Connected despite the distance

“Social distancing” has become the term of art for the public contribution to the fight against the Covid19. PhD candidates are no stranger to a world where social interactions are reduced to bare essentials. Here is a little insight from pandemic days into staying connected while distanced.

Doing a PhD can be an isolating, solitary experience. Literature review, experiment planning, laboratory hours, data processing and analysis, reading, writing. Although there are different approaches, the standard model simply boils down to you performing alone. Yes, there are teamwork elements but you read alone, gather data alone, analyse data alone, write alone, share and communicate as required in the curriculum.   

Prolonged isolation is my kryptonite. In hindsight, it is only natural that in such isolated work, I felt stripped of my power as weakened Superman exposed to the radiating green gem. But it was not that easy to see this back then. At some point in the middle, I was convinced that I am the only one who struggles. I would go into a train of thought similar to this: 

→ Everybody else seems to “have it all together”.
→ I am the only one who finds this difficult. 
→ If things feel this hard, it must be that I am not good enough for this.
→ I just have to soldier on and do more because nothing else can help. 

From here, you see what kind of wilderness this kind of thinking can get you into. And many of us, independent of being an extrovert or introvert, find ourselves in this dark valley of stingy isolation surrounded by mountains of academia. On top of this, this year we had the Covid19 pandemic as a cherry on top. People from all walks of life have been affected by the disruption in our connected world and scientists were not spared. Sprinkle the fact that the pandemic won’t go anywhere soon and there you have it. A recipe for an academic Robinson Crusoe, a sailor marooned on an island for a long time. 

Being confined to our research bubble affects our mental health.
Source: Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education, Nature Biotechnology

During the times where we may feel extra pressured to be productive all the time, we might be extra vulnerable to fall into those pits. It might look appealing, (and frankly easier) to isolate ourselves, to withdraw and wait until we are ‘done with this’ to connect with people. But deep down, we all know that we need to fight with the urge to duck and cover.

How does an already isolated scientist strive in such extraordinary circumstances? One thing stands out clearly, at least for early career-scientists, we are longing for connection. We want to share the ups and downs of the journey. Most importantly, we want to feel less alone. 

Social animals as we are, perhaps our salvation lies in our ability to look after each other and communicate. There has been no time in history when humans have been equipped with today’s technological means that opened up a myriad of ways and platforms to link us to anyone in any part of the world at any time. Yet, we still feel disconnected. And a virus going around town, plus the bells ringing for “social distancing” simply amplify this pre-existing isolation and creates even a bigger divide. 

At the peak of the pandemic, isolated at home from my group, I felt this in my bones. With the anxiety the pandemic brought up, I cut myself off of friends. Having no family in Stockholm (or Sweden), I had a new appreciation of the “domestic alien” description Americans have for immigrants. I was a resident of this town, but yet I could not have felt any further from it. Later on, I accepted that what I needed was to achieve social connection despite physical isolation. Along the way I learned a few lessons that might serve in the fight against the Covid19-induced isolation and most importantly, the crushing academic isolation. 

  • Responding to shared info about small and big accomplishments, instead of being a bystander. Even if with just an emoji or “go you!”. I find it quite heartwarming to recognise the effort of others and celebrate together. Why are we here, if not for each other? 
  • Sharing a little more than usual on social media: This may seem counterintuitive but hear me out. To keep myself in the here and now, I normally don’t share frequently on social media platforms. During the Covid19-induced isolation, I started to share one frame or one passing thought with friends. Sometimes this was a song, other times a picture of pastel sunsets I cannot get enough of (#sunsetmania). The casual shared-sense of reality felt comforting.
  • Adding an extra appreciation line in written communications to thank people for their hard work and support.
  • Spicing up your zoom catch-ups with friends from around the globe: BYOD (Bring Your Own Dinner) zoom dinners create a fun atmosphere with some recipe sharing. Shared screen yoga/home workout is another favourite of mine. 
  • Making an effort to keep social plans: Maintaining recurring meet-ups with friends (with Covid19, this was moved to an outdoor setting). Trust me, this will be a game-changer. Having an outdoor lunch with a friend fills my tank to help get through whatever the day throws at me. 

As 2020 taught as so far, our past ways might have been history and hopefully we will turn this crisis into an opportunity for growth and positive change. From a personal perspective, I am hoping to lead my way into our “new normal” with a resolve to figure it out together. 

What are the ways you are building (or nurturing) your community?
How are you dealing with the urge to duck and cover until you figure it all out? Or have you already deciphered the code for staying connected?
Any tips?

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