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8 Things I’ve Learned Since Being Back On Campus After 6 Months

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After 6 months away from campus, I finally have lab access again. (*happy dance*)

Although I’m currently allowed in the lab only every other week, it’s been really nice to finally be able to make progress in my experimental work. It’s admittedly slow progress, with everything taking significantly longer than they usually would, but it’s something. At the end of the day, it’s still progress.

When we end this very long year, I’ll have made little headway in my PhD project but that’s okay. It’s disappointing of course, but I’m very aware that things could be SO much worse. And I know we’re all in the same boat. All the universities shut down, everyone’s projects and studies were affected in one way or many, and so much is out of our controls that I keep reminding myself that any progress is, at this point, nothing short of amazing.

So I thought I’d share some of my experiences, learnings and realisations since being back on campus.

#1 – It’s important to have a plan for your project

Look at your overarching PhD aims and objectives, figure out what you need to get done between now and when you need to turn in your thesis, and create a projected timeline. It will change of course, and many times at that, but it’ll help you figure out how you can organise, order and prepare for your activities. Keep a copy of this ‘original’ plan and then…

#2 – Update the plan you created regularly

This will likely be useful in the future, if you ask for an extension to your project. By keeping a record of the work that has and (very importantly) hasn’t been carried out, you can show how your work has been delayed and then significantly negatively impacted.

#3 – Prepare a detailed schedule and/or list of tasks for days you’re in the lab

I write everything down. I find that putting my to-dos on paper frees up so much brain space and helps prevent overwhelm. Because I’m only allowed in the lab every other week, I try and get as much as I can done in those 5 days. So about a week before I go into the lab, I make sure to take some time to create a schedule and book all the equipment that I need so I know what I’m doing and when. In addition to that…

#4 – Think about your Plan B in case things go ‘wrong’ in the lab

Things very often don’t go as plan in the lab. In my experience, this happens on a weekly basis. Most of the time they’re more minor things like certain lab work (e.g. sample prep) taking more time than you’d anticipated and planned for. But every so often your plan will be significantly affected, like when important equipment are out of service. What can you do instead with the time that you have? How can you make use of time you have in the lab?

#5 – Take a break

When I first regained lab access, most days I’d work nonstop from 9 until 5 trying to make the most of the time I was allowed in. After a few weeks of that, I realised that I really need to take a break for lunch because I, unsurprisingly, was getting headaches by mid-afternoon. This is obvious but it’s important to refuel with some food and drink water. Plus, it’s a chance to get some fresh air, rest your legs, and sit down for a bit. This is definitely helped me stay more focused in the afternoon! After all, it’s difficult to stay engaged in what you’re doing when you have a horrible headache.

#6 – Check that you have everything you need with you

I make sure to double check I have everything I need with me at the end of a lab week because I know it’ll be ~10 days before I’m allowed back in again. Apart from my personal belongings (e.g. phone, purse, student card, and the like), I ensure I have important work-related stuff like all my optical micrographs saved on my memory stick.

#7 – Follow the rules

Wear a mask, sanitise your hands frequently and keep sufficient physical distance from people when you’re on campus. In our lab we’ve been separated into work bubbles, and each building/room/activity have specific rules (e.g. maximum occupancies, cleaning instructions) that everyone has to follow. The last thing any of us want is to lose lab access!

#8 – Ask for help if you need it

If you’re not sure about something, ask someone for help. Ask a friend/colleague, your team leader, your supervisor, the lab technician, the safety adviser, a lecturer, your tutor, someone. If you need clarification about a task, ask. If you need help getting something done, just ask. I’ve found that EVERYONE is always willing to help. They may not have the time, or the answers, right there and then, but they’ll usually be able to help point you to someone who does.

At the end of the day though, we’re all still very much going through it at the moment.

Things aren’t yet back to normal and they likely won’t be for quite a while longer. So try not to be too hard on yourself when you’re struggling to make headway in your uni work. It’s a really tough year. I feel like as long as I am well, my family is healthy, and my friends are doing okay, then that’s good enough for 2020. And if I can get some new experimental results for my project, I’m taking that, running with and calling it a major win!

Here are some useful links and resources for being on campus:

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