Author: Sam Brady, 22nd April 2021

As the UK begins to cautiously exit lockdown restrictions, and I approach my Annual Progress Review with the University, I’ve found I’ve been reflecting heavily on the last year. In particular, how I managed to get anything done during a pandemic! When I started my PhD, I had no idea I’d be doing it during a worldwide crisis. In this blog, I want to reflect on how this year has affected me and my research, the advantages and disadvantages it’s presented, and what I hope we can take from this experience going forward.

At the top, it’s important for me to recognise that I was in an advantageous position pre-pandemic. I don’t have any chronic health conditions or caring responsibilities, and so I can’t say I’ve experienced the full scope of stress the last year has induced to many. In fact, I’d started my PhD as a remote student, so I already had some practice at working from home, and so pivoting my project to online-based research was very possible for me. 

That being said, my last year has been very similar to everyone else’s – full of feelings of stress and worry, a lack of motivation and focus, and struggling with the shift to a remote world. Even in normal circumstances, PhDs are pretty isolating experiences, so the combination of these factors was challenging to say the least. In some ways though, because everyone was in the same boat, it actually helped make the PhD less isolating than my remote studying experiences pre-pandemic. Suddenly, all training, meeting and socialisation opportunities were online and more accessible from different parts of the country. But it’s certainly been different to how I thought I would be spending my time as a PhD student.

A key challenge for me and my research has been the lack of opportunities to access archives – a key issue for myself and many of my peers’ research. I was intending to do a few months of archival research in the summer of 2020, to better understand the topic and prepare myself for oral history interviewing. But, as you might guess, that didn’t happen. As stated, I was fortunate that I was able to rely on oral history as an avenue of research that could be done remotely and within lockdown restrictions, but not everyone’s research could be pivoted in that way. And whilst there will hopefully be the chance to access museums and archives again in 2021, I was also hoping to use the time as work experience in the archive to enhance my skills and knowledge. So not only did the pandemic affect research, but it also impacted skill and career development opportunities for PhD students like myself. This is even more frustrating given that my studentship was designed around access to archives for research and work experience! 

On the other hand, this time has taught me a lot about what can done in strange circumstances, and the benefits of these restrictions. For example, I really enjoyed doing oral history over video calling platforms like Zoom, and this method of interviewing actually made it more accessible, less invasive, and allowed me to expand the scope of my research. For many, the traditional face-to-face interview wouldn’t appeal to participants– it takes up more time than a remote interview and may involve travel or inviting a stranger into their home. But with the power of a Zoom link, suddenly it was easier to be involved and have their experiences recorded. If anything, the accessibility of remote oral histories for interviewers and interviewees presents great possibilities for future research in disability history or for disabled researchers. And, as video calling platforms became more well known to all of us, this method was more accessible to a wider range of participants. Initially, I was likely to just focus on people within the UK due to costs and travel practicalities, which on reflection, would have limited the findings of my research, as adaptive sports have an international history. Casting a broader geographical net only improved my project, and I wouldn’t have considered remote interviewing in the same way if not for the restrictions presented by the various UK lockdowns.

This also applied to some of my extracurricular activities. I started doing these blogs, for instance, as a way to engage with the Trust remotely and share my work. I was able to take on teaching work with the University, which I probably wouldn’t have been able to if I was traveling around the country for interviews in a non-pandemic timeline. I even presented at a digital conference recently, which involved pre-recording a talk for a panel and participating in a live Q&A after it was played. This massively helped me with public speaking anxiety and allowed me to record multiple takes. 

And on the theme of reflection, this talk was a review-in-progress of my project so far, giving some details about my research so far and my data collection. You can find the recorded version of my talk here, if you are interested: 

Despite the challenges of virtual events and the lack of in-person socialising, I feel that there are absolutely many powerful and beneficial things we can take into the post-pandemic world. Yes, working at home is still difficult – focus or motivation is still a major problem for me and many others – and I can’t wait to socialise and access archives in person again. But we shouldn’t ignore what’s been gained in accessibility and opportunity with remote research or working. Ultimately, my PhD has been invariably transformed by the global situation, and it’s very strange to think about how it might have worked out differently. I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to get on reasonably well despite these restrictions due to the nature of my project and my personal circumstances. But rather than focus on what my PhD might have been like in ‘normal times’, I think it’s instead worth ruminating on the lessons and skills unique to this year that I have learned.