Studying in the time of a pandemic
This post explores how the current public health pandemic brought with it, mixed blessings and a unique opportunity for two Professional Doctorate in Education (EdD) students as they developed a new way of working. For Gemma, it coincided with a major life change of migrating to Canada with her young family, an already challenging moment, made even more challenging with the interference of Covid-19. Despite this, in April 2020, the family made the move. For Cheryl, she acknowledges that she had become mentally exhausted, cynical and jaded with her work and decided to seek early retirement. They reflect on the success of the “study buddy” approach they have developed, despite living thousands of miles apart and in different time zones.
We are colleagues on our EdD program and have developed our friendship during this process. Over the initial 2-years working on the EdD, there was a lonely element to our work, working late nights or early mornings and fitting studying around our everyday lives but there were always opportunities to re-engage with our cohort at our scheduled study weekends. These weekends brought with them a really collaborative learning experience and we always left these feeling re-energised and very much back on track with the studies. However, stepping through our CDRI process (confirmation of doctoral research interview) and moving into phase 2 of the program, things felt like they changed significantly. On reflection one of biggest changes was the unintentional disappearance of this peer support. We have WhatsApp groups, we email, we communicate but the study weekends seemed to bring us together from all of our very different walks of life. In phase 2, writing ethics applications, starting to write the thesis and data collecting, at times this felt incredibly lonely, when it maybe didn’t need to be. To add here, both of us have fabulous study teams, a great director of study for each of us and a good collaborative approach to our research development through supervision sessions, but the value of the informal peer support cannot be understated.
We have now developed a new supportive study buddy approach to our thesis work for our EdD, something we both felt was missing in our process. This is not unusual as it was always the attraction of the EdD over a PhD to work collaboratively with other educational professions. The unusual aspect however is that we are thousands of miles apart and have to coordinate our study and buddy across time zones that separate us by 8 hours between Canada and the UK.
Our support for one another began on twitter, sharing and tagging each other in tweets related to our research interests, so curiosity and further education for Gemma and class and gender inequality in education for Cheryl. We still also participate in the aforementioned EdD WhatsApp group with our fellow EdD students from our cohort. This had been so valuable during the first two years of the taught programme when we could chat about deadlines, submissions and reading not done, it became less helpful when we all transferred into the research phase as we became increasingly divergent in our academic journeys, some were putting study on pause, others had decided to take things at a slower pace. This is where the space emerged into which the two of us fell. We began to communicate a lot more directly which each other, outside of the wider EdD group, WhatsApp being a great mode of communication for us across the pond. More often than not, we just sent a few “how’s it going” messages or “have you seen a bear yet Gemma?” kind of messages (she since has) but also during this time we would share our frustrations, supervision feedbacks and updates on research. The latter was mainly each of us confiding in how we were both off the wagon, struggling to find a way back into the research. This is something which had been hard to acknowledge at times. For Gemma, she felt she had been so focused and driven over the initial two and a half years of the program, she had a very planned and structured approach, she submitted ethics and tried to foresee exactly how everything was going to come together prior to her departure to Canada. In Canada she would be analysing and writing the thesis, all of the data would be in the bag, then Covid hit. This required a whole reorganisation of her approach, and added another dimension of stress during a huge life change that she had tried so hard to account for, but that’s research, right? We have to adjust, we have to face challenges, maybe accounting for a potential worldwide pandemic in the planning stages will be part of the new research normal. However, to have a space and an opportunity to just talk to someone about this, someone having their own experiences but someone who also has some shared experience with yourself became so important during this process. There was so much value in hearing someone else also say “yep, its shit, I can’t focus either,” it bought a sense of normality back and took away a lot of the self-annoyance and self-disappointment.
Our study buddying began when we decided to organise a writing retreat with other members of our EdD group and students from another EdD cohort, as well as our professor Dave Trotman who had the inspiration to establish the programme in 2016. It was never set up as an intention to just be an approach with the two of us, it was always intended for the whole cohort. Between us, we organised a programme for the day and a Zoom study room, which again was a challenge with time zone difference but it just meant a late night working in Canada and early morning in the England, or in another language the time difference simply meant a difference in beverage choice, wine in Canada and tea in England. However, following on from some initial excitement with the wider group, on the day we were the only two who made the Sunday Writing Retreat in the end. We still continued with it however, and we still welcomed Professor Trotman and tops tips on studying and success on an EdD from 2 others, Laura and Lorraine, from the previous cohort. One who had just successfully defended her viva and another about to do so. The five of us were able to share experiences, Professor Trotman helped us to focus on the writing plan and Laura and Lorraine shared with us their journey, which included normalising the stress and procrastination which was so apparent to have becoming paralysing for both of us. The input of these three in their own right, and the normalisation of the feelings we were experiencing during this process were so important. It ended up feeling like a privilege to have been able to have these great inputs totally to ourselves in the end and a really significant moment in this EdD journey we are both on. We had hoped to have been joined by other EdD students, but for other reasons the others – we had invited 8 from 2 cohorts, were unable to attend. So, around the inputs from Professor Trotman, Laura and Lorraine, it was just the two of us writing with the camera and mic off and but always coming back together for a cuppa and an update on how our writing was going, and it was great. So, we decided to keep the experience going.
This is what we continue to do now, one of use will usually send a message the week before “you free for another writing day soon?” Then we plan a date, we have to acknowledge this is easier to arrange informally with just the two of us than it had been when organising a larger group. We begin the writing day (in England) or writing night (in Canada) with an informal catch up on family and professional life as well as our writing goals for the day. Our collaboration and study body clocks have enabled us to synchronise perfectively Cheryl is always an early bird, keen and eager to write at 7am in the mornings. Gemma is a night owl, trying to find her own place to focus at the end of the day when her four-year-old is asleep and other work is done for the day, there is something to be said (in Gemma’s opinion) for the tranquillity of working at night, when it feels like the rest of the world is asleep.
We don’t always focus on our thesis, sometimes we both have other projects to complete, report writing, transcribing and recruiting participants but that is what it’s about, it’s our safe space to use how we want it and to encourage each other through the process. It has become a very supportive, non-competitive, non-threatening environment for each of us where we are able to coach, mentor and cajole in equal measure. Our life cycle is also very different with Cheryl retiring, caring for an elderly mother-in-law, two grown up sons, and being determined to complete her research and celebrate the grit of the women she has encountered who have taken an enormous leap of faith to return to study and pursue a degree, often shaking off the low expectations of school, parents, and society in the process.
I for one, am able to remain focused during our study catch ups. I find the shared study experience encourages me to be more accountable for the use of my time and the product. The breakaways and coffee chats are just as important in that they weave a transactional ethical approach to research, study and success. One of solidarity and shared troubles as well as successes. We are not cheer leaders for each other, rather we are scouts riding side by-side considering the research landscape, knowing which peak we want to climb but struggling to find a path to through the undergrowth.
If I might offer some advice from my experience, when you find a study buddy, hold them tight. Celebrate them and support them in equal measure, as they do for you. We are not always in the same place with our work and that is okay, it has never been about that, but we share our ideas and our words of encouragement, in a non-Instagram cringy motivational strapline approach, we just talk and in equal measure, we listen. We also now tell each other when we have sent emails or work to our supervision team, it works for us and gives each of us a motivational push, it might not work for others but that is our way. I love the idea of us helping each other through this process and although Cheryl alludes to us being in very different places career wise, geographically and in even in our interest – Cheryl loves to knit to clear her mind, whilst I love to go for a run, but in many other ways, we are in a very similar place. We have a shared passion and a shared drive and most importantly for me, we have developed a very strong shared and supportive friendship, and for that I will forever be grateful.
Cheryl Hedges is an ex-university lecturer in Education Studies. Prior to that she had taught and led in secondary, post 16 education for over 25 years, and in addition acted as an advisor to secondary headteachers on curriculum provision. She completed an MA in Sociology of Education at Warwick University in 1995. She is currently undertaking an EdD inspired by the stories of working-class women, their hopes, aspirations and determination to return to study, mirroring much of her own life.
Gemma Martin is a fourth year EdD student studying with Newman University, with a research focus on curiosity in further education. She developed her project whilst lecturing in a UK further education college, where she taught for four years, before moving to a higher education institution. Earlier this year she emigrated with her family to Canada where she now resides in a small town called Sooke on Vancouver Island. She is currently working in research positions with vulnerable groups, such as the homeless community in Sooke. Most recently she began working in a research position with the Representative for Children and Youth (RCY), supporting young people and their families within the provincial child and youth-serving systems.