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Postgraduate study in the time of COVID

Photograph of Petra taken with a fisheye lens, csptured during the data gathering stage of her PhD.

Undertaking any form of research is a challenge in its own right, but having a global pandemic breakout mid-way through is something that nobody expects to happen when they set out on their PhD journey.

Petra Vackova is an award-winning postgraduate research student currently undertaking a PhD within the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport (ECYS) in the Faculty of WELS. The COVID-19 pandemic hit during the write-up phase of Petra’s PhD. Considering the challenges of carrying out research in such unprecedented times, Petra said:

PhD students at the OU are encouraged to be on campus which, for a university known for distance learning, is quite different; the pandemic forcing the campus to close has had a big impact.

The Open University campus is beautiful, in terms of facilities and the way the campus is set up to encourage good health and wellbeing for its employees and students – in more than a production mindset. It's nice to have indoor and outdoor spaces that encourage relaxation, relationships, and discussions away from the work environment.

For me, and other third/fourth-year students, the disruption has been minimal as we’re in the write-up phase and don't need all the facilities that first or second-year students need. Many have needed to rewrite their entire thesis! That’s a challenging situation to be in, but for me, the biggest adjustment has been to working/writing at home and getting the work-life balance right.

Not being able to disconnect from work does affect your wellbeing; there’s often no end to the day, the pressure builds up. I think it requires a lot of resilience and mental strength to be able to draw that line. Being a parent really helps in this respect, and Saturday and Sunday are just about being at home with the family.

So, obviously, the pandemic has affected all of us, enormously. I really hope that PhD students, and anyone else really, are able to take time for themselves and that they are able to manage it because I think burnout is something that is going to impact many of us really soon, because we've been doing this for such a long time now.

On her reasons for choosing to undertake her PhD with the OU, Petra said:

The history of The Open University is so rich and based on different ideals than other universities– this idea that the OU is more accessible, open and inclusive goes against the grain of Higher Education being something elitist.

Stuart Hall was also a big influence in my choice to study at the OU. He’s a personal hero of mine, but also such an inspirational figure who questions how our reality is structured around inclusion and exclusion. It made me want to be involved in that kind of thinking and culture.

The OU’s offering for postgraduate researchers is great. It attracts a more diverse group of students, with people coming from very rich careers with experience behind them, or who are continuing with their work whilst doing their PhD part-time. I think that's amazing because you end up having a PhD cohort with an abundance of experiences that add to the discussion and to the way you work. It also adds a level of challenge. Having the chance to interact with people who are so knowledgeable is really enriching and adds to your own PhD journey.

Photograph of Petra Vackova in the audience of an academic conference (pre-COVID).

Despite the challenges of the past year, and the adjustments made to ways of working, Petra has still managed to take positives from the situation, even learning a few things about how she likes to work along the way!

When you’re at work, you take the moments of switching off, whether that’s going to get a coffee, or going to the bathroom; it sounds trivial but even travelling home from the office was a moment of switching off, or finishing your workday so that when you arrive home you know you’re done for the day. Now, when I’m working at home I don't go for a coffee so I’m missing those breaks, or bits of exercise from walking to a different part of campus. It’s something I am trying to introduce; it’s hard but I am trying to be more aware that we actually do need those moments of switching off or exercising – I think it’s a must in order to survive.

When asked what advice she would give to someone thinking about doing a PhD with the OU, Petra said:

Go for it! Don't question yourself, just put your ideas down and share them with others because it’s only by sharing them with others that you can get feedback, get into conversations and improve them.

There are so many brilliant people at different stages of their life at the OU; whatever age you are, don’t be afraid! There are loads of open, free courses that you can engage with as well, and they’re also a great way to explore ideas you might be considering.

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