Comments and discussion provided by the Children History Society’s PGR and ECR Committee Members—Dr Elisabeth Yang (Rutgers University), Deniz Altındağ and Dr Libby Nelson (University of Glasgow).
Minor editing provided by Emily Barker, CHS Committee Membership Secretary.
The pandemic has created and exacerbated challenges for billions of people across the globe. This blog post provides insight into the ways that three women, who studied in three different countries, responded to the challenge of balancing academic decisions and deadlines with the uncertainty and disruption caused by the global response to the spread of covid-19.
Can you explain a bit about what degree you are undertaking/have recently completed/considering initiating?
DA: I have almost finished my first year as a PhD student in educational sciences. Actually, I completed a bachelor and master degree in architecture and my master’s thesis is about the play potential of space. Then I decided to do an interdisciplinary research about playful learning environments. Thus, I started in educational sciences which makes me excited about how I will integrate play-design and learning process.
EN: I recently graduated with my PhD in Education with my doctoral thesis entitled, “Understanding Childhood and Play in the Post-Digital Age” from the University of Glasgow.
EY: I’ve recently completed my PhD in Childhood Studies at Rutgers University! My dissertation is a historical and philosophical treatment of infants and their moral agency in medical and scientific discourse in Victorian and Progressive-era America.
Were you a registered student when the pandemic began back in early 2020 and if so, where?
DA: No. At that time, I was just applying for PhD programmes in the UK.
EN: Yes, I was in my third year at the University of Glasgow.
EY: I was a PhD candidate and a dissertation fellow at the Winterthur Museum and Library in Delaware during the pandemic.
Do you remember having any concerns about your academic progress at the start of the pandemic? Did this change over the duration of the pandemic?
DA: As I mentioned, I was trying to find a PhD programme during the early period of the pandemic. In my case, this might be one of the situations most affected by pandemic. Even if I’ve had several offers for a PhD, I could not make it to start. Firstly, it was really hard to find any scholarship as an international student at that time and also I was still a bit afraid of the uncertainty about the near future. Finally, in that process, I decided to stay in my home country.
EN: I was very concerned during the pandemic about my progress as I was in my final year trying to write up from home with my then 2-year-old daughter suddenly not having any childcare. My studies were funded, but the financial assistance was running out and, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, there was little information on how and if it would be extended. The job market appeared dismal and I really had a difficult time focusing on work while navigating these stresses.
EY: I was toward the end of accessing the archives and concerned as there were major shutdowns due to the pandemic. I worked with what I already had and was able to access online some of the sources. There was a delay in my residence and start of my fellowship at Winterthur. Eventually, with strict procedures in place, I was able to reside at Winterthur on very quiet and idyllic premises as the sola fellow. With the support of an amazing staff at Winterthur and an online cohort of women writers, I was able to tread on towards completion.
Were you/are you aware of other postgraduates experiencing significant disruption to their studies?
DA: I just know that there are people who have decided not to continue in this process and freeze the registration because of different reasons.
EN: I was surrounded by many doctoral students in similar positions to mine. We were all trying to navigate the lockdown, work, study and our family lives and some people put their studies on hold, while others, like myself, continued and attempted to finish as I was dependent on the funding.
EY: I know that many in similar stages of their academic career were having much trouble with writing and all that are involved in this process like self-care and self-motivation. Due to the shutdown, I know that many students would not have had access to the archives especially if they were in the early stages of their research. Overall, the psychological effects of isolation, anxiety, and depression caused by the pandemic seemed most pressing on the students around me.
Can you expand a bit about the support structures that you have leaned on throughout the pandemic?
EN: Throughout this pandemic the first thing of importance for me is that my family are okay. So my husband and children are key in my support structure. My two kids are under 5 which makes a number of aspects of work from home harder and being able to split care responsibilities 50/50 with my husband was and is crucial. However, while at times harder, having young kids at home also means you must stop and play. This is important for them, but equally important for adults and I think something that is quite overlooked in a lot of the advice out there to de-stress. Rather than taking a long, quiet bath filled with my thoughts, I am busy playing imaginary characters, painting rocks and running around and I think it really helps. The other three key things that helped in my PhD were my PhD friends who were in the same crappy situation, and we really banded together to work things through, find solutions and virtually support each other. Then there were my supervisors who were amazing advocators, supporters, and friends throughout. Finally, the university and the extended funding it provided was crucial to both my PhD and my family’s wellbeing.
EY: I am extremely grateful for the support systems I had in place, especially, as I tried to navigate and march on towards completing my dissertation and other work. These manifest in the forms of academic fellowships I received from the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Winterther Library and Museum, and Rutgers University. The librarians, archivists, curators, staff, and other fellows were vital sources of encouragement, support, and expertise that enabled me to conduct research, write, and engage in a collegial and scholarly environment. Other crucially significant sources of support were my friends, mentors, and colleagues, particularly those with whom I had consistently met online in community, whether it was for writing; sharing ideas and tips; and enjoying a virtual happy hour, a good laugh, or a good cry. I also drew from the steadfast love of my family with whom I maintained weekend virtual zoom meet-ups. Moreover, it was indeed important to maintain mental and physical health, especially in isolating conditions; I relied on the expertise and care of health professionals.
DA: During the pandemic process, I think my biggest support was my family. While I didn't get to meet them face-to-face much, we met too often online and it really minimized the feeling of isolation throughout the process. That made things easier for us to handle during these uncertainties about health, school, home and daily life. During this process, all my classes were continuing online. That's why I haven't been able to communicate much with other people except for new online meetings. However, even these online meetings were enough to create a feeling of togetherness with new people and make us feel that we are on the same boat. One of the most important things I observed throughout this process was that most people felt this emotion in some way. For example, even in this society, Elisabeth, Libby and I are people living in different countries, we hold all our meetings online, but it was not hard to feel that thing called team spirit. I think that one of the beautiful things that these conditions have brought us is that people behave with more compassion and understanding to each other.
We are more than our studies, but the PhD process is also about developing your expertise in preparation for future career/research ambitions. How has the pandemic influenced your expectations or aspirations?
EN: As I was in my final year when the pandemic began, I was really stressed about the future and what opportunities would be affected both immediately after the PhD and more long term because of the pandemic. However, while there was a hiring freeze for a while, the situation has turned around in the last few months and I was able to secure a permanent lectureship. I think working through a pandemic has meant learning to prioritise time differently and to value all the other bits of life a bit more. I am much more focused on ensuring my future career supports my personal life and what makes me happy, which I think that is a good thing. I found that I worked best when I was happy and supported by my colleagues and this is something I am also determined to take forward. So, I think my goals have shifted in terms of ambition, from more externally focused to internally focused.
EY: While the pandemic posed many challenges particularly for those, such as myself, who were completing their academic programmes while applying for positions in teaching and postdoc fellowships, it also allowed me to slow down and reflect on a deeper level my interests, passions, and career, as well as “life,” goals. This involved much questioning and major reshuffling and recalibration of my timeline, priorities, and life’s desires. I’ve come to place higher value on time, space, relationships, and health after having recognised the responsibility and impact I have as an agent and steward. I have allowed these different factors to guide me in my research and career plans in having me constantly return to my WHY. I have been more intentional and realistic about the various opportunities as well as more open to other opportunities I normally would not have thought of had I tread a smoothly running and uninterrupted academic and professional path.
DA: We are "much" more than our studies. I think this sentence will sum up my answer to this question. Since I am just at the beginning of my doctoral education, for now, the issues related to my thesis are more important to me than academic positions. At this point, as Libby and Elisabeth emphasized, I found myself seriously questioning the reasons for my work, especially for the thesis and in other parts of my life. Because the transience of life, which we constantly forget in our daily routine, reminded us of itself with a frightening reality that you can only come across at certain periods in history, like the pandemic. And this has allowed us to reconsider the "true" value of everything we do.
There have been discussions across a variety of mediums about the doctoral students and managing their mental health. What have you done or wish you had done to address your own mental and emotional needs over the last 2 years?
EN: As mentioned above, I think having little kids around making me stop work fully was a great help. Being busy playing something fun, rather than just work or relaxation I think helped me. Working from home blurs boundaries and being able to stop and play is important. This is also in the case of relationships as my close friends are all fellow students and colleagues. So, I am trying to not make fun times all about work. It can be tough, but using different platforms (e.g. whatsapp for fun chat, teams and emails for work) has helped. Hoping to continue to create healthy boundaries around work and play time in my life.
EY: As mentioned earlier, I was able to slow down, reflect, recalibrate, and realign. Of course, I wish I had done this earlier. I believe having a community of writers and scholars with whom I could write in silence or with whom I could bounce off ideas would have been extremely helpful and impactful, that is, in making this PhD journey a little less isolating, lonely, toxic, and competitive. I have maintained my mental, emotional, and spiritual health by leaning on experts, friends, and family. Self-care came in the form of regular sleep schedules, meal planning, interaction or engagement with some form of art, whether visual, musical, or theatrical, and regular physical exercise such as walks in the gardens and parks that abound here. Scheduling and honoring time for social activities and sola adventures (and not feel guilty about it) is something I wish I had done earlier.
DA: I am revealing my little secret that I believe is healing and I have been doing for many years: walking. Yes, just walking… Sometimes walking for a long time with music that I love, sometimes just with the sound of the surroundings, is so good for so many things. That's why I didn't want to belittle its meaning by saying just walking. I even wanted to name a book here. (David Le Breton's Praise of Walking). Maybe if we do a workshop about well-being, we can talk about this at length there. I believe this is a situation that many people who work by writing and reading are already aware of. So it can be quite interesting to listen to their personal experiences. Besides walking, one of the things that I believe puts my mind at rest is sewing. It could be a real dress or anything simple. The important thing here is to join the fabrics and achieve something that wasn't there before. And the feeling of creating something tangible with my hands is very relaxing but moreover, what I felt while sewing is incredible... When it comes to mental health, these two things come to the fore in my story.
Time to brag! What’s one thing you really mastered or handled really well during the pandemic? It could be related to your research or that you mastered banana bread or took the plunge and started getting 8 hours of sleep, but what thing are you taking away as a win?
EN: In terms of work, I finished my PhD and got a job. I’m really proud of both these achievements. I am also proud of my family: me, my husband and two young daughters (3 years old and 6 months old). We’re getting through this with as much laughter and fun as possible and that is no small feat.
EY: I was able to complete my dissertation in less than a year; be nominated to work on a prestigious, NEH-funded research project; establish community online with other women writers; and master a few Italian dishes, baked goods, and a variety of gluten-free buttermilk pancakes.
DA: Last year, I really enjoyed producing something on storytelling... We have created a magazine on storytelling with the name of “light and memory” with my partner Emre, who is a cartoonist, with whom we share a similar desire. We came together with artists from different countries and different artistic backgrounds to publish this magazine and even organized a conference. This could be probably one of the things I'm most proud of in the last year.
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