PhD SHIFTHub: how adversities can be a catalyst for change

By: PhD SHIFTHub

Being a PhD student during a global pandemic is not easy: from the already personal and academic dreadful isolation to the increasing competition between peers, the lack of funding and deterioration of mental health become ever more prominent.

Hence, some ICS doctoral students decided to break the silence and call for a more supportive model of co-existence in academia.

This post is primarily about mental health, or better, our mental health, in a world that is not only marked by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, but also by the worst job market in at least 60 years, by the prospect of a life with climate change, and by a very dangerous socio-political trend: the violation of human rights and the rise of autocratic governments. 

Against this backdrop, a few GIATS (now SHIFT) PhD students organized informal monthly meetings that eventually resulted in the creation of the PhDSHIFTHub – a bottom-up student collective based on friendship, mutual respect and a sense of empowerment. This PhDSHIFTHub was firstly a “safe place”- students self-organized and created an opportunity to vent, talk about our thesis, or just share ideas and concerns. Besides the virtual gatherings, also important to our resilience was the continuous participation of group members in the ABIC (Associação dos Bolseiros de Investigação Científica) meetings. Here we managed to explore common struggles and propose solutions. To see the latest solution to help mitigate distress, click here. The deadline is July 1st.

Photo by Marek Studzinski (Unsplash, 2020)

Now, the focus is on fostering dialogue with the wider public and rejecting the idea of turbo-competition.

  1. I’m César Oliveira. The pandemic has increased pre-existing mental health problems which led to issues such as difficulties in concentration, lack of motivation, and a sense of guilt, because I’m not productive. I couldn’t do fieldwork and that delayed the work plan. The lockdown stopped all the interactions that are created and provided in events such as conferences and congresses, decreasing the true enjoyment of such situations.

  2. Not surprisingly, being “productive” during a pandemic has proved to be incredibly hard, even for robotized PhD candidates, who are used to working long hours in isolation (which is not something we should normalize and romanticize). In the Spring of 2020, procrastination turned into self-care (I actually needed it!). Fast-forward to the present, I admit this decision saved me (and my thesis, by the way). It should not take a pandemic (or a burnout) to learn how important it is to be gentle and kind to ourselves, especially in a competitive and relentless field such as ours.

  3. My name is Valentina Sousa and I felt like I was in a social vacuum. I had my fieldwork revoked: the result are feelings of insecurity and wasted time. I feel like nobody knows how we to go on with “normality”, maybe because there has been no leadership or political intention to help us PhD students. Moreover: feelings of isolation; reduced time for effective work (and mental predisposition to do so!); difficulties in planning; insomnia and lack of concentration. All this led me to reach out for the University`s psychological help-line, nonetheless, five months later I’m still waiting for an appointment..
Photo by Alex Ivanshenko (Unsplash, 2017)
  1. My name is Marsha Blake. My struggle in 2020 has been shaped by the acceleration of immediate demands in academia. While the pandemic has sparked new long-distance relationships and fruitful opportunities, the expectation to get things done as fast as possible has been staggering and, with that, the sentiment of being left behind surfaced. Moreover, when such productivity depends on fieldwork, lockdowns can become our worst enemy. Anyway I decided to go abroad for my fieldwork: failing to do so could result in delays and scholarships are not forever. Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT) has ignored academic researchers as it failed to stretch beyond a 3-month extension and many questions remain unanswered.
    
  2. My name is Fronika and I am in the last year of my Ph.D. I am one of the few who was not impacted that much by the pandemic. Luckily, I had already finished my fieldwork. Also, in February 2020 I had just given birth to my baby girl. During the first lockdown I was on maternity leave, in my own baby-bubble. Although Ph.D. students at ICS are represented in the Institute´s various Councils and Commissions, we feel our potential is not being fully used. How can we build our CV, without having valuable experiences such as teaching/ being guest lecturers?
    
  3. I’m a PhD student in Sociology. In my experience, the integration within academia has been intellectually stimulating. I was lucky to find friends within the PhD, as they gave me a safe space to discuss our worries and provided emotional support. Unfortunately, our strengths have been underutilized at an institutional level due to a lack of a cohesive mechanism that integrates and supports PhD students. I know that I am not alone in thinking that the steps taken by the institutions have not been sufficient: their response has not protected us or our work.

Being a PhD Student is a lonely fluctuating journey. Through our testimonies, we intended to share our experiences in a pandemic year: we are very lucky in some ways- working from home during a pandemic is a privilege. However, this also comes with a price, exacerbating previous struggles related to our mental health, precarious status, and the tremendous pressures from academia.

Being faced with adversities, the PhDSHIFTHub has come together to propose activities that might improve the PhD experience and our curriculum. Hence, we advocate for activities such as friendly peer-review of each other’s papers and doctoral theses; publish academic articles together, organize conferences or apply for international projects. This Hub reminds us that we are not alone. It is vital to stop the precarization of academic work! We welcome you and your suggestions, ideas, comments


The PhD SHIFTHub  is a bottom-up PhD students’ collective created within the former Research Group on Environment, Territory and Society (now SHIFT), in order to build a space of empathy and support among PhD students, Every PhD student enrolled at ICS-UL is mostly welcome!
Please write to us here: phdshifthub@gmail.com

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