Coping with COVID-19 as a Research Community: The Sussex Hive Experience

The Sussex Research Hive is a space dedicated to researchers in the University of Sussex Library. SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, is supporting three ‘Research Hive Scholars’ as they develop a program of support activities and events for researchers. This post, which originally appeared on the SAGE Journals blog, was written by these scholars.

Aanchal Vij is a doctoral researcher in the School of English, where her research explores the relationship between nostalgia and American exceptionalism in comics and other literature. Devyn Glass is a doctoral researcher in psychology, and her research focuses on interpersonal synchrony in autism spectrum conditions. Louise De Azambuja Elali, a doctoral researcher at the School of Media, Film and Music, researches how international students (particularly PhD researchers) build their identity through social media.

When COVID-19 came around, an obvious joke went around in academic circles: PhD students are already isolated, so nothing will change for them. But nothing could be further than the truth. COVID-19 lockdown and university closures mean a big aggravation to the isolation already experienced by researchers. 

Taking on a big research project by yourself, it is impossible to forego long writing afternoons alone, or mornings taken over by data analysis in front of a computer with only your data to keep you company. The life of a PhD researcher is patently known to be alienating and lonely. Yes, PhDs are (most of the time) considered solitary endeavours. But when COVID-19 hit and universities closed, PhD students became even more isolated than they already were.

At the University of Sussex, the Research Hive is a dedicated physical space for PhD researchers. It is many students’ go-to work space on campus, and a place where they can silently work side-by-side with fellow researchers. Every year, three students, known as Hive Scholars, are chosen to look after the physical space. But that’s not all the Hive is. Hive Scholars are also involved in enhancing the doctoral experience of researchers across the university through workshops, conferences, and other social events.  

When the news of the lockdown was around the corner and physical events on campus were beginning to get delayed or cancelled in March, we (the Hive Scholars) decided we needed to act, and fast. We knew the doctoral community would be greatly affected by the isolation, and we wanted to do something to fight that. We decided create a doctoral support community on a virtual platform – a kind of a ‘virtual Hive.’ First and foremost, this took the form of a Slack group for all current PhD students at Sussex. Within 24 hours, we had over 75 sign ups – the highest number of participants we have ever had for any of the Hive events we have organised in our term as Hive Scholars. It also underscored the need for something – anything – that offered support and check-ins to researchers who, just like us, found themselves to be lonelier, more confused, and in need of new kinds of support.

We created different Slack channels such as ‘chit-chat,’ ‘frustrations,’ ‘resources,’ ‘international student support,’ ‘wellbeing tips,’ and one that is perhaps our most used channel – ‘shut up and write.’ Before the lockdown, we had regularly conducted ‘Shut Up and Write’ events in the Hive physical space for PhD students, aiming to foster a sense of community during distressing periods of writing up a chapter or a paper over a shared experience, tea and coffee. In lockdown time, virtual ‘Shut Up and Write’ has become much more than a monthly event – having a dedicated channel for this has allowed researchers to discuss their progress on a daily basis, find ‘accountability buddies’ and develop a general feeling that they are not working alone. 

On a bad day, the ‘frustrations’ group is available for venting or asking for support. It has been a space where doctoral researchers can share news and updates from the UCU, committee meetings, and discuss personal challenges. This has been particularly useful with the release of the Financial Review Guidelines at Sussex, which have been a cause for concern for many PhD students. Related to this, we also created a Padlet wall, where we asked researchers to express how they (and their research) have been impacted by the isolation. We received an overwhelming amount of responses, which we then collated and took to the Sussex Doctoral School as a log of key student experiences that the School could help with.

Screenshot of the Slack channels
Screenshot of the Slack channels

We were initially worried that there would not be enough engagement, and although contributions are up and down, overall the interaction across channels has been phenomenal and very productive (quantitatively and qualitatively). Researchers are able to form bonds with people they have never met before and offer support to those who need it. It has personally helped us, as the creators, as well. Below are short tidbits of our own positive experiences of being a part of a digital community.

Aanchal Vij: I find it helpful to wake up every morning, especially on weekdays, and make a time-table for the rest of my day and put it on the Slack group, asking everyone else what their day is going to look like. It immediately makes me feel like I am accountable to a group of people and it is brilliant to have people respond with encouraging words and their own plans. Even on a bad day, it is good to have a community that normalises ‘unproductivity’ during these especially hard times and makes me feel like I’m not alone. 

Devyn Glass: Both Slack and the online writing group have been a lifeline for me. I get a lot of energy from others in a workplace, and miss the inspiration and scholarly input of lab meetings and the office environment. Being able to connect with others each day and discuss our aims and challenges has almost been like the morning chat with my office mates! The writing group has helped me to stay engaged with my work, and while my productivity has dropped, the group has helped me to continue moving forward and I have made some lovely and supportive friends. It has also been encouraging to discover that others are experiencing the same difficulties and I have found a sense of solidarity with others facing disruptions to their PhDs. 

Louise de Azambuja Elali: Connecting with other PhD researchers is a big part of my experience as a PhD student. Being unable to go to campus, I find that our Slack community has been the easiest and most consistent way to connect with other researchers. I have even made some new friends! It’s also a great place to find new things to do during the lockdown, new strategies for coping, and resources about PhD life in general. It has also proven to be useful to discuss overall frustrations and worries shared by most PhD students at the moment, especially in relation to deadlines, funding and all the instability that is coming from the current situation.

As Hive Scholars, being able to be a source of support for other Doctoral Researchers and contribute to the development of our new online community has benefited our own well-being. It has boosted our sense of agency in this uncertain time, where we have lost control and certainty over our PhDs and lives. 

We are pleased that we can generate something that can be of benefit to a community of people. As of today, we have 138 members! We hope this group continues to be a resource even post-isolation. It is clear that researchers are able to interact more online since a virtual space allows flexibility of response time as opposed to physical events which often tend clash with some people’s schedules. While it is not a substitute for physical meetings and co-working spaces, for the time being it is definitely a wholesome companion. 

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Aanchal Vij, Devyn Glass and Louise De Azambuja Elali

The Sussex Hive Scholars for 2019: Aanchal Vij is a doctoral researcher in the School of English, where her research explores the relationship between nostalgia and American exceptionalism in comics and other literature. Devyn Glass is a doctoral researcher in psychology, and her research focuses on interpersonal synchrony in autism spectrum conditions. Louise De Azambuja Elali, a doctoral researcher at the School of Media, Film and Music, researches how international students (particularly PhD researchers) build their identity through social media.

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