"There have always been highly capable women wanting to be scientists." Rita Colwell, PhD
Starting a PhD in Melbourne, Australia during the COVID-19 Pandemic
September 07, 2021
As part of my blog, I aim to share many voices from other PhD students. As my first guest blogger, I asked Shakira Milton to share her story about starting her PhD in Australia during the pandemic. Shakira is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne.
Shakira Milton, MSc Epi
Shakira's advice to future/ potential scientists: "There is never a perfect time to follow your dreams. Nothing is for certain and the world is changing at an ultra-fast rate. If you want to do something, do it and start soon."
Starting a post-graduate research degree or PhD at any time can be taxing. But staring during a global pandemic, while living through various lockdowns, has been a particularly challenging experience. As of the 23rd August 2021, Victoria, and mostly in Melbourne, recorded 21,526 out of 44,028 total cases of COVID-19 in Australia.(1,2) Seen in Figure 1 below, the red arrow indicates when I successfully enrolled into the PhD program, in early October, at the University of Melbourne. In Melbourne, when I commenced my PhD, we were still in the strictest lockdown the country had seen, which lasted 112 days ending on October 28th, although we would continue to live under many restrictions.(3) During the various lockdowns, day to day life changed drastically, shops and non-essential businesses closed and we were restricted to our homes for months at a time. During the toughest restrictions, I was only allowed to leave home for 1-hour a day, and as I write this, again I am only allowed to leave my home for 1-hour per day, as I am currently in lockdown. Additionally, in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia also entered its first recession in 30 years.(4) I undoubtedly began to embark on a journey during a peculiar time globally as we encountered some of what I’m sure with hindsight, we’ll call some of the hardest years in a century.
As I have been mostly confined to my home for a total of 203 total days since March 2020 and continue to work remotely throughout the almost first year of my candidature, I’ve faced some unique challenges. As I am conducting a randomized controlled trial, I needed to swiftly pivot from face to face recruit of participants from general practices across Victoria.(5) I was able to continue my research instead by using Zoom where I even delivered my trial intervention. I have not, like many, been able to have as much face-to-face contact with my colleagues or peers either and have missed the opportunity to learn and network through informal office chats. I will probably never know to the full extent what opportunities could have come about if life continued normally. I am also from the United States and don’t have family in Australia. I haven’t seen my family since July 2019 as I am “prohibited” from travelling as Australia’s international borders have remained closed since the start of the pandemic.(6)Much of my family, like many other African-Americans, have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic which has made studying all the more isolating and challenging.
While difficult to conceive, there have been a few benefits of working from home which include saving money and eating healthier meals. As many businesses have shut down and my salary decreased sharply as I enrolled into my PhD, adjusting to a lower income has been easier. I would normally be eating outside of the home at least 3-days per week, which is not only expensive but is not very healthy. Since I’m home so often I have found that I am eating healthier meals as I cook most of my meals. Cooking and baking have become somewhat of an accidental passion that brings me joy. Although there have been various pitfalls to commencing a PhD during the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, I would not change my decision to start my PhD and I’ve learned a lot during this unprecedented time.
Thank you Shakira for sharing your story!
Sources: 1. Coronavirus (COVID-19) case numbers and statistics | Australian Government Department of Health [Internet]. [cited 2021 Aug 23]. Available from: https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert/coronavirus-covid-19-case-numbers-and-statistics 2. Victorian COVID-19 data | Coronavirus Victoria [Internet]. [cited 2021 Aug 23]. Available from: https://www.coronavirus.vic.gov.au/victorian-coronavirus-covid-19-data 3. Covid in Australia: Melbourne to exit 112-day lockdown - BBC News [Internet]. [cited 2021 Aug 23]. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-54686812 4. Lim G, Nguyen V, Robinson T, Tsiaplias S, Wang J. The Australian Economy in 2020–21: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Prospects for Economic Recovery. Aust Econ Rev [Internet]. 2021 Mar 1 [cited 2021 Aug 23];54(1):5–18. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-8462.12405 5. Milton S, Mcintosh J, Macrae F, Jenkins M, Walter FM, Taylor N, et al. An RCT of a decision aid to support informed choices about taking aspirin to prevent colorectal cancer and other chronic diseases: A study protocol for the SITA (Should I Take Aspirin?) Trial. 2021 May 10 [cited 2021 May 13]; Available from: https://doi.org/10.21203/rs.3.rs-406678/v1 6. Travel restrictions | COVID-19 and the border [Internet]. [cited 2021 Aug 23]. Available from: https://covid19.homeaffairs.gov.au/travel-restrictions