The unforeseen crisis caused by COVID-19 is imposing a new reality on our personal and professional lives. In academia, conferences, meetings, and classes have been moved to a fully online environment which requires strong adaptation, especially in shifting to home-based work.

This new setting had a substantial impact on students starting their PhD Programs, making their first year of learning and building connections even more difficult. With this issue in mind, we have asked PhD students and their supervisors to share how their relationship has adapted to this unexpected situation.

Our first article provides the perspective of two IFERA members, Isabel C. Botero, Director of the Family Business Center and Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Louisville, and her research assistant and first year PhD Student, Juliana Binhote.

Enjoy the reading!


Covid19 is challenging all our lives. How has your life changed during the pandemic?

IB: The first change, I would say, is that I am working way more than before because the boundaries between work and life seem to have disappeared. Especially if you work from home, you must be very purposeful, for instance, establishing that after 5pm, you are not answering emails. Keeping this schedule is really hard especially when you have access to your phone all the time and you think “this is only one email; it only takes two minutes”.

The second change is that I had to become much more organized because, when the boundaries between work and life get blurred, you can end up being distracted by your different roles.  During this year, I have tried to separate my tasks. For example, I must answer emails only twice a day instead of answering every time a new email comes in, otherwise I won’t be able to do all my other work.

Another big change in my life is that I do not travel as much as before. For me travelling is a way to relax and I miss that a lot. As time goes by, I miss it even more. I cannot wait until the vaccine will come so I can get vaccinated, get on a plane and travel around the world to visit all the places I have not seen.

JB: To start, my life decision to move to a new country and a new university has been on hold because of the measures imposed, including international flights restrictions. However, the University of Louisville and all its members have been very supportive and provided me the opportunity to begin my Ph.D. in a fully online format. Likewise, working from home in different time zones required changes in my daily routine and compromises with my family in order to allocate time to my Ph.D. activities. The biggest change during this pandemic is to actually find a work-life balance since it’s all in the same environment. Luckily, my family and Isabel have been a tremendous help in preventing me from working too much and encouraged me to focus in achieving a good work-life balance.


The choice of engaging in a PhD program is very demanding, both for a student and for a supervisor. How is Covid19 affecting this educational path?

IB: During this time, I recognize two main issues that make a PhD program even more challenging than normal. Entering a doctoral program is such a big change that can be difficult for many people.  However, when you are embedded in a cohort with other PhD students it is a lot easier, as there are many individuals going through the same issues all the time. When you are located in the same place, you can just talk to each other and share your feelings and thoughts about everything that is happening. COVID makes these dynamics more difficult to be experienced, as it is harder to communicate in an online environment.

When I entered my PhD, I was lucky enough to be together with my husband, who was also completing his own PhD. This enabled us to bounce off experiences and support each other during the process. I think that during a PhD program you need plenty of support. Thus, the most challenging part of doing a PhD right now is loneliness.

JB: I believe that starting a PhD is an important decision of commitment in life. I was (still am!) very enthusiastic to have the opportunity to interact with a distinguished scholar as Isabel and other faculty members from the University of Louisville. I think that in-person interactions are more beneficial to learn about disciplines and everything else that in my case also involves learning more about U.S. culture, the University culture, and bouncing off experiences with colleagues on campus. However, my commitment and the support of the University of Louisville, my family, and friends have been crucial and allowed me to learn in this new online environment.  I do not think this situation has any negative impact on my educational path. However, I do believe I will need a “reinforced and full immersion into academic culture” when international flights will restart, and I will finally be able to move to Louisville.


How did you re-arrange you supervisor-supervisee routine and communication?

IB: I am still learning how to deal with an environment that is totally online. It is a lot more difficult as we do not get to know each other more inter-personally, and I think that makes a difference. For example, one of the things that I have tried to implement is having a weekly meeting. This is going to be helpful because it facilitates developing a routine and creating new opportunities to communicate so we can learn more about each other.

JB: The relationship of supervisor-supervisee is based on trust and, as in other organizational environments, establishing routines, and communication patterns takes time. In an online environment, written communication might be a double sword, but I’m learning and working to adapt to Isabel’s time and pace. The lessons I have learned from my academic background is that the time available to a supervisor is not the same time available to a supervisee. Therefore, learning from her valuable time should always be insightful and productive. One of the (on-going) objectives I am pursuing is to be more efficient by sending less and more concise emails (although only Isabel can say if I’m succeeding on that.)


Getting feedbacks and interacting with other members of the family business community are crucial components of the PhD journey. How are you facing these specific challenges?

IB: The way that I see the PhD journey is a little bit different. I think family businesses matter a lot. However, the PhD journey per se is about the learning process. I see the Ph.D. as a training process on how to become a disciplined thinker. Although family businesses are also relevant to what we think as scholars and what will become relevant to us, I believe that this interaction should be downplayed during the doctoral program. I see doctoral courses and all the other aspects of a doctoral program taking a central stage during the Ph.D. program as this is the way students learn how to become disciplined thinkers and develop their own research interests. It is through classes that students learn how to organize their ideas, how to think, how to build their arguments, what is interesting and what is not interesting. I think that these unique experiences enable students to have the possibility to learn from each other’s in a structured way.

JB:  I consider myself very lucky and blessed to be part of a wonderful research community of family business scholars. From my first IFERA Annual Conference, in 2018, I got the chance to interact with generous and wonderful people. In fact, I consider myself the proof that the interaction with enthusiastic family business scholars can be a life-changing journey. In my case, it brought me to the University of Louisville working with Isabel.

The challenges of Covid did not stop the family business community. Instead, online interactions have been possible through the IFERA Research Development initiatives and other opportunities to engage with students and scholars. Likewise, as in July 2020 I became the IFERA Latam Communications and Community Coordinator, I had the chance to contribute, learn, and engage with scholars and practitioners from Latin America too. All the above-mentioned activities also enabled some meaningful interactions with other PhD students from the family business field, but I do think there is still space for more specific initiatives in this area.


The pandemic emergency connected with Covid19 also brings opportunities and provide people with more time to reflect. What did you learn from these months of lockdown both from a personal and a professional standpoint?

IB: From a personal standpoint, I learned that I am a workaholic and I need to work less because when I am overworked, I cannot think very clearly. You need to let your brain rest so that you can think. During the pandemic, I am constantly thinking, and it is difficult for me to have a fresh start every day, as I always feel exhausted. I have only been working for three weeks, after taking a three-weeks’ vacation, and I feel like I have been working for a year and a half without a break. Part of this is due to the difficulty of seriously taking a break to let the brain rest and go back.

I have also learned about the importance of self-caring/self-love, the opportunity to provide a space to myself and not being so strict on myself. To me this has been a big learning curve. Sometimes, I am very tough on myself and I learned to be gentler because no matter what you try to do, it will not always work the way you want, and you need to let go.

From a professional standpoint, I’ve learned two things. First, the importance of being organized and, second, self-discipline in how you approach your work.. As I said before, part of that is learning that you need a break at some point, helping your body heal from doing so many things. I know that right now it is difficult to take a break, so one of the things I’ve incorporated in my schedule is to take Saturdays off. What do I do? Sometimes I go out and drive, other times I just watch TV, Netflix, and do nothing, or sometimes I clean the house, but anything related to my day-to-day job.

JB: I would say that even a pandemic did not stop me from pursuing my academic goal to study with a family business scholar and that was an enormous learning from a personal and professional standpoint. In addition, being even more aware of what is important in life, my personal goals and values, who we encounter in life, and those that support us makes the absolute difference. In this pandemic, I could not be more grateful for those people who were already in my life and for those who came across and since then, have stayed.