Finished, but not yet free

Words by Samantha Ward & Marianne Coquilleau
Illustrations by Marianne Coquilleau
Photographs by Samantha Ward

UPDATE – Samantha & Marianne have been interviewed on 2SER about their journey LINK

Concluding the postgraduate journey

Covid-19 has shaken up the world as we know it. Everyone has been affected in some capacity, either in a personal or a professional sense. The uncertainty and sense of foreboding during this period is felt by many, putting a strain on mental health for some. Finishing a postgraduate degree can be an unusual experience at the best of times, but what is it like handing in a thesis during a lockdown period?

For the last few years we, Samantha and Marianne, have studied within the Hoffmann Laboratory/PEARG at the University of Melbourne for a PhD and an MPhil, respectively. We both investigated the use of parasitoid wasps to control invertebrate pests in Australia, undertaking field work and spending time identifying organisms within the lab. The pests included grain aphids for Samantha and leaf miner flies for Marianne. A postgraduate degree is a journey, arduous at times, but ultimately a rewarding and life changing experience. If you’d like to hear more about some of those experiences, please look at our previous blogs, such as ‘In the ‘field’ of science’ and ‘An adventure in Alice at the AES conference 2018’.

A day in the life of a postgraduate… Credit: Samantha Ward

Those last few months of a postgraduate degree, however, are shadowed by the looming deadline and can be particularly stressful. Late nights, poor diets, lack of sleep, and back ache are inevitable. Even if prewarned of this postgraduate chapter, nothing prepares you for the pressure you feel to complete in a timely manner and to achieve greatness!

It can feel like a herculean task to gather the work of months, even years, and synthesize it, explain, reference, tease the story and showcase the results, and most importantly to do so in a clear and concise manner. In a way, lockdown had some advantages. Writing after all is best undertaken in a quiet setting, and there was a lot less FOMO (fear of missing out) and fewer distractions when social distancing was implemented. It did mean however, the inability to go out and recharge your batteries with a change of scenery, and an unreasonable amount of time spent sitting at the computer. After a while, the thesis is what you drink, eat and breathe, and more than once I have dreamt in my sleep of writing and editing! (Marianne)

After countless proofreads, carefully checking the formatting, and with the final green light from the supervisors, you are done. Despite the expectation of instantly feeling elated once you’ve pressed the ‘submit’ button, it can prove to be as elusive as the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, or the vicious drop bear! So, you are no longer creeping to the finish line. You have a beautifully packaged and presented thesis, displaying your findings to the scientific community. What now? Usually, after completion, a period of time is required to recuperate, catch up on those lost hours of sleep, and generally try to unwind.

Once you begin to regain those senses, the celebrations can begin! Let’s be honest, catching up over bottles of wine, partying the nights away with friends, or just cosying up on the sofa and watching some trashy television, reading a good book, or completing a jigsaw puzzle, can be the little pleasures you have missed. The post-hand in period is the time to rejoice and revel in the congratulatory messages and praise from friends and colleagues alike. You are free to take on the world as a Dr, an MPhil, an ‘expert’ in your field!

Coping with completion during Covid-19

Afterwards, however, there were no celebratory pizzas and drinks. No hugs. No parties.

We minimised those windows, closed our laptops, and stood in an empty apartment not quite sure what to do next. It was too early to ponder on what the future held, too early to dive into other work. And so, we reached for a cup of tea, a glass of wine, and a bar of chocolate, and settled in to catch up on some podcasts, movies, and novels. That anticlimactic feeling seemed stronger than ever.

Post-submission celebrations with ‘Peach’, one of our blue-tongue skinks! Credit: Bruce Edley

Regardless of whether you are undertaking a postgraduate degree or not, you’ll know that during this pandemic, catching up with friends in person is no longer an option. Thankfully, in these modern times we are blessed with technology. Both of us are international students and so rely upon social media and video calls to stay in touch with family back in the UK, US and other parts of Europe. It makes moving and living across the other side of the world seem a little less terrifying.  Friends and family sent congratulatory messages on various platforms, presents arrived by mail, and video calls were arranged so we could raise our glasses together from the comfort of our living rooms! We waved to one another as we undertook our daily exercise, either by walking in the park, picking up groceries, or over online Zumba lessons.

An unbelievable handmade congratulatory brooch from Marianne to Samantha! Credit: Samantha Ward

Universities have also kept up with these changing global situations, with teaching, meetings, and our completion seminars being undertaken over Zoom, enabling progress to continue uninterrupted, where possible. One great positive from the lockdown situation and the need to present our findings online, is the ability for friends and family to be able to join from anywhere in the world. Admittedly the time difference can complicate matters… to those in the UK who, at 2am last week sat through over an hour of parasitoid biology and PhD findings, I thank you profusely for your support! (Samantha)

A new world

During the lockdown period, the world is unlike it has ever been before. People seem a million miles away, but the opportunities to stay connected are more numerous than ever! Our lab group, PEARG, still holds a weekly coffee morning and a fortnightly lab meeting, except now it is online. We listen to one another’s stories, we meet new arrivals to the group, and we hear about the exciting ongoing research being undertaken. We will now turn our thesis chapters into papers, to present our findings to the general public, as well as the scientific community.

Celebrating lockdown-style. Credit: Marianne Coquilleau

This week I will also be celebrating my birthday, as Marianne did during the first lockdown period (Samantha). No, it won’t be drinks down the pub this time, bowling at the green, picnics in the park, but it will still be a fantastic experience catching up with friends on the screen. The world is getting back to some normality, as we are finding our feet with our new routines. The post-postgraduate world is a new and exciting place and, like the wasps we’ve researched, we will be exploring pastures new!


One Response to “Finished, but not yet free”

  1. Marie-Christine and Laurent Coquilleau says:

    Congratulations to you both! This well written (and illustrated) article gives us some insight into your challenges and journey to complete your studies.
    You did it!

    Marie-Christine and Laurent