By Alexander Thom

RESEARCHERS are often the ones unlocking the hidden secrets of history or searching for a new virus-busting vaccine. Their work can be life-changing. However, it’s estimated that 30 per cent of PhD students in the UK don’t finish their studies. Meanwhile, in North America, the figure rises to 50%. My bet is that these figures will only rise given the current climate, and I know first-hand how challenging PhD study can be right now.

Generally, I’ve been fortunate to have good mental health. However, over the past year or so, once I had got into the meat of my PhD, I began to struggle under the pressure which affected my mood significantly. The academic industry is inherently competitive and, at the end of the day, it’s about how good you are as an individual.

A PhD is often a unique, long-term project and, being so niche, it’s not something that can be easily understood by friends, family and even peers. Perhaps because of this, studying for a PhD is quite an isolated experience. You have a supervisor, but its on you to do your work – there’s nobody waiting at the other end for the result. Even your supervisor doesn’t know all the detail about your work. They’re there to help you to think differently about things and work with you on the bigger picture – but the detail you delve into alone.

In the sciences we have what’s called The Second Year Slump – which is when you’re around 18 months in and you hit a wall. I believe I hit that wall.

Research in its nature is a lonely profession – with lab work and data crunching often taking place in isolation. And lockdown has exacerbated the pressures and the isolation, by putting deadlines back and inhibiting lab work. Sometimes you start the day, and you feel like you’ve got no direction or sense of urgency, because you’re missing some of the lab work and data.

For me, personally, my slump resulted in changes in mood and behaviour. I was sleeping more, eating junk food and moving very little. All of this added to the feelings of worthlessness that were rising within me because, especially in lockdown, there really wasn’t anyone to bounce ideas off and share experiences with.

Since labs started to re-open, I have found that some of the social aspects of PhD study are starting to come back into my life, and commuting to and from the lab by bike has boosted my mood because it’s got me moving again.

But research was lonely before lockdown. Whatever the new normal is, it will surely only get worse. Which is why I’ve been so keen to join and shout about an online academic community called Scientistt. It’s a virtual peer support and network for postgraduate students and early career researchers from across the globe. It connects me with peers who might be studying something in my niche area but who may be physically based on the other side of the world. It opens so many opportunities to share experiences and discuss mental health in the context of the research world. It’s relatable.

Lockdown has demonstrated how we can use technology to connect more proactively with the world – and this is increasingly important for PhD students as they return to the lab.

After all, without them, who knows what the world will be missing out on.

Alexander Thom is a PhD student with the University of Glasgow researching in the field of materials chemistry