Pandemic PhDs: Starting a doctorate in 2020 (The PhD Pod)

Editor’s note: The year 2020 brought significant disruption to us all. It was also a time where students commenced PhDs and began the process of transformation that doctoral research entails. At La Trobe, RED workshops were key moments where graduate researchers could come together and feel like scholars, and joyfully we have seen some strong friendships develop in the middle of the pandemic. 

In this post we have asked the PhD Pod – a multidisciplinary group of doctoral students (Ariane Virgona, Karly Edgar, Lyndel Kennedy and Kathryn Pettigrove) who collected together following various workshops and events -  to reflect on what it was like to start a doctorate during 2020.

Time, space and 2020 (Ariane Virgona)

Starting a PhD during ‘The Great Lockdown’ of 2020 was a challenging yet rewarding experience. The first year of a PhD often involves a great deal of solo investigation and reflection on the literature in a field. In this respect, 2020 offered a great opportunity to remove distractions to be able to fully immerse myself. The lockdown enabled me to have the space to organise my environment and time flexibly and to explore hobbies and relaxation techniques that I normally would not have found the time for (such as painting, a lot of bush walking, reading copious amounts of fiction, and scrupulously following the Suncorp Super Netball). 

I found the reflection time, as many others could agree, to be helpful and rejuvenating and I was also able to continue teaching online, which was an experience that helped strengthen my web and communication skills. Apart from being watched behind double sided glass, also known as the great black squares of D(Z)oom, it was an immersive experience that enabled me to be creative in how I approached the content.  Throughout the lockdown I created and maintained several meetings with other students to talk about research articles, discuss our progress or have a social conversation about how we are managing with this massive shift. At the beginning, I also attended several RED workshops and found these to be a source of guidance and a focal point to meet others from across La Trobe and the School of Psychology and Public Health.

On the other side, working from home was challenging in that it was isolating and there were many corridor exchanges and opportunities that were missed. It was also difficult to get to know students and their progress, as it was challenging to read non-verbal cues over Zoom. Last year required an immense amount of internal motivation and self-regulation that wavered at times; however, the experience overall has assisted me with learning to be resourceful and honest with myself and others. I also learned to be flexible with how I would plan my time and listen to what my body and mind needed more often. Working at home felt more like living at work at times, however, I look forward to continuing to implement the new skills of self-compassion and flexibility throughout 2021.

 Finding productivity strategies in amongst the Netflix (Karly Edgar)

I started my PhD in early January 2020 before we really knew what COVID-19 was. I was happy to work from home but it wasn’t long before I realised that, if I didn’t make an effort, I potentially wouldn’t talk to anyone other than my supervisors about research. The ‘PhD Pod’, an informal gathering of four PhD newbies, became one of the most significant aspects for me of the year.

As Melbourne went through various stages of restrictions, I found myself swinging back and forth from feeling very productive and then feeling like I was stumbling around in the dark, which is probably normal with or without the COVID context. I learnt there are limits to my self-motivation and that I need to be consistent in scheduling holidays even if I can’t go anywhere. Also, that it is always good to have a routine that I stick to most of the time but that I can completely ignore at other times. I’m fortunate and extremely grateful for the fact that I have the space for a dedicated office so I can spread out but also so I can close the door at the end of the day. After developing my multitasking capabilities, I find that I am now able to happily walk and read or write at my very ad hoc walking desk, guaranteeing that I’ll move at least a little each day, no matter the weather or the lock down situation. I also discovered that a semi-focused art practice, the growing of plants, the companionship of the dear cat, and a steady supply of books that aren’t about research are also all necessary elements to remembering there is life outside of research (and the 5km radius). Also, Netflix. Quite a lot of Netflix.

Zooming in from the trestle table (Lyndel Kennedy)  

When my PhD supervisors advised in February 2020 that I’d need to be on campus three days per week, I said, ‘Great!’. After years of raising children and running a business from home, and then completing a graduate diploma in psychology wholly online, I was beyond excited at the thought of being surrounded by similarly obsessed people and couldn’t wait for all the corridor chats and kitchen catch-ups I was sure would happen. I even started driving to Bundoora for library study sessions in between school runs. With my PhD not starting until April Fool’s Day, I was too impatient to wait for my desk allocation to begin my 3 days per week on campus. So, I was on campus when I received my daughter’s phone call on 10 March 2020 to say there were positive COVID-19 cases at her school, she didn’t feel well, and could I take her to the doctor? I called my partner and sons as I drove, urging them to immediately return home from work and university. The three-day wait for her (negative) results gave us a private taster of a hard-locked-down life, and it wasn’t pretty.

During those early days, the five of us jostled for space to work, think and breathe, as we told ourselves it wouldn’t be for long. My partner, with his non-stop Zooms, took over the study, and my new workspace – the kitchen table – meant I was constantly interrupted by hungry young people. After a few weeks of frayed tempers, we installed a trestle table in the bedroom and then I found the quiet I needed to settle into online training, literature-review reading and research-proposal writing.

Now, eleven months later, my research project is progressing well, and we’ve found new family routines that largely work. With daily commutes still largely absent, household chores are much more fairly distributed, and our dog is guaranteed a late afternoon walk. The RED team’s rapid online pivot meant I attended far more workshops than I would have otherwise and Zoom-living has removed geographical restrictions on making connections with fellow graduate researchers. La Trobe’s efforts to keep us connected has been much appreciated, and forming the PhD Pod with Ariane, Kathryn and Karly has been the icing on the cake! While I’m still optimistic about starting my three-days-per-week on campus soon, I’ve learnt to hold my expectations more lightly, plan for disruptions, and design online-enabled studies. I’m grateful for our health, for the opportunities that today’s technology brings, and for the extra time with my two- and four-legged family members. I hope that our new normal, whenever and whatever that turns out to be, still allows us to savour the important things in life. Zoom on!

Silver linings of starting a PhD during 2020 (Kathryn Pettigrove)

As an interstate student I was always going to be ‘working from home’. I knew my supervision meetings would be online, and that I’d miss the benefits of on-campus life like sharing office space and corridor chats with my colleagues. Instead, I’d imagined library-hopping across the city and working from local cafés – wi-fi and coffee, what more could I need?  So, when restrictions began coming into place, I figured the only thing that would be changing for me was my location. I set up my desk in the bedroom and dusted off the old coffee machine – it's basically the same thing, right?

Looking back now, I can see that I was impacted more than I realised. Spending months within the same four walls (with a daily commute of 5 metres) meant that work/home boundaries quickly began to blur. The workday was often interrupted, whether by loads of washing or awful news updates, and having my workspace constantly in my peripheral vision made it difficult to switch off.  The loss of usual social connections and de-stressing leisure activities, and all the emotional ups and downs of the year, made for a less-than-ideal working environment both physically and mentally. 

On the other hand, working from home also resulted in some surprising benefits for me. Meetings and events shifted online, and suddenly I could be just as present ‘on campus’ as everyone else. I signed up for practically every RED workshop (!), and honestly couldn’t have felt more welcomed by Tseen, Jamie and Jeanette. The faces of fellow research students became familiar, and I gained three collaborators and friends in the PhD Pod. From my bedroom in Sydney, I really felt like part of the La Trobe graduate research community.  I don’t think that could have been true in the same way under normal circumstances, so despite everything 2020 threw at us, I am grateful for this silver lining.


The PhD Pod formed during the rapid shift to online learning in March 2020. As four new La Trobe University PhD candidates, they kept "bumping" into each other at various online training courses and workshops, and discovered common ground amongst the chaos. When the opportunity arose to apply for the Intellectual Climate Fund they jumped at the chance to get creative and explore ways to foster research culture during The Great Lockdown. Voila! The PhD Pod was born! 

The PhD Pod are Ariane Virgona (@ArianeVirgona), Karly Edgar (@KarlyMichelle_E), Kathryn Pettigrove (@Kathryn_SLP) and Lyndel Kennedy (@lyndelk).