In the coming days, the SDRC are publishing a series of blogs featuring Early Career Researchers who are sharing how COVID has impacted their research and career prospects.  Today’s blog is by Michael Smith, a PhD student from UWS.

A Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Tale of Wizards, Orcs, Elves… and a PhD – My Experience with COVID-19

My name is Michael Smith and I have a background in Health Psychology. In November 2019, I started my PhD with the Alzheimer Scotland Centre for Policy and Practice at the University of the West of Scotland. My research is focussing on the physical, social and psychological impacts of living in supported housing with a diagnosis of dementia. My project will involve a systematic review and thematic synthesis, in addition to a series of in-depth case studies. My supervisors are Dr Louise Ritchie, Dr Margaret Brown, and Professor Debbie Tolson. The project is funded by the Abbeyfield Research Foundation – for which I am hugely grateful.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,

Yes, I’m comparing my PhD to an epic fantasy trilogy set in a land occupied by elves, orcs, trolls, goblins, hobbits, and wizards. In The Lord of the Rings, a hobbit called Frodo is given a monumental task – to take a magical ring to a volcano called Mount Doom, throw it in the molten lava, destroying the ring forever. Frodo must hide the ring from Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, who wants to use it for evil. To reach Mount Doom, Frodo must embark on a massive journey, layered with hardship, kindness, friendship, and adversity. It’s all about sticking with it, no matter how tough things get. Can you see where I am going with this?

Think about it this way. You are Frodo. Your thesis is the ring. Mount Doom is your viva. The massive journey represents the ups and downs you will face. The friends who help and guide you along the way are your supervisors and peers. And right now, Sauron is COVID-19. Genius.

Okay, I’m being silly and making light of an unprecedented and distressing situation. But I feel it is important to focus on those aspects of friendship, kindness, and guidance, as no journey is faced alone – we should be isolating after all, not isolated. This blog will focus on the more practical implications of COVID-19 on my PhD, and the small steps I have taken, with guidance from my supervisors, to adapt to the present situation.

All that is gold does not glitter…

First, I think it is important to remember that we are not simply working from home, we are following social distancing measures during a pandemic. Like many, I struggled to adapt to the present uncertainty and quickly realised that I could not sustain the level of productivity I had when things were “normal”. I wanted to continue working on my PhD, whilst being realistic and honest about what could be achieved.

I am currently working on a systematic review and thematic synthesis, focussing on the experiences of living in supported housing with a diagnosis of dementia. This is a big undertaking, but one that my supervisors and I thought would be valuable. It’s also a piece of work that has observable progression and an incremental series of steps that can be broken down into smaller, more manageable goals. My supervisors suggested I shift my focus from other aspects of my PhD, like my study protocol, onto work that is more concrete; I found this incredibly helpful. Each small step is a proverbial piece of gold, and although not a glittering final output, the additive value of this process will eventually lead to that. I have found that adopting this mindset has helped immeasurably.

Not all those who wander are lost…

We are all navigating unknowns. This goes for PhD students in their first year, like me, through to supervisors, professors, and principals. Any progress made during this time is invaluable and in our process of adapting, we should remember this.

My PhD study will use a multiple case study design, including interviews with people living with dementia, their family members, friends, health, and social care professionals. Given the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on care environments across Scotland, I need to think about how my study methods might change. My supervisors informed me that I would be supported fully throughout this process and that having a contingency plan in place is important. For me, this has involved exploring telephone and online methods of data collection in order to protect the individuals living in these environments.

I felt lost at first, but soon tried to change my thinking. I came to accept that I am wandering through the unknown, contemplating and working out the best way to move forward. There is no easy solution to this, but I feel confident that with the guidance of my supervisors, I can develop an appropriate alternative and succeed as I move forward. Having that support and reassurance has been brilliant.

The old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.

It wasn’t my intention to be clichéd (I failed), but rather, to be frank and open about my experiences and the steps I have taken to help me progress. I have found it tough and have felt waves of productivity, but through consistent support and supervision, I have managed to put some measures in place that are helping me move forward.

If you are finding things hard, a final suggestion would be to take a step back from your studies and reflect on all that you have achieved up until this point – you are doing great, what you are doing is meaningful, and we can all help each other to get through this. The roots and foundations that brought you to this point are strong – so channel your inner Frodo!

Michael can be contacted via Twitter: @MJSmith0611 

Alzheimer Scotland Centre for Policy and Practice: @AlzScotCPP
University of the West of Scotland Health & Life Sciences: @uwshls

If you would like to write a guest blog for the SDRC on how COVID has impacted your research, email us