As a young adult, diving into the depths of research has been an exciting as well as a scary journey. Every research has its own challenges, but I never anticipated that a pandemic will ever become one of the main challenges in mine. The nature and intensity of challenges faced by many of us gets shaped by our own positionality.
So, Hi! I am Disha, based in New Delhi, and I just completed the coursework for my PhD. I belong to the ‘upper caste’ and I am very much privileged to have a roof over my head, food in my house, computer and smartphone to study, and other good things which many are deprived of. Oh! But wait, this article is not to show gratitude but to share my PhD journey during the time of the pandemic, as a young woman with mental health problems.
With the advent of the pandemic, the government authorities left no stone unturned to promote online classes. With the introduction of online classes, the already fluid boundaries between the private and the public has become more blurred. My daily scenario was one where I attended classes from my bed as I have no separate study area, attending classes through my phone, trying to connect with the Google Meet. (But the internet is always down only when it is required the most!). The challenges in my tale does not end here. Rather, they start from here.
With me being in the bedroom trying to attend online classes, it was usual for my family members to casually enter and exit the room, and perform their daily tasks in the room which interrupted my classes. I cannot not blame them for invading my privacy, as I was also invading theirs by being there, while normally I would have been at my university not intruding on their work. Sometimes my family would completely forget that I have classes going on and they would come and talk to me. I do not know whether I should be happy that I have a family to talk to or be irritated by their invasion of my privacy!
However, the online classes were not the only issue I faced. Due to the pandemic, I had to stop visiting my psychiatrist and my medicines were also on the verge of getting over. Anxieties arising from the pandemic were exacerbated due to lack of professional help. This obviously affected my coursework and took me away from my research. The daily task of connecting through Google Meet, and getting interrupted at home caused me to feel disoriented both mentally and emotionally. Even attending a single class became a huge and tiring task.
Interacting in the classes and completing the assessments seemed like impossible activities. With an increasing number of assessments came increasing number of panic attacks. I was stuck in a vicious cycle where my mental health problems affected my course, and research work which then in turn accelerated my mental health problems. Along with it came the challenge of reading online material as printouts were not available. My already disoriented mind was stressed even further with the increase in screen time. Looking at the screen for hours is not as fun as it is assumed to be.
My vulnerabilities became more significant during the pandemic when my share of household chores increased to the extent that I had no breaks between them and my online classes. My time for research also was reduced to a point where I had stopped making progress in my research and was only able to complete coursework in the limited time frame available. Managing household chores along with research, coursework, and dealing with mental health issues can be visualized as a circus clown juggling multiple items (in this case it did not induce enjoyment for me).
Along with it came the doubts regarding the selection of research sites and participants. The pandemic has not ended yet, but the research has to be carried forward. The nature of accessibility for research has now changed. Earlier one pondered about what sites and people can be accessed by the researcher. The same question is asked now as well, but new factors regarding the availability of participants and access to various sites has emerged additionally. Accessibility has reduced in terms of physical interactions. With the lack of physical interactions, the relationship between the researcher and the researched also gets affected. The data which could have been retrieved through physical interactions, might not be retrievable through online interactions. Due to restraints in accessibility and mobility I might have to make some revisions my research. For instance, I had planned to conduct face-to-face interviews but now I might have to opt for telephonic interviews. Also, my broad area of research deals with higher education and exclusion and now, I am also inclined towards incorporating research questions dealing with the challenges of Covid-19.
In terms of reading the literature and gaining knowledge on the proposed research topic, online databases have been immensely helpful. The university from where I am pursuing my PhD has tried extremely hard to get us all access to major databases. However, this does not replace libraries. Both online and physical databases are essential for the smooth working of research. Excluding any one of them limits the scope of one’s research. Deprived from using libraries and getting access to many books which are not available online has created bumps in my research journey. The feeling of loss is not only due to lack of access to library resources, but it is also experienced as a loss of time.
During this pandemic, some thought-provoking questions came to my mind regarding the mental health of the researchers. Some of the questions which I pondered upon are: What is the relationship between the mental health of the researcher and their research and what is the intensity of that relationship? As the researcher has to be aware of their own biases, can the awareness of mental health also be fruitful to the research process? How can mental health crises be dealt with in academia during and after the pandemic?
I would end this article by sharing that I am aware that I come from a privileged location and my challenges might seem trivial to some and huge to others. Either you could read the article as my rant or read and identify the issues that many young scholars are experiencing. The challenges witnessed by me are not just particular to me but might be relevant for many others. The issues are not limited to lack of connectivity or doing household chores. The anxieties are not those that one faced before the pandemic. The intensity and dynamics of challenges have changed and might keep on changing as the pandemic progresses. The situation is much deeper than the challenges expressed in this article and requires sensitivity from everybody to understand it better. It is also essential to understand that our journeys, locations, and goals are different. Hence, the intensities of our challenges can also be different, yet our concerns may resonate with each other’s.
Disha Sharma is pursuing a PhD in Education from Ambedkar University of Delhi. Her interests are understanding intersectionality and experiences in higher education.