As spring starts to rise and winter falls away, as the second semester deadlines begin to loom, I’m approaching that familiar point for all first-year Anthropology PhD students finally finding their feet: it’s your run-of-the-mill global pandemic.
Gosh dangit. Well, we’ve all been there!
I’ll wait for the uproarious laughter to die down before continuing, shall I?
Fair warning: if you don’t like Corona jokes, you might be in the wrong place. I don’t know how to cope with the maybe-temporary-maybe-not crumbling of our collective reality without laughing myself horizontal about it all. Also caveat that this is seriously, seriously, far from the worst way that a person can be impacted by COVID19. I’m just here to share how my cohort and I are responding, by will or by force, to this (probably literally) batshit crazy virus.
So. What the fuck now? Yes. Well.
The thing is, absolutely nobody knows. Let’s start by checking what my support system has to say…
What the Fuck Now? Part 1: Wise Words from the Support System
The NWSSDTP (my funding body) is as supportive as it is vague, a bit like a comforting hug from a distant relative whose name you can’t quite remember. Jean? Jane? Janet? Jemima? … Phyllis? … “We understand you may be concerned about your progression in these circumstances, and while we cannot yet advise explicitly what measures the ESRC will put in place, please rest assured we will do whatever we can to mitigate the impact of these disruptions. In the meantime, we would encourage you to continue working on your research as far as possible […]”
My university is clinical and clearly utterly petrified, more like a hug from a barbed wire fence: “In line with the UK Government’s latest advice about coronavirus and in common with many other universities, the University will be suspending all physical face to face teaching (including laboratories, seminars and tutorials) and will be closing all of our non-essential sites from 5pm this evening (Tuesday 17 March). … Certain essential services and facilities and halls of residence will remain open. I appreciate this is a very worrying time and this decision has been taken to protect the health and wellbeing of our students and staff, which is our primary concern”. Sure, Nancy. It’s us you’re worried about, not the coffers. I mean no real shade by that, really – the coffers keep the lights on and the library stocked – but this message was really as warm as the Firth of fucking Forth.
My wonderful phalanx of supervisors, much like the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse, have all made it clear that they have no clue what’s going on but they’re there for me. I hope they know I’m there for them as well.
First supervisor: “Good to hear from you! … absolutely, let’s Skype … after March 24th. Hopefully by that stage there will be a smithereen more clarity about how long we should expect this to last, and what kind of contingencies we need to plan for if we are needing to anticipate weeks of disruption, or (as seems more likely): months. And I guess you are probably going to be busy trying to rebook your life for the next few weeks. … Most importantly: stay well, look out for your friends (at a 2m distance, where possible!), and do check in if you are feeling anxious or concerned.”
Second supervisor: “A few of the class members yesterday looked quite shellshocked so anything you can do by way of encouraging people (through Facebook or WhatsApp) to keep in touch and keep their spirits up will be greatly appreciated. It’s especially difficult for the overseas people who may be stranded here so I’m keeping a close eye on them. I’m glad you’re safe at home in Germany!”
Third supervisor: “Hope you and yours are all well in these anxious and difficult times. Just wanted to check how you’re doing – do you want to try Skype on Monday afternoon? And hope you’ve been in touch with some of your other supervisors about changes to your programme in light of the crisis – let me know if there’s anything I can do with clarifying anything.”
I don’t have a quote from my fourth supervisor but we shared some meaningfully dour looks on Skype and fearfully anticipated the end of academia as we know it, and that kind of said it all.
I love my supervisory team.
Finally, a librarian I emailed for help getting digital access to a book might have put it best: “It’s a funny old situation at the mo”.
Most of all, I’m grateful to my cohort. Alex, Jared, Jen, Shirley, Tom, Marie, Laura, Cassie, Samuel, Claudia, Calum, Sam, Robert, Rebecca and Heather are keeping me sane. We have a WhatsApp group where we cheer each other up, on and out of bed by sharing what our supervisors are saying, providing emotional support and academic feedback, bouncing ideas around, troubleshooting technical problems when the video conferencing tool won’t play along for an online class, letting each other know about new funding deadlines and ethics regulations and – of course – sharing memes. Like this whopper.
Well, hope you didn’t pee your pants from that utter giggle factory.
On with the show.
So that’s kind of how we’re all feeling. Reaching out to each other to offer and seek support, but without anybody having anything concrete to suggest, least of all me. In light of that, I ask again, what the fuck now?
What the Fuck Now? Part 2: No, But Seriously, What the Fuck Now?
Well, for some of us it seems like the end of the road. It seems that way but of course it isn’t. Allow me to explain but please bear in mind that what I’m explaining here is only my understanding of things, not necessarily things as they are. Don’t tell my parents I said this because they’ll never stop hollering about it but I don’t actually think I know everything.
In the short term, we’re relatively unaffected in that we have essay deadlines in May that we need to meet. Although libraries are shut and in-person classes are cancelled, there are technologically reliable ways of navigating that without impacting our studies too much. The issue emerges in the medium to long term, when those studies end and actual research is meant to begin.
Quick recap: in anthropology, research means fieldwork, and, fieldwork means 12-18 months abroad. Actually, anthropological fieldwork (also known as “ethnographic research”) doesn’t always take place abroad, but as it happens, none of my cohort except for one is planning on conducting fieldwork “at home” (= the place you’re from).
Let’s get specifical, specifical.
In our group, depending on which type of programme you’re enrolled in and how your funding works, people were planning on leaving any time between June 2020 and January 2021. I’ll start with those of us who were due to go abroad to begin fieldwork in June. Heart-breakingly, that’s seeming pretty unlikely, because we’ll presumably still be in the thick of it then.
What about those, like myself, who were due to go in September, October or November? What if the June-lot postpone their fieldwork start date by six months to December? The issue is that, even if travel restrictions have been lifted, our university’s ethical reviews board will probably be extremely reluctant to allow most of us to go on fieldwork, especially if our field sites are far from hospitals, or in “at risk” regions, or in places where the outbreak is still ongoing. And then you introduce the fact that experts are predicting a second wave of this virus near the end of 2020/beginning of 2021 as cold weather returns to the northern hemisphere. A vaccine is unlikely to be available until about a year from now.
What I’m trying to say is that as far as I understand it, the options before us are as follows:
- Carry on as if nothing has changed
- Request short-term extensions
- Stop the clock for 3-12 months
- Change the project
What the Fuck Now? Part 3: Exploring Other Options
Option 1 is a funny one. In a sense, as I mentioned, it’s what we’re all doing now. It’s a great way to stay sane and structured during self-isolation and it gives you the sense of Doing Something. That said, it produces some pretty severe cognitive dissonance and I don’t for one second blame those of us whose motivation to do any studying at all has dropped to sub-zero levels. Because as I wrote to one of my supervisors the other day, getting on with things as if nothing has changed feels a lot like channelling “the deluded energy of a passenger on the sinking Titanic excitedly planning what they want to do their first day in Manhattan”. And anyway, Option 1 just won’t work in the long term unless we’re phenomenally lucky and the World Health Organization pops into all of our inboxes on April 1st with a cheeky giggle and declares the COVID pandemic to be over.
Option 2 is one that many people will probably have to go with. I am very lucky because I’m on a programme which means that I don’t have to make any decisions really until September. I don’t have to hand in my fully-fledged research proposal until September 7th; most of us are in a different position, and they have to hand it in in May. And since the expected sequence of events is…
- fieldwork methods training and coursework essays (wrapping up this month)
- write and submit 15,000 word research proposal (deadline in May for most, September for some including me)
- pass viva and go through ethics approval (takes a few weeks)
- begin fieldwork
… you can see how after submitting the research proposal most people will need an extension on their funding while the dust settles and we learn if fieldwork is possible at all this year.
If then, as seems quite likely, we do learn that we won’t be approved to go on fieldwork this calendar year, we have to look at Option 3: stopping the clock, also known as suspending your studies. I call it pausing. Whatever you call it, it’s both the most sensible and the most scary option in my book. Sensible because I could simply press the pause button in September 2020, wait for a year to go by, and pick up where I left off in September 2021. I could be in Mongolia by October 2021, and back on track.
Scary because pressing pause on the PhD also means pressing pause on the money.
(Brief side note here that I’m not even going to get into the fear we all share that our funding bodies may withdraw their support at any time).
I invite you into the following thought-spiral which I tumble into when I think about pausing the money
- What do I do in August, when my rental contract in Manchester is up? I’m currently in Germany with my parents with two suitcases of books and clothes – will I be able to return to the UK to even hand over my keys and put my stuff in storage?
- How will I pay for storage, and how long for?
- Where will I live in the interim year?
- What will I spend this year doing?
I would like to return to Berlin, but with no money and this crisis going on, plus the fact that Berlin is currently in the middle of overhauling its entire rental market, I can’t imagine a worse time to look for a place to live. I’ll need to get a job, one that at least covers my rent, and the aforementioned storage locker in Manchester. I can’t stay with my parents because my brother is moving in here in August.
Best-case scenario is that my funding body might pay for me to do an internship that’s relevant to my studies at an institution I’m really excited to work with in Berlin, if they accept me, and that by the time the internship is up I might be able to go to Mongolia. Lots of mights there.
Worst-case scenario is that I can’t find a job or a place to live and end up having to ask either my aunt and uncle in Inverness or in Hamburg, beautiful places where I don’t know anybody, if they could put me up in their spare room while I stare at the ceiling and wait for the pandemic to fade.
I know that similar thoughts to these are on everyone’s minds and that I’m not alone, we’re not alone, none of us. I’m also lucky to have extended family I can stay with, and a pretty reliable income for the next 6 months, and my health. But it is all a weird time nonetheless.
Let’s take a look now at Option 4.
It’s been floated quite a few times by each of the voices I quoted above but I’ve not yet heard of anyone in my group seriously considering it.
What is meant by “change the project”, as far as I understand it, is “change where your fieldwork takes place; change it to somewhere close to home; somewhere where you have a passport or a residence permit, and definitely where you have healthcare”.
We’re talking making elemental, foundational changes to projects we’ve spent at least one year, and up to five or six years, working on and refining. I’ve spent nearly half a decade reading and writing about Mongolia, Kazakhs, senses of place, horse-human relationships, music, diaspora, the aftermath of the Soviet Union, orientalism and post-colonial theory. I looked for a Kazakh teacher and when I couldn’t find one, started teaching myself. I quit the best job I’ve ever had, a job with the nicest boss and prettiest office and lushest benefits, to move to a city I didn’t know a thing about, where I didn’t know anyone, in a country I didn’t think I’d ever return to. I gave up my home in Berlin, saying goodbye to my friends, my apartment and many of my belongings. I’ve weathered mental health crises and heartbreaks and poor health and financial woes, and I’ve been given more opportunities to jump ship and go another route than is fair. I didn’t get a dog, you guys, because I didn’t think it would be fair to do so until I got back from fieldwork.
I’ve been driven through all this by a passionate curiosity about the songs and sentiments of Mongolian Kazakhs. It sounds obsessive when you put it like that, but you have to be devoted to your project if you pursue a PhD in it, and I don’t see any appeal in now changing my project to look at, for instance, senses of place in Surrey instead. If I stretch my mind, I suppose I could see myself looking at similar topics in Scandinavia, or the Caucasus, or North America – places I’ve thought about exploring similar topics in down the line, perhaps in a postdoc. But those all involve going abroad in some way, and you can’t seriously tell me the US has better healthcare than Mongolia. Canada, on the other hand…
I’m not saying that because of any of this, I deserve to get what I want, and have it my way. I’m just contextualising why “just do the project somewhere in Europe” hurts to hear and to contemplate.
I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m not making any firm decisions right now, but there will come a time, probably in a month or two, where I have to. I didn’t write any of this to share my decision, but to share my confusion and my hope.
Not quite sure how to end this other than to say that honestly, the people I’m thinking about the most regarding this whole PhD stuff is my colleagues who have already made fieldwork plans that they are now being forced to cancel, postpone or change. I can’t do anything but I have so much compassion for how fucking tough that is.
And beyond the PhD stuff… my compassion is of course with frontline workers and other essential staff, with artists and actors and freelancers, with family members who have lost their jobs or whose health is already severely compromised anyway, with single people who live alone and haven’t been touched by another human for weeks, with friends who have had to postpone or alter their wedding plans, and with the newborn daughter of one of my best friends who is missing out on so many cuddles from grandparents and aunts and uncles and godparents and friends, and me, goddamit. I’m a fantastic baby-cuddler. Edie, our day will come.
In summary: this sucks. To quote one of my favourite podcasts, and one you should definitely listen to right now if you’re even slightly interested in understanding how infectious diseases work and spread both within and beyond the human body: