Finishing a Ph.D. in a Pandemic

Written by: Aisling Heeran
Written on: Thursday, 08 April, 2021

Sunrise on Killiney Beach. Image credit, Aisling Heeran

Just over a year ago, I had returned from the Irish Association for Cancer Research (IACR) annual conference in Galway. Motivation levels were high, I was on the countdown. I only had seven months left of my Ph.D. I could see the finish line and had already started thinking about what I would do with my spare time. As an aspiring triathlete, I had visions of long Saturdays out on the bike exploring the hills of Wicklow, catching a sunrise swim in Killiney before work or even a long Sunday run without the weight of a thesis hanging over me! Then all of a sudden it was March 12th, 2020, and I was watching Leo Varadkar announce the closure of schools and higher education settings for a period of two weeks.

Things escalated quickly over the next few days with case numbers rising and, sadly, the first deaths from COVID-19 reported. By March 27th we were in a full lockdown. Various hospitals had launched campaigns recruiting healthcare workers and, as a pharmacist, I felt I should make myself available for work if needed, and so in April I began working in St. Vincent’s University Hospital. I spent the first three months of lockdown juggling work and writing up as much of my thesis as I could. I was so thankful to be able to go out to work and meet people, but as the months slipped by, I resigned myself to the fact that I would not be finishing up in September as planned, and would be needing an extension.

On July 6th I got back into the lab and had a list of experiments I needed to do to finish. Things were looking good, case numbers were low, there were good prospects for the summer. It looked like we were coming out the other side of this. I was still working four days a week in the hospital and finishing up experiments in the evenings and on the weekend. It was hectic, but by mid-September I had completed my experiments, so all that was left now was to write up. I reduced my working hours to two days a week and moved home to write. I was excited about the home-cooked dinners, warm fires and if I was really lucky, some of my mother’s baked treats! Things really weren’t looking too bad at all!

Then wave two hit! We were in a 6-week lockdown. I thought this would be fine - no distractions from writing. At first it was fine, (home-cooked dinners and baked treats!) but things started to get difficult when I needed an escape from the thesis and there was nowhere to go and no one to see. Coming up to Christmas, things were taking a turn for the worse with rising case numbers and hospitalisations. I started to feel a bit isolated, and the hope of things opening up with a return to some sort of normality after Christmas dwindled. I missed going swimming and running with my pals, but I was incredibly fortunate to be interacting with other humans at work! I took a break from writing over Christmas and then the third wave peaked. I found this one the toughest, as I’m sure did most people. The stark reality of the situation was evident in the hospital and I was nervous I was going to bring the virus home to my parents. My dad also works in a healthcare setting and I was worried he would contract COVID-19. This coincided with the final three weeks of thesis-writing and I was a stressed-out mess!

Before I knew it, it was March 2021 - viva time! I didn’t anticipate that a year on we would still be in lockdown and I’d be doing a remote viva. It was quite an unusual situation, presenting the findings of my Ph.D. from my bedroom, but I did feel more relaxed because I was at home (in my slippers!). The physical distance seemed to put me more at ease, but it was weird being on my own in the house after the viva was finished. It felt like a big milestone and the most exciting thing to do was go for (yet another!) walk. While it wasn’t quite the way I expected my Ph.D. to end, the relief of being finished now is huge. With the vaccine roll-out picking up pace and hopefully the coming easing of restrictions, I’ll soon be able to spend my free time roaming the hills of Wicklow on my bike or catching those glorious sunrises in Killiney!


About the Author 
Aisling Heeran is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Kolch/Gomez Groups at SBI. She joined the team in March 2021.