Navigating Solitude: On Writing a PhD Thesis During a Pandemic

People often say writing is a lonely job. That one needs solitude to write peacefully and effectively.

As a doctoral candidate, I thought this to be true until the COVID-19 pandemic hit us all really bad. Before the pandemic, had anyone asked me if writing would have been easy under a nationwide lockdown, I would have answered in the affirmative. In ordinary circumstances, we as people tend to extrapolate things, just like in mathematics, where limits are extended to infinity.

Well, real life is different.

All my preconceived notions regarding seclusion have been questioned to their limits over the last 20 months since the lockdown was imposed in March 2020. The hypothesis that writing requires solitude as a pre-requisite parameter for good results has been proven wrong – at least in my case. The lockdown life didn’t provide me with the solitude I thought it would.

Solitude, I realised, comes with peace of mind, and not necessarily from just being physically alone. When the world is crumbling with millions of deaths, infections, and the loss of dear ones, how could one possibly be at peace? The pandemic impacted us all individually, emotionally, psychologically, and even financially in some cases.

Under these circumstances, one can’t go about research as if nothing happened. Research writing in social sciences and humanities is not about churning content like a nine-to-five job. A researcher needs to be enthusiastic about their daily routine – of which writing is an important part – to be able to write their thesis.

Pre-pandemic, my day would start with going to my university, talking to my friends, classmates, colleagues, acquaintances, and interacting with other familiar or unfamiliar faces. Attending lectures, workshops, conferences, and symposiums would then constitute the other portion of my day. Even small yet big things like just going to the library to read newspapers or sitting in a canteen and discussing a range of things with my friends would give me the peace of mind required to do my research.

Also read: A Peek Into the Orwellian World of Educational Institutions During COVID-19

This is very different from the kind of imposed lockdown where solitude takes the form of loneliness. The stillness and the lack of noise in the air during lockdown don’t lead to peace. This realisation, however, didn’t dawn on me in a day or a week or even for months where I as a researcher was trying to live my life like a pre-pandemic situation. It was after fighting battles with myself and failing to reproduce the same kind of enthusiasm for research and writing which I had pre-pandemic, that I questioned what it was that was lacking which was not letting me be myself, or enjoy writing and research like I did before.

The answer became clearer as the months passed. I realised it was my routine that made me me. Without the routine, I can’t be myself. Trying to replicate most of my routine during the lockdown seemed very artificial, inorganic, forced and mundane. As research students of humanities, we don’t have physical laboratories to go to in order to conduct our research. The entire world is supposed to be our laboratory.

Also, what some promoters of digital education and tech enthusiasts don’t understand is that not everyone is hardwired to behave mechanically like a robot and adapt flexibly as per the requirements of a set environment. Phrases like ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ don’t help either. Therefore, a lot of PhD researchers have been under a considerable amount of distress lately – the stress of not being able to conduct their research properly; not being in a mental state to even want to do literature review; not being able to submit their thesis during such time of crisis and great uncertainty. As a result, many researchers have dropped out of their PhD course midway. What many people fail to understand is that research requires a conducive environment for it to be accomplished.

Most universities have been shut since the pandemic hit us. And those which opened recently have not started functioning like they did in the pre-pandemic times. The point to be noted is that these last 20 months were lost either considerably or fully (in worst-case scenarios). The expectation from the researchers to conduct their research and come out with a well-researched thesis under such circumstances is quite frankly ridiculous. Although there are many exceptional students who have gone on record to say that the lockdown has helped them do better, exceptions aren’t the ‘norms’ and the world can’t function on exceptions.

Those who say things like ‘survival of the fittest’ to look down upon those who couldn’t excel or even compete in these trying times are just refusing to accept that research can’t be done in the survival of the fittest mode. In a country where researchers are trolled by large sections of the media as those who live on taxpayers’ money, this kind of thought process harm research and researchers even more.

Until the world goes back to the natural order of things, research can’t be done with the same zeal and enthusiasm.

Martand Jha is a senior research fellow at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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