In February 2020, I was lucky enough to be awarded a PenARC-funded PhD studentship at the University of Exeter. I remember my first (and only) visit to campus for interview and how excited I was to be working with a great team at such a prestigious institution.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck. I started my study a few months later, amongst much confusion and anxiety. I was a guinea pig; the first PenARC PhD student, and one of the first at the University of Exeter, to begin their study during the pandemic. And remotely, without having really met anyone! It was overwhelming. However, my supervisory team, the PenARC administrative staff and postgraduate support team at the University were fantastic. They helped me to start without a hitch.
Doing a PhD is never easy, but throwing a global pandemic into the mix did nothing to settle my nerves.
However, I believe it has made me a more resilient person and researcher. I’ve benefited from the space to think and organise my own time, as well as being able to access supervisors and collaborate with people around the world. I understand the argument that there’s less organic conversation when you’re not in a shared research environment, but this hasn’t been my experience. Instead, I’ve been part of inclusive research and, as interactions moved online, conversations that might not have happened outside of a pandemic.
The first two projects of my PhD were systematic reviews examining the characteristics and methodological practices of school-based cluster randomised trials for evaluating interventions measuring health outcomes on pupils. I’d never conducted a systematic review before, so had to learn how to design, conduct and present a systematic review remotely. Navigating this experience from home challenged my motivation and dedication. But I had great support from my supervisors and have been able to produce a piece of work which I believe will be of much use to researchers in my field. Characteristics and practices of school-based cluster randomised controlled trials for improving health outcomes in pupils in the United Kingdom: a methodological systematic review has just been published as open access on BMC Medical Research Methodology.
I’ve formed strong relationships with the other PenARC funded PhD students and have found their support and friendship vital during this strange time.
I have an incredibly supportive group of supervisors who have guided me through the first year of my PhD, upgrade assessment and two publications. I’ve also been able to attend events with PenARC, the NIHR and the University of Exeter, where I’ve listened, presented and spoken to many influential researchers, clinicians and students. Working remotely has made me feel no less a part of the PenARC team and wider research community.
So far my experience of remote PhD study has been a positive one. I’ve been able to focus wholeheartedly on my work, have built connections with colleagues and supervisors, and am developing a portfolio of work of which I’m incredibly proud. Although I do look forward to returning to normality, seeing people in person, and maybe getting to see my office someday soon!
Characteristics and practices of school-based cluster randomised controlled trials for improving health outcomes in pupils in the UK: a systematic review protocolRead the publication
About the authors
Kitty is a PenARC PhD student. Her research centres on the assessment of methodological challenges faced by researchers conducting Cluster Randomised Trials in a school-based setting.