In My Little Chamber – The Difficult Task of Writing a Doctoral Thesis During the Corona Crisis

On the corona pandemic – contributions from the University of Potsdam
Vittoria Sposini and Samudrajit Thapa in Venice. | Photo: Dr. Fereydoon Taheri
Photo : Dr. Fereydoon Taheri
Vittoria Sposini and Samudrajit Thapa in Venice. The image was taken during the conference "Venice Meeting on Fluctuations in Complex Systems IV" held from 14/10/2018 to 18/10/2018 and co-organized by Prof. Ralf Metzler, head of the Theoretical Physics Group at the University of Potsdam.
Vittoria Sposini from Italy and Samudrajit Thapa from India are PhD students in the Theoretical Physics Group of Prof. Ralf Metzler at the Institute of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Potsdam. As all other students and PhD students from the university, they are affected by the changes and restrictions imposed by the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. Here they report about how they tried to adjust themselves to the challenging situation and provide insights into their work experience with home office.

What is your background field of study and when did you come to the University of Potsdam to start your PhD?

Samudrajit: After finishing my Bachelor and Master in Physics from the University of Delhi, I came to the University of Potsdam in October 2016 with a DAAD scholarship for doctoral studies in the field of Theoretical Physics. My work is focused mainly on characterizing diffusion in different biological and soft matter systems using tools of Statistical Physics.

Vittoria: I work in the group of Prof. Metzler and I am doing a PhD in Physics. I am originally from Italy and I moved to Potsdam in April 2017 to start my PhD studies.

Will your PhD projects be funded for the rest of the year?

Vittoria: I had a work contract with the University of Potsdam which just got over at the end of March, as the standard PhD funding period is three years. I won a PhD completion scholarship from the Potsdam Graduate School which will provide me with funding for six more months, that is until the end of September. I plan of submitting my thesis soon in order to defend my PhD within this funding period.

Samudrajit: The DAAD scholarship is till the end of September this year and I am writing my thesis now, trying to defend my thesis before the funding ends.

How is your daily routine differing now from before the corona crisis?

Vittoria: My routine before the corona crisis was quite standard. I used to go to the office in Golm by train (I live in Potsdam West) in the morning. Once there, I would have a coffee and a chat with my colleagues and then I would start working at my desk, then go to lunch to Mensa with my colleagues at 12:30 am. Once back from lunch, I would usually work until 6 pm with a break in between, where I usually would have tea together with my colleagues. I used to go to a sport class twice a week in the late afternoon.
That very easy routine that I just described above actually is the foundation of a healthy and happy professional experience. With the restrictions due to the SARS-CoV-2 situation I am now spending most of my time at home. I try to keep my routine, setting fixed time for the meals. I go out only to go to the supermarket or to go for a walk whenever I feel very frustrated. I can easily feel isolated, because the work does not require an interaction. The psychological comfort that comes even just from the idea of having my colleagues and my supervisor, with whom I can go and exchange few words if I need, just next door, is not there anymore. Now, we usually keep up to date by emails or we have a video call once every second week.
The release of stress with physical exercise is also limited, as the sport classes are of course cancelled, so one can only go for a walk or do some workout at home. Also, coming from abroad we of course live in temporary houses. In my case, I live in a single room apartment and this means that I spend most of my time in one single room.

Samudrajit: Before SARS-CoV-2 restrictions, my daily routine was as follows: I would go to the office in the morning, from my apartment which is at walking distance, and work till noon with a tea/coffee break in between. Around 12:30 I go for lunch to the Mensa with colleagues. Post lunch, I would work to 6 pm with another tea/coffee break in between. As it is a Theoretical Physics group, we do not perform experiments, but our work consists mainly of making calculations, running simulations, reading, reviewing, and writing articles etc.
Another necessary entity in my life is sports. Before SARS-CoV-2 outbreak I used to go for sports (basketball) twice a week. This always helps me release the stress from work and keeps me happy and focused. With the sports courses cancelled, I try to exercise at home, go for walks, but because I am a team-sport person, it does not help me much.

How do you feel about working from home? Which challenges do you face?

Vittoria: Mainly what we do in theoretical physics is developing, implementing, and performing numerical and analytical studies. This means that our work is carried out completely at our desk, working either at the computer or with our old friend 'pen&paper'. Also, main part of the work is individual, so there is no need to maintain a continued interaction with colleagues and supervisors. In principle, all this should allow us to work from any place; office or home should not make much difference. Nevertheless, this is not always the case.

Samudrajit: I am a person of habit and for me to work efficiently I need a proper routine and separation of work and private life. Also because the field I work in is theoretical, and the problems I try to work on remain in my mind even after work, a separation of office and home environment helps me deal with the stress and anxiety. This is necessary so that at office I can focus on my work completely, return home at the end of the day to relax my mind and then work with a fresh mind, and renewed energy the next day. The restrictions due to SARS-CoV-2 have destroyed this separation and hence effected my routine and productivity. Although I try to maintain a similar routine while working from home, I find it very difficult to focus.

Vittoria: In our field we rarely have some sort of automatic task to do, which can help taking our mind off things. Thus, what is more needed for us to be productive, is focus and concentration. It is clear, that having a safe working environment which is disjoint from any issues and/or troubles related to our private life is essential for our productivity.
The stress is only partially caused from the extraordinary work circumstances that I described above, which, if alone, I think they would be quite manageable. Rest of the stress comes from uncertainty in the scientific future and private life. The former is related to the fact that, being at the end of the PhD, I feel the constraint of having to finish my PhD in September in order to be eligible for future positions, as I am of course working on applications for post-docs. Thus, being able to concentrate on my thesis is essential for me in order to find a position for when my funding period will end in October.

At the moment it is not possible to visit family and friends - how is that influencing your PhD projects?

Samudrajit: I need daily human face to face interaction. To cope with this, I do talk with friends and family over skype/phone but that is not an alternative to real interaction. Also, my parents and my sister are back in India. To be far from them at these difficult, uncertain times adds to the stress.
So, although I completely understand the crisis and the necessity of restrictions, the challenges are big, and I am still trying to cope with them. Perhaps, one good thing out of these is that I have been cooking a lot at home, which I usually did not do before.

Vittoria: As in Italy the emergency started around two weeks before, I had already started to be worried about the coronavirus situation development slightly before they started taking restriction measures here in Germany. I find myself checking everyday the news for both Italy and Germany. My partner, who is also a PhD student and who normally lives in Italy, had moved to Boston for a six months period abroad just before the corona crisis started. I was supposed to visit him for the Easter holiday, but of course I had to cancel my trip. Clearly the situation is quite involved, because being able to travel is at the bases of the relationship I have with my family and my partner. Thus, the effects that the restrictions have in my private life create a lot of stress as well.
Despite all of this, I feel lucky. My family, friends and I are all healthy. I still have a regular income a place where to stay and I can keep working from home, even if with more difficulties. This is why I always try to stay positive and to have a proactive attitude.


Overview page of all contributions from the University of Potsdam on the corona pandemic