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Why lockdown feels like the second year of a PhD

During the COVID-19 lockdown there were an increasing number of people not abiding to the rules, and in some cases disregarding them altogether. As time wore on people’s mental health so did also the willingness to follow the rules.

At the start of the U.K. lockdown in late March, I tried to establish a good routine: wake up, workout, write my thesis for a few hours, play animal crossing before having lunch. I would then write for the afternoon, take my dog for a walk, before settling down for the evening and watching a few episodes of a TV series. This routine worked for several weeks, almost months. But at the beginning of July, three months into the lockdown, I hit a wall. Everything felt stale and my routine fell apart. 

Obviously, none of us have experienced a national lockdown before, but I had a feeling of Déjà vu; I was trapped and needed a change of routine. Then I realised – lockdown felt like the second year of my PhD.

The “2nd year blues

During a PhD many graduates suffer from what is known as the “2nd year blues”. It’s not exclusive to PhDs and can happen in any long term degree or job, but in academia it describes the slump in motivation that occurs during the second year of a PhD. As far as I know the 2nd year blues are only anecdotal but if you google it there are plenty of blogs with people discussing their own personal struggle with it. 

No one knows why this happens but most academics I talk to suggest that during your second year the initial excitement of doing a PhD has worn off. Your project is harder than you first thought and maybe you aren’t getting the results you had hoped for. This is made worse by the fact that you have at least one year left – which simultaneously feels like too much time but also not long enough. 

At the start of my second year I had an upgrade viva. This is where you sit down with an academic who knows almost nothing about your project to discuss your work before they test your knowledge to see if you’re a good enough student to continue PhD training. During my viva I had a discussion with my examiner where he warned me: “You’re approaching your 2nd year so be ready for the 2nd year blues”. When I asked him why he thought they happened, he, like others, said that he didn’t think it happened to everyone but gave me a good analogy:

You are in a tunnel and you’re so far along you can’t see where you started, but you also can’t see what’s ahead – and that is demotivating. You have to keep going through 2nd year and then you’ll see the light at the end 

This might be a grim comparison for a PhD but I think it is accurate. More importantly, I think it mirrors what has happened during the weeks and months of lockdown. Currently I’ve been out of the lab since March and I haven’t seen any of my family in person since January. I’m incredibly lucky to have a wife, a dog and a garden. Others have had it much worse. I know people who have been separated from their spouse, lost loved ones and been alone this whole time. 

Lockdown has changed every aspect of our lives and has been going on for months. Like 2nd year blues we’re stuck in the middle. We can’t remember what it was like before and we have no idea how long this could go on for – some elements, like social distancing and wearing masks, will be around for a long time.

Learning to cope

Adjusting to change is hard; whether it’s finding your footing during a PhD or trying to maintain your mental health during a pandemic. Over the course of lockdown I’ve used some of the same techniques that I used during the second year of my PhD to help get me through my lockdown slump. Below I’ve listed some of those techniques in the hope that they will help you, like they are helping me, find some balance during this uncertain time in history:


When I first heard about journaling I was sceptical, it brought to mind teenagers scribbling in a diary, but I am happy to admit that I was wrong. Five minutes of research will tell you that throughout history people have relied on journaling to get through difficult times. For instance, Marcus Aurelius’ journal, which he wrote during two decades of war, became a philosophical instructional manual – the Mediations and Marie Curie’s notebooks look more like journals than they do scientific documents. 

When your brain is struggling with an issue talking about it can help, but sometimes talking isn’t enough or you don’t know how to untangle the issue. When this happens try writing your thoughts down. Personally I try to journal once in the morning, to plan my day and write down what I want to achieve. Then I do it again at the end of the day to review how my day went – what I struggled with, what went well, what I can do better tomorrow. This won’t work for everyone so don’t be afraid to experiment and find a method that works for you. Start simple – spend one minute writing each day. Write one thought about anything:

  • What is your biggest worry at this moment and is there anything you can do about it?
  • What is one thing you are grateful for?
  • What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in your life?

These are just some suggested questions you might want to try and answer; for a more in-depth look at journaling I recommend these Daily Stoic and Art of Manliness articles.

Acknowledge fear

I’ve used the word “fear” but you can replace that word with any of the emotions you’re feeling because of lockdown – anxiety, stress, boredom. If you don’t acknowledge what you’re feeling it can be 10 times harder to deal with that emotion and that’s why journaling can be effective; it helps you put into words what is going on in your mind. 

Putting something into words can make something less scary and help you realise how much of a situation you actually control. Early on in lockdown I was worried about how little work I was achieving and it caused me a lot of stress. Eventually I sat down and thought about why I was so stressed. I thought I was just worried about how much writing I was doing, but I was actually concerned that my supervisor would judge me and think I hadn’t done enough. So before my next call with my supervisor I made a PowerPoint slide listing everything I had done – literally everything; online training courses, the number of thesis pages I’d written and any new skills I was learning. When I wrote it down it helped me realise how much I had actually done. 

Reach out

The most common challenge during a PhD and lockdown is the isolation – both physically and emotionally. You feel like the only person dealing with your problems, that your situation is unique.

When lockdown blues started I thought I was the only one, but again I talked to my supervisor. He acknowledged that as lockdown has gone on he too had been struggling and that he wanted nothing more than a day in the office – just for a change of routine. This acknowledgement, that my supervisor was human too, helped me remember that we are all just reacting to what is happening – this is new for everyone.

To beat this you have to get out of your own head and realise that you are not going through any of this alone. Share your feelings with another person; another PhD student, a friend, your supervisor – anyone. You’d be surprised by how many people are going through the same things that you are.

Shut down, switch off

The internet is an incredible resource, particularly during lockdown – it keeps us informed, allows us to stay in touch with relatives and lets us support cultural change, but it has its downsides. During the first few days of lockdown I looked at the news every day to stay informed, but after a while it just bummed me out. It isn’t just the news; social media can be a cauldron of deception, vicious trolls and political anguish. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that spending too much time in that online environment makes it hard to process emotions and deal with the difficulties of lockdown.  Instead we need to step away from the chaos and take time to unwind – guilt free.

I use Sundays as my rest day and avoid the internet as much as possible and, if I can,  switch my phone off and ignore it all day. Having time each week where I’m unplugged and away from the noise of the internet calms me down and brings some quiet to my mind. For the same reason I try to avoid using my phone before bed and leave it in another room when I go to sleep; so it’s not the first thing I look at when I wake up.

This strategy might not work for some people and everyone needs to find a routine that suits them. It doesn’t have to be extreme; go for a 15 minute walk at lunch and leave your phone behind, carry a book and read it the next time you’re stuck in a queue, eat your next meal at a table rather than in front of your TV. The world isn’t going to end just because you’re not watching it, so take the time to step away.

These are just some things that helped me get through the 2nd year of my PhD as well as find some balance during lockdown life. Doing a PhD can be hard, living through a global pandemic can be hard – doing both at the same time, that’s next level. 

If you’re going through the 2nd year blues or lockdown blues know that you are not alone. Figuring anything out takes time, and more importantly it’s harder, if not outright impossible to do without support. Personally I have found that talking with my research group and other early career researchers from my department helps me. But everyone has their own way of coping – talk to family, friends, even dogs can be good listeners. 

If anyone else has any suggestions on how they dealt with their 2nd year blues or are currently coping with lockdown let me know on twitter

(Note: if you have concerns about mental illness please reach out for professional support. PhD Balance is a good place to start for resources and support).

Featured image is under Pixabay License and free to use.

About the Author
  • Steven Gibney 0000-0002-3309-1522

    Steve is currently a member of the EPSRC CDT in Advanced Therapeutics and Nanomedicines at the University of Nottingham. He uses bioelectronics to design new treatments and diagnostic devices. When he's away from the lab he can usually be found lost in the woods or up a mountain. Twitter: @Steve_Gibney

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