Impact of the lockdown on the career of a young researcher

This COVID-19 pandemic has affected so many people in so many different ways. The thing that people have lost most is time. This pandemic has cost me a year. I was close to wrapping up my experiments and sitting down to write a couple of papers and my thesis. All I needed was a month of experiments and if nothing went wrong, I would have been in a position to submit my PhD thesis in another 6 months. Things were finally looking up.

I was also closely following the COVID 19 stories like many other researchers. How  China had to build 1000-bed hospitals to build capacity, and that too in a matter of days. We had discussions about it in the lab and I knew it was going to come into India, but I was not worried because I reasoned more people die of TB ever year in India than this virus was going to kill. I was more worried what the social and cultural ramifications of the virus were going to be. The idea of social distancing seemed like an impossible implement in India and I had never in my wildest dreams thought that a nation like India could be in complete lockdown. And yet here we are in our fourth lockdown period.

 At first, I was pretty upbeat about it. I finally had time to relax, catch up on papers that I was wanting to read, and spend some time with my family. But as the days passed, I realised that this pandemic was going to affect me in ways I had not anticipated. The job market (which provides limited opportunities to PhDs in any case) was just gone. There is no telling how the research funding priorities of world governments are going to change so it’s kind of futile to look for post-doctoral positions right now. I’m estimating it will take a year for the world to settle and hence my career has effectively been put on hold for a year. This realisation struck me five days into the lockdown and that is when everything went downhill. 

The first casualty was my sleep. I had never had trouble sleeping. I was an early-to-bed and early-to-rise kind of person. Now I was awake the entire night, unable to sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time. Twelve days into the lockdown another horrible thought struck me. What if the -80 degree deep freezer unit that housed my samples conked? What would I do then? It would take months to replace the samples, and some were completely irreplaceable. That thought keep me t gripped in fear for two days straight and I began snapping at my family. A few days later I received news that a -80 deep freezer in our centre had indeed broken down. I was in shock. Though it was not the unit that had my samples, my fear had become a reality. I started having dreams of my thesis being burnt, my advisory committee laughing at me. My dad saw the change in my behaviour and tried to counsel and console me. It helped, but not enough.

“I reasoned more people die of TB ever year in India than this virus was going to kill. I was more worried what the social and cultural ramifications of the virus were going to be.”

When the second lockdown started, I was coming to terms with what was going on and I kept telling myself: what will happen will happen and I had no control over certain outcomes at this time. But I still couldn’t sleep. Then, electric appliances in my house started to break down. First the water filter and then the WIFI modem – and this led to another realisation. The instruments in the centre (some of which require daily maintenance to keep them running) were not being tended to. It dawned on me that I would be returning to a diminished research facility with no guarantee that the instruments needed for my experiments would be running, and those that are out of order may not be fixed for some time.

Unable to sleep I have developed a habit of pacing through my house all night. Every morning my dad askes,  “were you able to sleep?” My answer is always the same. “I tried.”

Doing a PhD is challenging even in ideal circumstances. Things rarely go your way. I believe the most essential lesson a PhD aspirant learns, is to fail repeatedly and make peace with oneself. This pandemic is going to keep throwing challenges at us even after it has been dealt with. I feel helpless and anxious about a future that was uncertain to begin with, and with Covid-19 in the mix, it now seems nearly impossible. This pandemic will take a year out of my life and I will be fighting its ramifications long after it has gone. 

This lockdown has also given me time to think and reflect. Here is what I have realised/ seen/ been trying:

  1. I have been reading up on new and upcoming streams in biology and how I could possibly fit into them. 
  2. I see that I now have time to brush up on subjects related to my research that I was not paying attention to, which has led to several new insights into my own research. 
  3. I have been able to reach out to other colleagues and friends whose careers have also been affected by this pandemic and these conversations have shed new light on avenues worth exploring in the future. 
  4. I have also been able to take an honest look at myself and identify skills that are lacking in me which are necessary for my future growth.
 These ruminations have helped me work on becoming more prepared for life post my PhD. Since my days no longer have structure I have had to relearn discipline and I now practise that by timing all the activities that I engage in. This makes me aware of what I am doing at all times and I can see how it as improved my productivity as the lockdown has progressed.  I am also paying attention to my mental well-being and have started meditating in order to relax.

Aniket Bhansal is a Senior Research Fellow at the Ambedkar Centre for Biomedical Research in New Delhi.