How Covid-19 radically altered my PhD study

As a researcher into public health, Alan Taman’s PhD study has changed considerably due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He discusses how the virus has impacted education and put his chosen discipline at the forefront of discussion. 

A PhD student working during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid and the PhD

There we were. Sitting in the restaurant of the National Film Theatre (NFT), on London’s South Bank, on a bright, sunny day in March, as I looked forward to the last six months of my PhD, looking at perceptions to health inequality and its solutions.

A place of creative history, the national memory of the moving image, nestled into the cultural centre of the South Bank. Given over to thriving crowds, tourists and Londoners alike – and some very good cocktails.

Only today, it was different.

Because outside, the usually crowded streets lay almost deserted, the wary few avoiding one another, as if the NFT had cleared those streets for a disaster movie, ready for the Zombie horde or post-nuclear wretched. Because this was March 2020.

2020 – The year of doubt

‘20/20 vision’ always used to be a metaphor for foresight, clarity and determination. 2020 the year proved to be a disaster movie in slow motion, with the virus prising open existing inequalities with almost surgical precision as it took lives, and kept taking. Livelihoods followed.

As the year ended, we were still within its shadow. In universities, life was far from normal, as was the case for everyone.

The effects of Covid-19 resulted in some bizarre scenes, with undergraduates on some campuses confined to ‘bubbles’ in uni accommodation that was never designed for such constraint.

Teaching went online where it could, with uni MS Teams facilities exponentially expanded to cope, and everyone becoming very familiar with the blurry backgrounds, drop-outs and extraneous household sounds which went with Zoom.

Disruption, doubt, and doom. My own story is one of change, as it is for everyone. But in my case what I was studying, how I was studying, and what I hoped to achieve were all overturned.

Bringing public health to the fore

My own field studies what people think about aspects of their health, and the health of others, and what they think might be a better way of improving these, reducing inequality.

Little chance, I thought, of gaining useful insights there when all of us were being confronted by a threat to our health, and felt a range of emotions from confusion to sheer terror. Rightly so, in many cases: this virus killed yet could spread silently. I put my studies on hold for eight months.  

I have a part-time role for a health campaigning group, fighting NHS privatisation and underfunding. So as the months passed and the first wave -  then the second - came and went, I could gauge what the pandemic was doing to the NHS, to many of our colleagues, to the politics of health.

That told me what I really already knew: this changes everything.

It has completely overturned the public health landscape. It became most people’s first interest.

It also became apparent that this was affecting health inequalities as a ‘syndemic’: amplifying and intertwining with existing inequalities to make them – ALL of them – far worse.

So we know that the poor, those living in crowded housing, those with insecure jobs that cannot be done from home, all suffered and are suffering worse.

The mental health effects and the effects of prolonged school absences cannot yet be seen clearly, but they will be staggering in their amplitude and breadth.  The economic effects are far from over. My PhD study had shifted along with all of that.

Redefining my PhD

You can expect to change course a few times in your PhD. But this was not so much a change of course as a complete overhaul of what the PhD now had to be about.

On return to my studies last October, I re-framed it to reflect the effects of Covid-19, both on health inequalities and likely perceptions about solutions.

There was one silver lining: I now had data from before the pandemic to compare with data gathered after it. Here, maybe, is a chance to offer an insight into what people think could be done, in the light of the pandemic, to make the searing health inequalities better.

So that’s what I am now doing. All online of course: a complete change of method went along with the social changes we’ve become used to. This pandemic changed what my PhD was about, how I did my research, and what I hope to get out of it. At least one of those things must be true, now, for any PhD.

I found the university did whatever it could to help. Extra funding was made available. My supervisors were happy to go online. A pleasant contrast to the chaotic scenes in campuses seen in the first stages.

I was fortunate in having a home in which I am used to working, from my past career, and a field of study that did not demand face-to-face contact. That meant I knew the risks of isolation and procrastination only too well, so could adapt easily to lockdown.

It cannot have been that easy for others. Having social support is important enough in any PhD, and I was delighted to see some of my fellow PGRs setting up social media groups to do that.

As I come to the (long delayed) final few months of my PhD study, I am encouraged by how many others have shared the same journey, and are responding by changing their research, adapting their methods, trying to understand more.

Which makes me think, maybe, just maybe, we will be able to sit pleasantly in good company again, feel the sunshine, and not feel the disaster movie is howling around the corner. There is hope.

Alan Taman is completing his PhD on perceptions to health inequality solutions, and is on the planning committee for the free online conference – Covid-19: An Unequal Impact? –  on 9 July. You can register for the conference here.