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Tips for PhDs on working from home

Caroline Betto-Colliard, Ilaria Orsi & Denis Billotte, CUSO

The Covid-19 pandemic has created unprecedented situation throughout the world, but also within the academic sphere. As universities have closed, researchers are now dislocated and a lot of PhD students are currently experiencing a transition to working from home, far from their office, their lab or their library. The anxiety of this exceptional situation is compounded by personal concerns: coping and supporting family and friends who are ill or at-risk, taking care of children during school closures or fighting feelings of social isolation. This article tries to provide some tips for PhD students to help them to alleviate pressure, organize the transition to working from home and maintain mental wellness.

1. Physical and mental wellness
Before addressing any professional challenges, be sure to cover basic elements of physical safety and mental well-being. The current situation is unprecedent and may affect your ability to concentrate on your work. This is absolutely normal! Remember that everyone -yourself included- is in the same situation, doing the best he/she can. The most important thing is to take care about yourself and your family. Remember that hotlines and services are available if you have any questions or need support (UNIFR, UNIGE, UNIL, UNINE).

2. Organize your transition
Your daily life has likely been significantly altered and the transition to working from home may take some time. Plan and set up your transition may help to build a new working from home habit. Change your clothes according to your activities: work, family, leisure, outings (authorized). Create boundaried spaces to work and rest to help you shift mind states.

3. Maintain communication with colleagues
Given its importance for mental and physical wellness, the social contact (with physical distancing) is crucial. Schedule time to speak with your friends, family and colleagues. Video chatting (e.g. using online tools such as Skype, Zoom), telephone calls, texting and emailing represent good ways to stay connected with others virtually. Consider Slack for ongoing communication and for signaling that you are available for a chat. Propose to your colleagues to organize daily or weekly lab meetings or simply coffee breaks.

4. Structure your day
Maintain a routine and create a schedule consistent when it comes to work, meals, breaks and bedtime. This should also include keeping a sense of weekends by taking some days off from work. Adjust your schedule to focus what you can realistically accomplish to accommodate the new situation. List and identify the different categories of tasks in order to be able to classify and process them. Plan a realistic “to do list” for every week, distinguish between “urgent” and “important”, think about using tools like the Pomodoro method, the Eisenhower matrix or the NERAC method to manage your time. Develop a working plan that fits your current stress response and mental wellness (here you can find some templates). Be flexible and modify your plans if needed. The aim is to have a good enough plan, not a perfect one!

5. Take time for you
Make sure to take enough breaks and take time for you to do things that lighten your mood: read, cook, meditate, watch movies, dance, play games… Or take advantage to learn something fun and new. This is crucial for your mental well-being!

6. Reading and theory development
Spend more time for the things that you never have time for, such as reading, literature review, thinking, ideation for a new paper... Don’t underestimate the importance of thinking time for developing new ideas! Plan out your experiments you would like to launch when you will be back at the university. Why not taking part to the collaborative wall of PhDOOC about “how to build a research project” (in French) ?

7. Write
Working from home may sometimes provide uninterrupted time, ideal for writing. Take this opportunity to make some progress on your thesis introduction or to write up paper for publication. Academic writing is both a creative and an analytic process. Here some tips to start: by listening to your feelings you can choose day by day how to approach your writing: free writing, clustering, talk and record yourself…
Why not organizing a “Shut Up & Write!” event online with colleagues or participating in an online “Shut Up & Write Event on Twitter”?

8. Take online courses
Why not use some time to take an online course or learn about new statistical techniques. We will propose you some online courses soon at the CUSO: stay tuned! Free webinars may be found on the website of academic consulting, on LinkedIn and the graduate campus of UNIL proposes some online courses for the UNIL PhD students.

9. Disseminate your work
Many conferences are cancelled and networking with speakers and other PhD students will be lacking. Ask to meet them online instead and consider to put your poster or talks planned at a conference online. Try being proactive to enhance your professional reputation.

10. Think about your career plan
Consider this opportunity to stop a little bit and think about your career plans after the PhD. Make your skills assessment, search opportunities, list them and draft plans for future. Use this time to write grant proposals.

We are happy to get your feeback to exchange on good practices.

To go further:
-    Live YouTube: SOS Téléthèse: continuer sa thèse en plein #coronaviruscrisis (in French)
-    Guide de survie pour doctorant·e durant le confinement (in French)

Mots clés: PhD, Organisation