Pursuing a PhD is a multiyear-long task and entrepreneurial undertaking. However, starting, concluding and succeeding a PhD during a global pandemic that does not hold back from academia is yet another story. Challenges and struggles are perceived more intensely, or maybe they are just different from those that PhD students might have encountered in pre-COVID times. When our lives turned from business-as-usual into online-only overnight, a new complexity arose. But this complexity appeared to impact differently at different stages of the PhD journey.

Benedikt, Peter, and Carlotta are three PhD students at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano at their first, second, and last year of the PhD journey. They share the same working environment, yet their experiences differ greatly. Here they share their experience and reflections about their pursuit of a Ph.D. during one of the most challenging times of our lives.

Benedikt Unger, 1st year PhD student.

Readers will wonder if it is a good idea to start a PhD in the middle of a pandemic. But the only honest answer I can give as a first year PhD student at this early stage is that I do not know yet. What impact the pandemic will have on young professionals (not just in research, by the way, but in all sectors) is something we will only really understand in the future. But at the same time, I know that I do not want to let a virus get me down and still want to pursue my dreams and goals. Anyway, I am now sitting here and have completed the first months of my PhD program – completely remotely and without having met my PhD colleagues in person.

For the last few months, my mood has fluctuated between euphoria and frustration. Mostly euphoria about inspiring conversations with my supervisors and other scholars, about any progress in my dissertation work and many insightful papers I read that help me  narrow down my research interests step by step. But also, a little frustration about the limited opportunity to exchange ideas with peers, to discuss with professors and to dive into topics that (at least at first glance) seem foreign. Despite the circumstances, however, I collected my first field data (mainly from online conversations, of course) and successfully completed my first assignments of my PhD program. And even though the pandemic and all the associated worries and challenges are always present in my subconscious, I am still very enthusiastic about my choice of engaging in a PhD.

Two events from the last weeks reinforce this positive feeling: Firstly, to all the staff at my university has been given the opportunity to get vaccinated and we all hope to return to a more normal state of operation soon; and secondly, I have finally been able to move into my team’s offices. Despite all the restrictions that still exist, I have now the opportunity to interact more with other researchers and learn all the things about academia that you cannot necessarily read about in books. All this makes me quite optimistic, and I am looking forward to all the things to come in my PhD-journey. Still, I am also aware that not all young PhDs have the privilege of working in such a vibrant existing network of supervisors, team members and scholars as I do.

Peter Trümmel, 2nd year PhD student

I started my PhD in Bolzano 4 months before lockdown. While the first year of our PhD program is about attending classes, submitting assignments, studying for exams, preparing presentation, and figuring out a topic to spend the next years with, the second year is supposed to be about defining and specifying the focal point of the PhD thesis, and beginning to get “out there”, collecting data, and connecting with peers, supervisors, and academics from other institutions through seminars and conferences.

Due to the ongoing involuntary switch to the socially distant online mode of operation, I am instead stranded “in here”, mostly at my place, pondering about which healthy routine could get me into a flow to scrape together some productive hours, at home, every day. Next to this intrapersonal struggle, I feel the weight of missing out on the interpersonal experience of my first conferences and collecting data in direct contact with informants. Sure, going online means going global, saving time and money for travels, switching instantly from one seminar with a god*dess of one field of knowledge to a symposium regarding one’s research ideas, or having another virtual turn of data collection.

But what is a PhD without networking and meeting other students to share coping strategies? When will the advice from experienced scholars about their early struggles apply again, because their world was more of an oyster than the online cave we live in today? Where is the immediate and inescapable imposter syndrome kicking in when approaching potential co-authors to win them for research ideas? Am I really connecting with my field and data if it is all online? Weren’t those experiences supposed to let me grow as a scholar?

I am hopeful that these missing experiences do not have a too grave impact on my personal and professional development. Yet, who am I to know what the “real” PhD experience feels like when, for the most part, I only know the pandemic version of it? Certainly, the interpersonal experience of scholarship is missing, but with IFERA’s efforts in providing resources and platforms to learn and connect, I do not feel less connected to the family business community I would like to grow a part of.

Carlotta Benedetti, 4th year PhD student

The lockdown started immediately after I came back from New Mexico, where I did my PhD visiting period. When the pandemic emergency hit us, I was in between the third and the last year of my PhD. Initially I have spent a few weeks getting used to the new routine of working from home, but I never really took a break to understand what was going on. I basically just moved most of my activities from physical to virtual.

Going back to that period, I remember dealing with contrasting feelings. On one side, I felt like my freedom was taken away. On the other side, I slowly understood that I could look at the pandemic as an opportunity to focus on drafting the articles for my PhD dissertation without further distractions. In addition, taking a break from my everyday routine and comparing myself with fellow PhD students who started their journey in the middle of a pandemic emergency made me realize how lucky I was in many different ways.

For instance, being a qualitative researcher, during the second year of my PhD I have had access to family enterprises and gathered my data through interviews, observations, participation to meetings, events and other personal interactions that are now generally discouraged. It is hard to imagine how the same data collection would have been by using mostly virtual platforms. I therefore admire younger PhD students who decide not to give up and find new and creative ways to gather their data. In addition, some of the best memories of this PhD journey as well as part of my learning process come from the conferences I attended, from the everyday interactions with senior colleagues and other PhD students, and from the incredible experience of visiting an inspiring professor and her institution for three months.

Being aware that not all PhD students, and in particular the ones who started their program during the pandemic, will not be as lucky as I was, I believe that being part of the family business community, which is dedicating an incredible effort in keeping us connected and inspired, play a crucial role in our present and future development.