Coping with a confined PhD, a naive report

One of the luxuries of a PhD in applied maths / computer science is the possibility to work from home. By possibility, I imply both the technical feasibility (my project does not require special equipment), and social acceptability (I never worked in labs enforcing presenteeism).

Of course, working from home or from my usual corner coffee shop once every other week is very different from these exceptional circumstances. I should also highlight I do not have to take care of children or sick family members, which comes as a priority, big congrats to those who manage it. This post should not be seen as how things should be done, simply how I cope and as a list of ideas to pick from if you are in a similar situation. The context is also very special for me as I just moved to the UK for an academic visit at the University of Edinburgh, I had just settled at a new city, flat and office when things started to escalate.

I decided to stay in Edinburgh instead of coming back to France because the trip itself would be irresponsible, travelling through the UK, sleeping in London and then crossing the border with continental Europe, but also because I was settled in comfortably enough to spend the rough months of the epidemic here. However, this meant adjusting in different ways.

Overall routine

Being in Europe with many friends & contacts in North America, I used the circumstances to slightly shift my day, waking up between 8.30 and 9.15, and going to bed a bit later, sharing more hours of the day with them. This would normally be more complicated with things to attend to where I am, but allow me to attend European late morning and afternoon remote events, North-American morning and early-afternoon events. I take a quick breakfast in the kitchen (no hot drink), make a batch of tea or coffee to keep while at my desk. I use the morning to catch up on emails, work on research, writing code and prose (with breaks, see below). I do not go back to eat while not hungry, and not before 1.30PM. The afternoon is a blend of research work and semi-work-related activities. I usually have figured out something to cook by the end of the day, depending on how much I estimate this will take I start late-afternoon or early evening. Depending on the mood and tasks, I work a bit after dinner, before closing all work tabs and windows (yes, all) to switch to leisure time, including films, calling people, etc. I keep at least one hour at the end of the day for reading, these days fiction (the Poppy War, the Alienist and Death in the East at the moment), and only in paper versions, since I don’t have a reader and I get enough screen time in the day.

Social media and work breaks

First things first, these things suck up your time and attention the rest of the year, now they also build up your anxiety like never before. I’m not telling you to resist (I don’t), just to separate the time where you work from the social media time in small blocks; pomodoro is your friend there. With this setting, being distracted is okay, when you suddenly find yourself on non-work related things, just stop the work timer, take your break, and restart it when you are ready to restart. My breaks vary between 5 and 30 minutes, either texting friends, reading non-work news articles, scrolling or playing mines:

The rest of the time, I close distracting browser tabs (including emails) and toss my phone out of reach.

Broadening work activities

Staying focused on work is clearly harder; one way to cope with it is to broaden work activities and even if it does not serve you in the short term, consider it work, no need to drown in guilt. My semi-work activities include open-source software, reading papers and books in my domain but not directly relevant to my research, following MOOCs, even on some things I assume I already know to see a different perspective. You may have noticed lots of university seminars are maintained in an online format. Since you do not need to run to the building on the other side of the campus, it can be a good opportunity to spend 45 minutes on other topics for your general scientific culture.

Setup and spacial separation

This section is to take with a pinch of salt, it assumes some financial comfort and a big enough flat. Early in the epidemic when it felt like we were going for gradual home isolation, I started setting up my office in a way that felt good, not for two hours in the evening any more, but for 8+ hours in the day.

First, the second monitor. I don’t think more than two active screens is necessary, but it may vary with activities, beware of excessive multi-tasking though. The only new thing I invested in is a keyboard, which I had not brought to the UK. It’s a DREVO Gramr mechanical keyboard with brown switches, reasonably priced and with a nice-enough touch. It also gave me the opportunity to finally re-switch to qwerty layout and stick to it. The biggest point for me of having an external keyboard is improving my posture. My screens are further away and higher thanks to few books, allowing me to keep my back straighter and relax my eyes. Working with a laptop alone is nice for few hours in a coffee shop or on a couch, but terrible for your eyes, arms, hands and back, forget the lap of laptop.

The spatial separation is fairly simple: work remains at my desk, I keep the living room for eating, drinks, films, chatting with my flatmate. If you have an office space to separate it from your bedroom, even better. This is also why I cannot blame Parisians leaving the capital for family houses, the lifestyle is not adapted to actually living in your $15m^2$ flat.

Virtual conferences and social aspects

There was a discussion on the remote thesis during the epidemic on the Grand Labo (in French). Among different subjects, I chose to speak of something which may appear very privileged (and is to some extent), which is the impact of cancelled academic events (conferences, workshops, seminars), especially on young academics, in which I include everyone being evaluated on their work now for a future position or promotion (master’s, PhDs, postdoctoral researchers, professors subject to the tenure clock).

The summary of the discussion is that scientific aspects of the events can be emulated though online seminars, but the networking aspects are much harder. The reason young academics are more heavily impacted is because we are the ones looking for contacts for what we will do afterwards, and both discovering and getting in touch with those contacts depends on such events. I do not have a perfect solution for this, and I’m not sure there is.

Keeping your locals afloat

Again this section is to take relatively to what you can afford. If you are not financially comfortable (and this is a post for PhDs so it might very well be the case, feel free to pick the pieces you want). One thing that will happen with everything shut down is that businesses and service workers that depend on a local activity will suffer. For tech workers, here is a great thread, although US-centric so some of the consequences will be hopefully nuanced in your country:

The key point of this thread is your local restaurant, bar, pub. You do not want it closed and replaced by a chain (I assume?), and you do not want the employees that made it a great place without a job in these times where finding a new one will be hard. Check if they do delivery and / or take-away, at least allow yourself one treat a week, plus for special occasions (article submitted, came back from review, published, accepted, pushed as preprint). Contact them to know if they kept their staff, favour the ones who did. If they offer vouchers to use when they re-open, take some, otherwise suggest them so. This also goes for corner coffee & tea shop, they may still do take-away and need you now. I am trying to do so in Edinburgh, on the recommendations of my flatmates, friends and locals on Reddit, while I hope others do the same in my neighbourhood in Lille.

We got this

One thing that was highlighted in the PhD panel with the Grand Labo was the overwhelming guilt, which is always latent in academia and comes out even stronger in these times. Keep in mind this is some never-seen event, re-writing much of how we live, work and socialize. Some parts are crisis measures that will gradually fade away, but some aspects will remain after the shock. Even coping at our best does not make the situation remotely “fine” for many of us, but we got this.

If you want more and better tips on working from home for tech workers in the epidemic time, this post, from the same author as the restaurant recommendations above, is worth it. If you read French, feel free to also check this thread:

where Mathilde documents the progress and of setting up a workflow and new habits in these bizarre times, that fell on academia in France with little warning or preparation.

Mathieu Besançon
Postdoctoral researcher, mathematical optimization

Mathematical optimization, scientific programming and related.