Guest blog: Tips for working from home as a PhD student during COVID-19

As we are all settling into life under lockdown I thought I’d put together a number of quick tips to help PhD students working from home. Being alone in a flat all day with nothing to do except work on your thesis may sounds great at first, but I’m sure you’ve all found that the weeks have flown by, and restrictions have changed the way you’re able to work on your project. From simple changes to your working environment to practical tips for lab work, read on for some of my tips on making the most of studying during the COVID-19 situation.

Fix your workspace

You’re probably used to the luxury of working from a library or other environment which has been set up with productivity in mind. You should try to replicate this environment in your home study area. This doesn’t need to be extreme! Here are a few quick tips for managing your workspace:

  1. Check your monitor height (the top of the monitor should be at eye level) and distance (roughly one arm length away), as well as your chair height (feet should be flat on the floor).
  2. Remove distractions – whether this is a television screen within eye line or flatmates within earshot, try to minimise the effect of distractions by distancing yourself as much as possible.
  3. Lighting – Have a desk lamp close by to reduce the strain on your eyes if working into the later hours of the day.
  4. Lighting (again) – Aside from having a well-lit room, you can also install software on your computer which adjusts the brightness of your computer monitor based on the time of day. This reduces the strain on your eyes. I personally use Flux, but there are a range of alternatives available.
  5. Organise your workspace, remove clutter and keep a notepad close by to jot down any notes. It is also advisory to keep a progress diary of progress that you can refer back to when you need to recall pieces of information.

Manage your time

It is important not to take the additional time you may have for granted. There are several techniques to manage your time effectively, with some of the best being:

  1. Pomodoro – The Pomodoro technique is a way to split your time into smaller chunks and incorporate short breaks to split up your day. The method is outlined below, but there are plenty of free applications and browser extensions that can manage this for you.
  2. Start a timer for 25 minutes and start working on a task,
  3. After 25 minutes have elapsed, take a 5-minute break,
  4. After your break, restart the timer for another 25 minutes and resume work,
  5. Repeat this process and on your fifth iteration increase the duration of your break to 15 minutes.
  6. Task checklist – The nature of research projects lends itself to time-wasting. As much as you may want to spend all day reading around your research area, it is important not to lose track of time, and remain focus on the actual deliverable objectives of your project. To assist with this, set aside a few minutes either at the start or end of your day to make a task checklist. Your checklist should break down your tasks as small as they can be with time allocated to each of them. When you are working throughout the day, ensure you are on track to tick these off, and if you spend more time than you allocated to a task, either rethink your method, or move onto another task and revisit the time-consuming one at a later date.
  7. To compliment your task checklist, it is a good idea to set up a calendar with important milestones and deadlines. This will ensure you don’t get bogged down in the detail – and always have the bigger picture in mind.
  8. 80/20 Rule – This is a simple idea which is less of a physical strategy, and more of a mind-set. The 80/20 rule (or Pareto Principle) suggests that 80% of results come from 20% of your efforts. Keeping this idea in mind at all times will help you prioritise your workload and allow you to spend more time on your most important tasks.

Keep in touch with your supervisor

Now more than ever it is important to keep in regular contact with your supervisor.

  • Agree how you should approach your project whilst working from home. Your supervisor is likely to be up to date with the departmental guidelines and procedures in place during COVID-19 and can give you insight into when to expect laboratories to open, what aspects of your project are practical to complete from home and which aspects are not.
  • Keep your supervisor up to date on the progress you have made. The fact that you are unable to meet in person should not stop you from regularly updating your supervisor on what work you have completed to date and any problems you may be encountering.
  • It’s also worth mentioning that if your project involves collaboration with other researchers beyond your supervisor, it is important to keep in touch with them too. This is to ensure everyone remains on the same page and can coordinate their work.

There are a range of video conferencing options available to facilitate this (for example Zoom, Slack or Microsoft Teams), but it is likely that your University department already has purchased an institutional license for one of these. If you have not already, you should contact either your supervisor or someone else within the department to gain access to the license information.

Preparing for lab work

Are there any permits or health and safety forms that you need to complete before entering the lab? If so, then it is a great time to start enquiring about them so you are ready to get them signed off as soon as the laboratories reopen.

Similarly, if your lab work involves samples or other materials, then it is wise to enquire about them now. This is important as lab material is often sourced abroad and therefore can have long lead times. The current COVID-19 restrictions compound this, therefore, you should start preparing now to make the best use of your time once your lab reopens.

Working on results without results

It may sound absurd at first but just because you are unable to visit the lab, this does not mean you cannot progress your laboratory work. Think about what results you are expecting to collect from your research and how you will process them. For example, how will you analyse and store your data? You could use ‘fake’ data to draft your results tables and set up excel sheets complete with pivot tables and formulas real data.  

Non-Lab work

If the current situation is leaving you with more spare time, it would be sensible to set some of it aside for developing your long-term plans. This can include updating your CV or inquiring about teaching or research positions which you may be interested in after completing your doctorate. If you’re unsure of your exact career path, now is the perfect time to start considering your options.

If you are in the early stages of your research project and are undertaking the literature review, then you won’t be able to make use of your University’s library (or any physical library for that matter). However, there are plenty of resources available to find textbooks, publications and journals online. Popular examples include:

  1. Google Scholar
  2. ResearchGate
  3. PubMed
  4. Scopus
  5. ScienceDirect
  6. JSTOR

You should ask your supervisor if he/she knows of any resources specific to your research area. Your university may also have paid subscriptions to certain online repositories which you can take advantage of.

And that wraps it up! Hopefully you’ll take away from this that there are plenty of things to get your teeth into whilst working from home, and that there a several adjustments you can make to your daily routine to boost productivity. Hope it helps!

Thank you to Matt Wilber for this guest post. You can check out more over on his website.

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What has worked well for you working from home? Share your wisdom in the comments below.

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