the two-year anniversary of lockdown in the UK. It is also, informally, marks the two-and-a-half-year point of my PhD – an interesting milestone because it means that I now have to admit that I am well past the halfway point of this journey. The pandemic and my PhD feel incredibly intertwined, like I can’t think about one without thinking about the other. I only had six months of “normal” PhD life before the pandemic hit and as a result, I don’t really know how much of my experience was hard because doing a PhD is hard, and how much was hard because it was also a pandemic.

Two years on, the pandemic has almost started to feel like something that has always been around, an inevitable daily inconvenience that is a little boring to talk about, like the weather or daylight savings time. But of course, I am able to feel this way because of my immense privilege, which is a fact I don’t take lightly. Doing a PhD in a pandemic is difficult, but I know that many have lived much more difficult lives than I have in this time, and I’m grateful for the big things – my family is safe and my livelihood relatively intact. I hope this post can be a place for people in similar positions to me to mourn the futures they have lost, without comparing their losses to others’.

When I think back to March 2020, it’s all a bit blurry, subsumed into a cloud of anxiety. I just remember snapshots. I remember going to the big grocery store just outside of town one weekend, as I often did, and finding that all the dry goods were sold out. You could only find the undesirable pasta shapes (spaghetti, apparently) and the undesirable grains (barley – no rice to be found). I remember going for a job interview on the 17th of March and feeling awkward about not shaking hands with the interviewer (the job search was very quickly cancelled). I remember talking on the phone with my parents, tearfully trying to decide whether to stay in Edinburgh or return to Canada. By this date two years ago, when lockdown officially started in the UK, I was self-isolating in Canada, not realising that it would be 18 months before I would set foot back in the UK.

I had only started my PhD in September 2019. I was just halfway through my second semester and finally feeling like I might be finding my footing. I had had a rough adjustment period – I thought my research masters meant that I knew what it was like to do a PhD, and I was taken off guard when it turned out to be more isolating than I imagined. As a consequence of this, I spent a lot of 2020 mourning what could have been. As I spent long days in my childhood bedroom scrolling through digitised documents, I mourned the research plans I had drafted, which were full of exciting archives trips all over the UK. As I attended online conferences, I mourned the fact that I wasn’t getting the full in-person experience that everyone spoke about. I’m in the third year of my PhD and I’ve still never experienced the hustle and bustle of a fully in-person conference (though I have some exciting plans for this summer).

Sometimes, I find myself immensely jealous of friends in earlier cohorts, who had a year or two of complete normalcy before the pandemic hit – they had time to make friends, and travel, and live life unencumbered by the daily weight of pandemic life. My life is pretty much back to normal now, in the sense that I teach in person, work in a communal office, see friends, and even travel. But the pandemic is a Pandora’s box. It can’t be neatly tucked away and forgotten about just because mandates are lifting. It has irreparably changed our relationship with the world around us, and for me, that means fundamentally changing how I view myself as a researcher.

“At the end of the day, one can only hope.”

The pandemic made me re-evaluate my priorities during the PhD. I think I spent more time working on my transferrable skills than I would have otherwise, driven by uncertainty that the already-precarious academy would survive the pandemic (it remains to be seen if I was correct). It also made me reimagine the life I want to live. Before, driven by youthful ignorance, I was sure I would be happy to spend my life moving around the world, chasing adventure and academic work. But the pandemic showed me the value of being home, of being around family, and of living a quieter life with the many pleasures that certainty brings.

My thesis also looks different now than it did in 2019, more fundamentally transformed than the usual first-to-third-year thesis metamorphosis. I write about migrants and healthcare in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, about the medical regulations and laws that refugees had to circumvent to enter Britain. This research has always been close to my heart, but now it holds a different social and political resonance. I’ve spent my whole PhD imagining how I might mobilise my historical knowledge, so that it might have a helpful effect on vulnerable people today. The pandemic has made this a more urgent concern, though one I still don’t know all the answers to.

Sometimes, I imagine myself fifty years in the future, regaling my grandchildren with stories of writing my PhD during a pandemic, living a life over Zoom (and imagine how ancient the technology will seem by then). This helps give me some perspective. It allows me to imagine a time when the pandemic will just be a story I tell, when time has allowed to me transform it into a grand adventure. I hope we will all get to see this day, when this pandemic will be a distant memory. There is so much that we’ve lost that we must collectively take time to mourn, but I really hope that there will be beautiful things that might come out of this too – more compassionate understandings of each other, more heartfelt research, more communal feelings. I don’t know for sure, but at the end of the day, one can only hope.

Vesna Curlic is a PhD researcher in History at the University of Edinburgh and current SGSAH Blogger. Her thesis project considers the relationship between disease, disability, and the British immigration system in the early twentieth century. More broadly, her research interests include the history of medicine and science, modern immigration law, and public health policy. She splits her time between Edinburgh and her hometown of Toronto, Canada.

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