If you ask the average person on the street to describe their idea of research, their answer will probably be involve someone peering into a microscope or perhaps scrawling on a blackboard. Regardless of their knowledge or experience they will invariably picture someone working alone. However the world of research today does not look like this and if it did, I would never have embarked on a PhD.
When I started my PhD in Applied Mathematics (although I’d call myself a physicist) three years ago I was under no illusion that a PhD can be a lonely experience. Depending on your supervisor you can be left to flounder without direction or support for months at a time. I knew that a lot of my time would be spent working alone, writing code or doing calculations by hand, and I accepted that work in silo was an important part of research, provided opportunities for collaboration were always present.
Collaboration and sharing of ideas was one of the greatest appeals to me for undertaking a PhD. I always looked forward to supervisory meetings where we would bounce ideas off each other or wrestle with a difficult computation together; an hour in a supervision felt more productive than days of working alone. At the end of my first year I spent a week at a summer school in Germany where, even outside of the structured lectures and workshops, I had some of the most engaging and enjoyable conversations of my life. As I began my second year of my PhD I eagerly anticipated several conferences and workshops I was due to attend and give talks at. I never imagined that week in 2019 would be the last time I would see an academic in person outside of my institution.
Today I feel out of love with research. Over the last 18 months I have worked hard to forge new relationships and experiences online with, what feels like, little success. On paper it looks great: I delivered 7 talks online about my work and attended 11 workshops and conferences, however the reality feels hollow. While there have been many valiant and good attempts to improve the online conference in the past year, Cosmo from home springs to mind as a positive example, it still feels like the soul has been sucked out of research. Giving a talk online at a university you have never been to, to people you have never met, none of whom have their videos on, is emotionally draining at best and depressing at worst. Humans are social creatures, not designed to emotionally connect with new people over Zoom.
Even existing, good relationships struggle to translate well online with supervisions, by necessity of the format, becoming more like updates than a time to work together. Thanks to the pandemic I feel robbed of what should be an incredibly stimulating time in my career, when I would be continually meeting new people, with exciting ideas just waiting to discuss them over a coffee or a pint. If we are unable to resume in person meetings and conferences on a large scale in the near future then I can’t see myself staying in academia. A life spent working alone might well suit some academics, but it is not the life I signed up for and if changes are not soon made, the sector of academia is at risk of losing a whole generation of talented young researchers.