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The University of Southampton
Doctoral College

Communication from Aline Giordano, Doctoral College Manager

31 March 2020

Dear Doctoral Researchers and Colleagues,

I know you have received many communications over the past week, most of which have focussed on regulatory matters, so I’m hoping that this will not only echo the comments made by Professor Chris Howls but also provide you with assurance that we are aware of the more personal impact this challenging situation is having on us and the ones we care about.

How can we keep emotionally fit to pursue our professional and academic endeavours in these unprecedented circumstances? Our phraseology now includes the likes of ‘keep safe’. Yes. I hope you keep safe. I also hope you wash your hands thoroughly, and, equally important, that you moisturise them. I don’t know about you, but my skin is cracked and rugged. My hands hurt. A very small price to pay to keep safe.

There is an important question that needs to be asked: Are you feeling safe? What do I mean by feeling safe? Under such extraordinary circumstances, we need to go back to basics. Wellbeing must be our prime concern. Without it, there is little hope to achieve the day’s jobs. 

Last week I attended my MSc taught module online. The virtual teaching was delivered with great care and compassion. And this was much needed. I could see people looking stressed and under pressure at the start of the course. I, myself, had been feeling under pressure to perform at my best, do my pre-course reading, get ready for the switch from face-to-face classroom to virtual learning, and, of course, carry out my role as Doctoral College Manager.

I would like to offer some words, for now. It is not my intention to tell you what to do. I am offering these words in the hope that they are of help to you.

We are in constant reactive mode at present. What we thought we knew, what we thought right and wrong in our job is being tested. The reference points are coming and going, morphing. It can be difficult to keep a clear mind. When this happens, I tell myself “it’s ok”. I pause. “Breathe. It really is ok. I’m well. I’m doing my best.”  

For some of us, the situation will hit us harder. We may have elderly relatives we worry about, a partner working ‘in the front line’, children whose learning has now fallen upon us to manage. We need to earn an income, keep on top of our professional and academic commitments. The list goes on.

As a PhD candidate, you are becoming an independent researcher. Independent doesn’t mean isolated. We can all feel isolated in uncertain times. I meet virtually with my colleagues during the day, and friends in the evening. Yet, I feel a sense of aloneness at times, which can be paralysing. It’s ok. I tell myself. I remember I must breathe. I’m doing my best to self-support. Now, more than ever, I remember the wise words of my friends, my mother, and my therapist. Of course, I connect with the outside world. But this sense of aloneness is inside. Have you felt it? If so, please reach out.  Reach out to your supervisor. And if your supervisor is not available (remember, we’re all trying to adapt at the moment), then reach out to your support mechanisms. Reach out to us in the Doctoral College. Check out our University resources, as well as external resources of support and information, such as Every Mind Matters.

What if I fall behind? Sometimes, I look at my peers and feel that they have achieved more than me. This can be a crippling thought, and as such rather unhelpful. What keeps me going is another thought: I’m doing my best. So I focus on what I can achieve. Today, I’m achieving more than a few days ago. It’s progress. This means that I’m adjusting and coping well. I will not fall behind. For, I will catch up with myself in good time, soon in fact. Meanwhile, I must be gentle on myself. Perhaps it is time I gave myself a break? Time to listen to a motivational song? I pick up my imaginary air guitar and exercise those limbs which could do with a bit of stretching. Now that spring is here, I open the window and gaze at the sky. Stretching the gaze is important too. I even find myself registering for that virtual Qi-gong session.

Personally, I have found it a little difficult to adjust to the new world context. Fortunately, I realised quickly enough that it was up to me to view my past history of depression as a supportive friend, not a foe. And now, I am reconnecting with my intuition, with ‘what feels right for me in the moment’. Do I feel ok in my body? If not, where is it nudging me? Is it a sign that I need to be more gentle on myself? It’s ok. I pause. I breathe. It really is ok. I’m doing well, and I feel safe.   

Remember, these are difficult times. We must accept where we’re at. That is within our control.

The Doctoral College, in consultation with colleagues and doctoral researchers, is exploring means to help restore a sense of connection among us; and we invite you to join us. We’ll be in touch soon. Meanwhile, I hope you keep and feel safe. 

With much gratitude for your patience.

Aline Giordano

Doctoral College Manager

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