Read today’s COVID Impact blog from Rose Vincent, who has recently started a PhD at the University of Edinburgh. This part of a series of many blogs from students and ECRs on how COVID has affected their research and also featuring many practical advice for those whose research is still ongoing during this time. You can read the full series here 

I started my PhD at the University of Edinburgh in early February. However, by the 23rd of March (the date of my second supervision) lockdown was officially declared. I had already been working from home for a week or two as we all became increasingly aware of the growing risk of COVID-19.

Being at this stage in my research I am lucky as my focus is on reading and developing my understanding of my research topic and methodology. My other part-time job has been paused, so I have been able to really focus on my project 5 days a week. The potential downside to this period of working from home is that this solitary process can be more isolating than usual.

This period of isolation combined with being far away from my family down South at a time of illness and the loss of a close family member has certainly been a challenge- one I am aware I share with many people across the world. We, like many other families, have increased our phone contacts and video chats to help manage this. I am lucky that in Edinburgh I have a supportive partner and supervisory team. If you find yourself facing loss alone right now I would recommend you reach out to one of the wonderful charities such as Mind in England and Wales or Samaritans Scotland. Alzheimer Scotland also offer a fantastic 24/7 freephone helpline which offers information and support for anyone who is living with dementia, their partners, family or friends.

Clearly aware of how these challenges could impact on my emotional health and work, my project supervisors have kept in regular contact, advising me to not put too much pressure on myself and highlighting how important a peer support network is during a PhD. I can certainly attest to this and would highly recommend other new students to reach out to your peers if you have not already. There is a wealth of knowledge and companionship there that I feel is incredibly important at the beginning of a PhD.

I was lucky enough to be matched with a peer support mentor who has been a great source of guidance and support. Together we have launched a virtual journal club which meets monthly to discuss research articles in our field. This experience has been invaluable to me as it has allowed me to meet students across different research centres and to create individual connections over shared interests. I have also found it to be a source of inspiration for further reading and ideas to pursue. In a similar vein, I have joined a 3-month coaching program for PhD writing. I now virtually meet with PhD students who are spread geographically and by discipline, to write together and to support one another. By checking in with each other in the morning, to doing regular, simultaneous bursts of concentrated work, I can feel my productivity and confidence beginning to grow.  

The research that I am planning on doing will be focussing on the experiences of people who are living with a diagnosis of young onset dementia. People living with young onset dementia across the UK do not always have access to age-appropriate services or support, and there is often a lack of knowledge and understanding about young onset dementia amongst professionals and in our society.

Subsequently, I am interested to know how people work to maintain meaning and purpose in their lives post-diagnosis, with the hope that we can better develop support services to be age-appropriate. I would like to involve people living with young onset dementia in the research process, as they have unique experiences and insights which will be integral to the research project and its intended outcomes.

At this point, it is unclear how the pandemic will impact on my data collection. But if COVID has taught me anything it is that although it may not always feel natural, the internet can be a fantastic resource for connecting with people across the country and world. I hope that through telephone contact/video or voice diaries I will be able to connect with the voices which need to be heard, even if I am unable to do so in person.

To conclude, it has become increasingly clear to me that a PhD is not the primarily individual pursuit I had thought it would be. It is much more than that. The collective knowledge and wisdom garnered from interactions and discussions with a wide variety of people (from my peers, my supervisors, from the people who live with or have experience of young onset dementia, from my family and my friends) are what pushes my thinking forward and threads together the beginnings of the thesis.  I am just at the start of this process and I am excited to see how it will grow.

 Thank you so much Rose for your contribution. If you are an ECR or student in a field relating to dementia or brain health and would like to write a blog for the SDRC on how COVID has impacted your research, please get in touch.