Studying and doing research in isolation: A guide to thriving

10 May 2020 by Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi

When South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a nationwide lockdown on 23 March, academic institutions were faced with a new reality and concerns about how to resume the academic year.

As an immediate response, universities across South Africa have made the shift to online learning. Students without reliable internet access and/or technology were also considered, with many institutions ensuring that they were equipped with the resources they need, such as by approaching cellular service providers to zero-rate certain learning websites for universities so that users can access websites with academic content via their cellular service at no cost. Researchers and academics have also had to shift to working from home.

Lockdown has also brought with it additional responsibilities: many are having to home-school their children or support family members who might be ill. While this may seem hard on the student who is trying to focus or the young researcher trying to climb the ladder, the pandemic has affected everyone and we need to find ways to continue to work, study or do research productively. Here are a few suggestions for achieving that:

Take care of yourself

Apart from washing your hands and practising social distancing, it is important to take care of your physical and mental health. Keep your immune system strong to fight off any infections and attacks on your health.

You might not see the effects of being seated for long hours immediately, but it can be damaging in the long run. Being sedentary for hours might lead to a “foggy brain” whereby your brain function slows down because of poor circulation; discomfort or pain caused by craning your neck forward for a long time is another consequence as is lower back and leg pain from upper body weight resting entirely on your pelvis. In severe cases, prolonged sitting can make your muscles weak, and poor blood circulation can lead to swollen ankles and possibly blood clots.

It is therefore vital that you take regular breaks to do simple exercises. Get some fresh air, sit in the sun or walk around the garden if your living arrangement allows. If you cannot go outside, sit near an open window, looking outside and letting in some fresh air.

Also maintain a sufficient intake of healthy food – resist going for that slab of chocolate, pouring another glass of wine or having your umpteenth cup of coffee for the day. Consume nutrient-rich foods with a slow release of carbohydrates so that you have enough energy to maintain your mental focus and keep your energy up throughout the day. Staying hydrated also supports mental focus. Challenge yourself to learn how to cook something new.

Find a few trusted sources that you can check for updates on COVID-19 coverage such as the CDC or the WHO. Setting limits on social media feeds can help reduce depression, anxiety and misery. Helping others cope with their stress can also make your community stronger and increase support for one another.

Staying connected with friends, family and colleagues can help you get through the tough times. Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling. Communication can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Switching off at the end of the day can be hard for some, but it is imperative that you get enough sleep. A good bedtime routine can help support physical health, the functioning of your immune system, emotional wellness and mental health. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including at weekends. Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, relaxing and comfortable. Avoid electronic devices in the bedroom and avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.

Maintain focus and discipline

To remain focused and disciplined you must establish a routine. Create a timetable that will fit into the time you have allocated to your studies or work. This includes scheduling the time you go to bed, wake up and begin work or your studies.

It is also important to find a separate workspace to avoid disruptions. Talk to your family to establish common quiet hours and break periods to avoid interruptions. Choose a workspace that is away from noise and activity.

For post-doctoral individuals and early-career researchers, this might be a good time to get your adviser or mentor to help you refocus on your professional development. This is also an opportunity for the adviser to do an appraisal of their student’s work in relation to the rest of the team’s work in order to decide whether it requires modification.

Engage with your peers

As devastating as the coronavirus pandemic has been, it also presents an opportunity to engage with others. For example, a community of researchers at ResearchGate are breaking boundaries by sharing ideas more readily, and working across disciplines, domains and sectors previously closed to them.

Post-doctoral individuals now also have an opportunity to forge new partnerships in anticipation of their next career move. Physical isolation offers the chance to explore virtual connections and look for collaborative spaces with other research networks.

This should not replace communication with colleagues – frequent communication with other team members will keep the research going and ensure that you are still connected.

Students should keep in touch with fellow classmates. E-learning makes it possible for students to learn at their own pace: re-read to understand a topic or accelerate. This is different from a traditional classroom setting where one has to follow the pace of the instructor as they try to ensure everyone understands before moving on.

Many universities have made online counselling services available for those who may be struggling with isolation.

It is natural to worry about the future, especially when it is so uncertain. But remember, you are not alone in this situation. Successful people who have survived the most difficult situations are creative, resilient and highly adaptive.

Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi is Programme Coordinator at Future Africa, University of Pretoria.