people welcoming others at conference

#87: How to end COVID-loneliness

Many PhD candidates are suffering from isolation due to COVID-19 related restrictions. Whether this means you can’t travel, can’t meet other PhDs, friends or family, or you can’t even access your institute or lab – most PhD candidates have been affected. We suggest you take action now to break the feeling of loneliness. Using online tools and platforms to establish first contacts is super easy, and will make meeting in person post-pandemic a whole lot easier! Get in touch with other researchers and you’ll soon have a rich network that will be of great benefit in your future. 

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We all know it: The feeling of isolation due to COVID restrictions and curfews. Being cut-off from colleagues, friends and family, and not being able to see anyone but your safety-bubble or household. You may be among the luckier ones if you are or were able to spend the time with your family during COVID. We’ve heard from many international PhD candidates that they left the country where they work and headed home at some point during the pandemic. 

If you’re staying with your family or household, you still can’t get out & about, or attend any gatherings. You’re stuck at home for long stretches of time – but at least you are stuck together with a few other human beings. 

Not so lucky are those PhD candidates who were just starting their PhD in a foreign country and then got stuck there, completely alone. We’ve heard from candidates who arrived at the beginning of the pandemic to study at a German research institute, and due to access restrictions, have not set foot in their institute to date. They’ve spent more than a year staying in their apartments – with no one around. 

Whether COVID has left you with just mild symptoms of isolation, or if you are among the hard hit, with this blogpost we want to help you lose that feeling of loneliness. We aim to make you think about how to build your contacts right now so you can harness them later when you’re able to have personal contact again—in the scientific community, as well as outside of work. Make sure to download our free worksheet: Moving out of COVID loneliness, which will help you identify personal first steps to establish new contacts immediately! 

The end of COVID restrictions won’t catapult you out of feeling isolated 

Human contacts that are satisfying and engaging do not appear just because curfews are lifted or restrictions to access the lab are eased. Just because – post COVID – you will be standing next to other people in the lab or you will work alongside 500 others in a scientific institute or university does not mean you won’t feel lonely anymore. Unless you know people, you might still feel pretty isolated.

You’ve got to take the first step

Do you have the following thoughts: Why’s no one in contact with me? Why does my supervisor not call from time to time? Why does that postdoc who found my conference-poster exciting never ask for more information about my project? Why is the graduate school coordinator not in touch to see how I am doing? Well, here’s the truth: If you always wait for others to take the first step, you may have to wait a long time, and will still feel lonely. The scientific community rewards action-takers! People, who – in spite of difficult circumstances – take initiative and show up as real pace-setters and assets for their respective networks! So we won’t leave any doubt that you are the one who should take action! You’ll not only move yourself out of loneliness, but others as well. 

Establish contact now

Don’t wait for COVID to disappear before establishing personal contacts and friendships. If this is your way of thinking, you may feel as isolated in the future as you are currently! The smarter strategy is to start building relationships now while still under restrictions so that you’ll have a better time now and a happier life later on. Don’t wait to establish your future relationships! It will not only remove the current feeling of isolation, but you’ll greatly benefit from it once restrictions are lifted. 

Start online 

We suggest you use the fantastic advanced online meeting tools that are available, as well as video calls and social media, while you are still under restrictions, and then gradually transition to personal contacts and meetings where possible and suitable. 

With conferences, meetings of learned societies, graduate school events, PhD network activities etc. – all online – it is incredibly easy to make initial contacts. In fact, we find it a ton easier than flying somewhere to attend an event and then standing alone next to strangers during a reception, looking around for someone to talk to. 

Having attended the annual conference of the PRIDE-network of professionals in Doctoral Education, last week, that used a special software for their networking event, we enjoyed a virtual meeting space that felt very very close to an in-person meeting. Participants could choose between a wine-bar, coffee-corner, and several other spaces, and everyone could move their avatar around freely to join others in the speech-bubble, who would then appear on your screen so you could talk to them directly. Alongside that, everyone had a list of participants and could arrange one-on-one meetings on demand! It felt great! 

Taking action online can mean you arrange a one-on-one meeting with just one fellow PhD student, or you plan an event to accommodate the whole lot. Why not initiate a zoom-lunch for all PhDs in your work-group, from your lab, or those who have the same supervisor? If you meet online once a week starting now, you’ll not have any hesitations joining each other for a weekly lunch-gathering once the cantina opens again. 

Take it from the local to the international level

Are you already mentally browsing opportunities to establish contact? Good, go ahead! We suggest you go from the local to the international level so you can act a bit more strategic, and don’t miss out on great opportunities. Plus, include non-professional contacts. Whether still under COVID-restrictions or afterwards, you need playgrounds other than just your professional relationships. So while you are having a stab at it, why not include these as well?

The local level

This is your immediate environment, both professional and personal. It is the place where you work and live. Who would you like to get to know better, whose research is intriguing to you, or who would you like to socialise with? To initiate professional contacts, think of getting to know individuals among:

  • your immediate PhD colleagues
  • your lab, working group, or team
  • your graduate school
  • your supervisor 
  • other colleagues or postdocs 

To initiate private contacts, think of your life pre-COVID and what you liked doing outside work, or who you were spending time with. If you arrived at a new place just before or during the pandemic, consider possible first steps into a social life on your home turf. Here are a few options to investigate:

  • sports activities/clubs 
  • music schools/bands/orchestras
  • social, environmental, or cultural charities – helping others or the environment is a great way to make friends and contribute something valuable. 
  • expats – no matter where you are from, there’s usually a bunch of people from your home country close by – always good for a laugh about the habits in your country of residence and a chance to speak your native language! 

The regional level

Here you can cast your net a bit wider. Think about PhD candidates at universities or research institutes nearby. Have you met anyone during an event prior to the pandemic who you would like to be in touch with again? Any PhDs working on something similar, but at a different place? All of this is a great start, and it will be much easier for you to travel to and meet in person once the pandemic is a thing of the past. 

For the private arena, think of anyone you know who’s living in another city in the same region. Whether it’s an old friend from school, or someone you got to know through spare-time activities – make that call now! 

The national/international level

This requires a bit of strategic thinking, but make a list of a few people who would be great to get to know professionally, and then decide how you could initiate contact. This includes other labs that would be great for a short research stay abroad, professors you admire, or postdocs and PhD candidates you’d like to collaborate with. You can also include potential employers – universities, or industry and public sector organizations -that would be great to approach. 

Another consideration would be to join any national or international associations or interest groups. The scientific community is extremely welcoming, and you’ll find it easy to join like minded PhD candidates and researchers. Think of PhD student organisations, as well as the learned societies in your particular field of research. 

From the endless list of opportunities, let us just mention Eurodoc on the international level (look also there for the thematic workgroups and a list of national PhD organisations), or SULF, representing PhD candidates at Swedish Universities, or the German Helmholtz Juniors representing all PhDs in the Helmholtz organisation. 

A great way to make gentle and meaningful contact is to start out on LinkedIn or Twitter. Update your own profile, start posting about your PhD experiences, thesis topic, or interests, and see what comes your way! On LinkedIn see GRAD GRID or See e.g. @PhDForum or @PhD_Balance for a start – and, if you are in need of humour, check the hashtag #PhDpet on Twitter! 

Now head to our free worksheet: Moving out of COVID loneliness. Where you only need a pen to strategise your personal actions to get in touch with other scientists. 

Conclusion

You may feel sad and lonely now, we absolutely acknowledge that the situation for many PhD candidates is tricky! But the only way to change this is to jump into action. Realise that the end of lockdowns and restrictions during this phase of the pandemic is a great chance to emerge as a better you, and to courageously establish new habits. Become active in making contacts, and you’ll have a rich network in your career later on. 

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