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Research in a time of crisis: keeping my PhD on track

After a candidature hit by climate disaster and COVID-19, a nurse academic shares her journey
Illustration of people working within a house, with COVID-19 molecules outside. Picture: iStock

After a candidature hit by climate disaster and COVID-19, a nurse academic shares her journey

Students start a PhD with a certain perception of the rigorous nature of this scholarly challenge. Those entering with previous research training experience have an inkling of the cerebral, financial and emotional challenges ahead.

However, few could have predicted or be prepared for the climate disasters and pandemic that I have faced during my candidature.

This reflection tells the story of my experiences with these unforeseen events and offers some insight into the strategies that have enabled me to remain engaged and continue my doctoral journey.

My doctoral project

My project is a randomised trial of a primary care nurse-led intervention to undertake and document a series of nurse visits to support people with

After a candidature hit by climate disaster and COVID-19, a nurse academic shares her journey


COVID-19 has forced many people to stay at home. Picture: iStock

Students start a PhD with a certain perception of the rigorous nature of this scholarly challenge. Those entering with previous research training experience have an inkling of the cerebral, financial and emotional challenges ahead.

However, few could have predicted or be prepared for the climate disasters and pandemic that I have faced during my candidature.

This reflection tells the story of my experiences with these unforeseen events and offers some insight into the strategies that have enabled me to remain engaged and continue my doctoral journey.    

My doctoral project

My project is a randomised trial of a primary care nurse-led intervention to undertake and document a series of nurse visits to support people with uncontrolled hypertension, the aim being to reduce blood pressure and lifestyle risks (Stephen et al 2019).

By mid-2019 we had general practices lined up and were undertaking patient recruitment. Geographical distance between practices, access to nurses, and antiquated data and communication systems presented interesting but surmountable challenges. This phase was an exciting time of site visits and baseline data collection, which set the tone of positive clinician and researcher partnerships.

Encouraging follow-up data created an immense, almost idealised sense that this project could have a real impact. The potential to provide evidence to support enhancing the nurses’ role, improve blood pressure management and positively affect participants' lives was an incredible motivator.

Affected by climate disaster

The final months of 2019 were the driest since records began, presenting Australia with devastating drought conditions (Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology 2020). The subsequent fires that raged across the country for months brought devastating human and environmental loss across New South Wales.

While rural agricultural areas faced acute burden, the effect on metropolitan life was felt in the form of enforced water restrictions, smoke haze that made going outside impossible for days at a time and the fear of potential fire threat. While affected Australians focused on disaster response and recovery, PhD students were faced with a set of unique ethical and logistical barriers.

Data collection in fire-affected communities became impossible. I found myself dealing with a newly vulnerable population of nurse and patient participants. Patients who had to be removed from their homes were unable to be recalled for study visits and were frequently unable to continue to engage in the intervention. Healthy eating, smoking cessation and ensuring sufficient physical activity became less of a priority when homes were burned to the ground and lives lost. At the same time, nurse participants were also focused on saving their family homes and communities from the fire’s path.

Consequences of the pandemic 

Soon after the bushfires were brought under control, COVID-19 reached Australia. Fairly rapidly, social distancing was introduced, along with limitations placed on social gatherings and lockdowns on people’s movements (Australian Government Department of Health 2020).

Research processes and working environments changed drastically. As COVID-19 restrictions were enforced, research offices closed and funding sources froze. COVID-19 presented another layer of data collection complexity for nursing PhD students working in the community. The opportunity to collect routine patient data ceased as general practices pivoted to telehealth and strictly limited face-to-face consultations for acute needs.

Call for papers

Nurse Researcher provides a platform for novice, emerging and experienced nurse researchers to discuss methodological and research methods issues, the challenges they have faced in undertaking research and research education and career development.

In this issue alone read about the conceptual framework and the iterative elements of doctoral nursing research design (Piper and Stokes 2020), a qualitative evaluation of clinical academic research internships for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals (Miller et al 2020), how to embed a conceptual or theoretical framework into a dissertation study design (Lynch et al 2020), why imposter syndrome is so common among nurse researchers and whether it is a problem (Gill 2020), presenting research reflexivity in your PhD thesis (Davis 2020), using legitimation criteria to establish rigour in sequential mixed-methods research (Younas et al 2020) and development and validation of methodology to measure the time taken by hospital nurses to make vital signs observations (Dall’Ora et al 2020). The scholarly debate and sharing of practical strategies, which Nurse Researcher promotes, is vital for nursing research capacity and impact.

Why not add your experiences or strategies? Read our article guidlelines
To discuss a paper idea email the editor Liz Halcomb, ehalcomb@uow.edu.au

Amid this air of uncertainty, PhD students and supervisors launched into rapid contingency planning. Lockdown provided some with an opportunity to work on unfinished papers without distraction, while others struggled to survive home schooling of children, invaded office space and overstretched bandwidth.

The reduction in female first authored publication highlights the significant gender imbalances experienced as women shouldered greater responsibility for pandemic childcare (Andersen et al 2020).

Lessons for the post-disaster landscape

Undertaking a PhD during a time of local and subsequent global crisis highlights the enabling factors of mentorship and peer support.

Mentorship Choosing a research supervisor is arguably the single most important decision students make in their candidature. Although the research topic should be selected wisely to ensure the motivation cogs keep turning, without a supervisor who cares about you and your project, the cards are stacked against you.

Positive supervisor/student relationships based on shared goals, respect and understanding can significantly increase the chances of surviving and thriving during a PhD (Moxham et al 2013). Before you commit to a supervision team, talk to existing students and doctoral graduates to get an authentic sense of potential fit. Once connected with a supervisor, establishing shared expectations, project direction, clear timescales and mutually acceptable meeting schedules helps to define the relationship for the two parties.

Pre-COVID-19, a strong supervisor connection prepared me for the academic challenges of doctoral research. The recent challenges I have faced revealed this relationship to be made of stronger stuff. As I responded to the second crisis of candidature with catastrophe planning and thoughts of quitting, my supervisor offered counselling and contingency.

Options were suggested, alternative yet equally robust methods of data analysis considered and a new path revealed. My PhD will certainly look different to what had been planned but in no way less meaningful. While ‘we’re in this together’ has become a somewhat disingenuously overused trope of our times, in my case, it continues to define my PhD experience.

Peer support Academia is not a competition. Potentially, this is a half-truth – academia is deeply entrenched as a competitive scholarly pursuit. Prospective students compete for candidature, strive for highly coveted scholarships, and hustle for elusive post-doctoral jobs. Yet cultivating positive peer relationships along this trajectory has the potential to enhance academic culture. This involves rejecting the constant comparison trap of looking at other students to measure your own progress. This futile, soul-destroying metric debases your own experience and that of your peers.

It is possible to revisit the idea of academia as a competition and reorientate towards a team-based sport. Supervisors deserve credit for guiding, contributing to and shaping the PhD game. However, it is important not to neglect other players on the field.

In my case it was the person who suggested coffee to ease the blow of that publication rejection email. The person who shared a conference poster template and offered to proofread that review I had been sitting on for 18 months. The person who listened, without judgement, to my ten-minute monologue outlining every cognitive and situational reason why I couldn’t do this PhD.

When lockdown prevented coffee catch-ups and research collaboration this support system continued though text, phone and Zoom. These people are the brighter side of the future of academia – they are future colleagues, co-investigators and an ongoing support team. To those students who lack support, opportunity exists to create a peer network that is diverse, easily accessible and available outside typical office hours. It can be found online, and Twitter is a good place to start.

The pandemic brought out a sense of candid camaraderie in the academic Twitter community. Suddenly, we were all faced with the same issues as we dealt with halted projects, production anxiety, home schooling, dashed hopes and uncertain futures. People across global time zones came out in support of each other, tweeting a new academic manifesto marked by inclusion, empathy and encouragement.

Where previously Twitter was used primarily to announce academic output, PhD students, post docs and professors shaped the platform into a cathartic space, debriefing in thread, gif and meme.

A disaster-free PhD?

While positive mentorship and peer support have played a pivotal role in my PhD journey, I was also fortunate to have additional support structures in place.

My partner and children provided a constant supply of diversional therapy. Friends outside academia brought fresh perspectives and helped reorientate my anxious mindset to a more positive outlook.

Ultimately, the decision to continue, despite disaster, was mine, and shaped by dwindling yet not diminished reserves of hope, mental focus and stubbornness.

Importantly, this decision was made in the knowledge that I was not alone. I cannot predict what the doctoral journey will look like post-pandemic. However, my experience highlights how mentorship and peer support can disaster proof your PhD and make the journey that little bit easier.

References


About the author

Catherine Stephen, PhD candidate, School of Nursing, University of Wollongong, Australia

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