One Year of Pandemic: Finishing your PhD in 2020 – a Humoristic Review

Written by Marius Kremer, former Secretary of the Arbeitskreis Young Crystallographers.

Coronavirus wearing a doctoral hat

How does it feel, when one of your best years yet is one of the worst years for the rest of the world?

Uncomfortable…

Introduction

The year 2020: A year defined by media outlets reporting casualties like they are stock market trends, parliaments of confused and tired politicians making rash and contradictory decisions that don’t really matter because the rules aren’t enforced anyway, and absolute lunatics trying to topple the government because apparently, we are still at war with Russia, and billionaires eat babies.

For me personally, 2020 will always be a year I remember fondly, because it was the year I was awarded my PhD.

I feel like writing a short chronicle of my experiences in 2020 might be interesting for people who are still planning to finish their PhD in the next few months, and I hope it will be entertaining for everyone else. As this is a blog post and not a scientific paper, it is filled with hyperbole, omissions and misinformation to make it more entertaining and easier to read. While most described events are somewhat true, I do not give the real names of any person or institution to prevent accusations of slander or insult.

How did we get here?

The 1st joint meeting of the German and Polish Crystallographic Association was held in February 2020 in Breslau, Poland. Hundreds of attendees gathered in small lecture halls, breathed all over each other and shared handshakes and buffet lunches. It was still business as usual. Corona was something we all knew about, and there were even some cases in Germany already, but those were rare and well isolated. I wasn’t worried at all. When my families asked me (as the only scientist they knew) about my opinion on covid-19 in February, I answered something like: “It’s not worse than a common cold, and very far away. In two months, no one will talk about covid-19 anymore” … Oh, how wrong I was.

On the last day of the conference, we woke up to bad news from Germany. Horror stories of an ill-fated carnival celebration, uncontrolled spread of the virus and draconic lock downs reached us completely unprepared. Soon, no disinfectant could be bought anywhere, toilet paper was running out, and only a few weeks later everyone realized: We were in the middle of the worst pandemic since 1920, and covid-19 was here to stay.

Have a Pint and wait for this whole thing to blow over

My home university reacted to this situation in the typical German fashion: Bureaucracy was established, crisis teams were formed, committees were assembled and petitions and propositions were drafted. We all knew that something was coming, but for a few weeks, we were stuck in Limbo. Would the institute close? Would we still hold lab courses? Who would feed the office fish? No one knew… My supervisor luckily decided not to wait for the slow-moving wheels of administration, and we established our own concept to deal with the crisis. We worked out a weekly rotation, so only as few people as possible would be at the office at the same time, and moved all of our seminars to an online platform. As I was approaching the end of my PhD, and my lab work was almost completed anyway, I was sent home indefinitely to compile my thesis.

This development suited me just fine, because Home Office fit perfectly to my lifestyle. I slept in almost every day and often didn’t leave my apartment for several days. When I emerged from my cave, it was to get more food or alcohol, which I consumed in unhealthy amounts during that time to stay calm facing the double burden of the epidemic and my dissertation.

From my hideout, I observed the world around me falling into pieces. Almost daily, my university’s crisis team came up with new plans and rules, most of which seemed counterproductive, confusing or outright impossible. Luckily, I was safe from the fallout, because I was at home… or so I thought.

Back to work

While everything else was being locked down mercilessly, my University had somehow managed to get a special permission to still hold lab courses in May 2020. A special safety and hygiene concept was of course established to keep everybody safe. The basics of this concept were: keep your distance, don’t group up and use ample amounts of disinfectant. Masks were not necessary, as long as we followed the rules. Regular visits from overseers of the university’s health and safety commission ensured our good behavior. Of course, when no overseer was in sight, the rules were considered more of a suggestion, because keeping your distance is quite difficult if you have to share a fume hood with two other lab mates, and not grouping up is also hard when all the chemicals are in one cupboard at the end of a narrow hallway, and everyone needs to go there at the same time. Eventually, the main supervisor provided me with a 150 cm long wooden pole to help my students visualize the distance they should keep. While the pole didn’t serve its original purpose very successfully, I used it to poke everyone who was grouping up or coming to close to me, which made my days much more fun, and everyone else’s lab course much safer…. Well at least they didn’t catch corona, though some went home with bruises.

I actually had to supervise a second lab course much later, in the winter semester 2020/21. At that point in time, we were forced to wear FFP2 masks while working in the lab, but no distance restrains were put in place, and the students were even supposed to finish certain tasks in small groups. Therefore, no wooden poles were provided, and I didn’t enjoy the second course nearly as much as the first one.

But let’s return to the summer of 2020 for now.

You’ve got Mail

I originally planned to submit my thesis by the end of August. I was confident that the review process, the public display of my thesis and the planning of my oral exam wouldn’t take longer than 3 months, and I could comfortably finish my PhD by the end of 2020.

There was, of course, a large pile of paperwork to be done before I could submit my thesis. Unsurprisingly, collecting signatures and filling out forms is a lot more cumbersome when everyone is working from home, but I managed eventually. I compiled all the necessary information and signatures of both myself and the reviewers I chose, several copies of my dissertation and my signed CV including my home address, email and phone number. With all that, I headed to the dean’s office to submit my thesis. I knew that the office was empty, and I had to use a mail box. What I didn’t expect, and couldn’t even really believe when I first saw it, was what kind of mailbox I was supposed to use.

Considering that I was submitting an envelope that contained all of my personal information, partially unpublished academic work of the last three years and basically my hopes and dreams for a bright future, I suspected a certain level of security. What I found was a large, baroque looking mailbox made from thin metal hanging in a place that was quite accessible to the public. The opening was large enough to fit my rather thick envelope, but it was also large enough to for me to reach in and, potentially, grab the mail that was already inside. I wasn’t comfortable at all leaving my dissertation, that I had worked so hard over the last months, in such a place… but I had no choice. I did, however, immediately write an E-Mail to the dean’s office to ask them to confirm that they received my envelope just to make sure no one had run off with it.

The answer I received was: “We cannot tell you whether we received your dissertation. In case we did, you will receive a letter in four to six weeks. We hope you understand.”

I didn’t understand, and because I couldn’t decide if I wanted to laugh or cry, I simply went to bed.

And so, the waiting began.

Decisions to be made

While I spent the previous months in blissful ignorance of the corona situation, the development suddenly became extremely relevant for me. The main question was: Could I defend my dissertation in person, or would an online defense be necessary. My university tended to change their rules regarding personal meetings on a whim, and it was impossible to plan ahead, because I had no idea what the rules on the actual date of my exam would be.

Unfortunately, my university was also quite unprepared to conduct online exams, and applying for a permit for an online exam was tedious. I had to provide written statements from all members of my exam commission and a formal application to be allowed to have an online exam.

This was of course counterproductive, because the online exam was supposed to be a last resort, and, if anyhow possible, I wanted to defend my dissertation in person. If I officially apply for an online exam, I renounce the possibility to do an “in person” exam. But as the only alternative would have been to risk it and, in the worst case, postpone my exam to 2021, I didn’t really have a choice and started setting up an online defense for the 7th December 2020.

Getting it over with

While the university was very comfortable with forcing its students to conduct their business online, they weren’t very forthcoming when it came to the necessary infrastructure. I had to provide my own camera, microphone, computer and online platform. I was also repeatedly reminded that, in case of any technical issues or disconnects, the exam would have to be repeated. To make matters worse, I had to give my online presentation on the premises of the university, far away from my own, quite decent, PC setup. I had to use my old, barely functional laptop and a cheap Bluetooth headset, connected to the spotty university WIFI, to speak to my commission, who themselves weren’t particularly well equipped.

Luckily, my commission was very understanding, and they all had seen much worse setups in the previous months of online teaching. The exam proceeded without any hiccups, and I passed quite successfully. While I certainly felt like celebrating, corona made that quite difficult, and in the end I could only share some bottles of sparkling wine 2 meters apart from my colleagues, closest friends and family in the rainy and windy university courtyard.

I, of course, didn’t receive the conformation of my successful examination that day, though I was shown the signed document via webcam. The original arrived on my desk a few days later.

Once more unto the Bureaucracy

With that, the only thing left to do was to submit my thesis to the university library for publication, and to provide the dean’s office with all necessary documentation to finalize my doctoral certificate. This, again, was made more difficult by the fact that you could only enter the library by appointment, but at least I now knew that the very fancy mail box in front of the dean’s office was secure.

My certificate arrived about two months later by mail, and with that, the long and tedious process of obtaining a PhD during one of the worst pandemics ever was finally over for me.

Final thoughts

While corona made certain things easier for me, other things became incredibly difficult and annoying. In the end, it was not nearly how I pictured the end of my academic career, but looking back, I’m quite satisfied with how everything went…

The next step, of course, was finding a job… during one of the worst pandemics ever. But you will have to wait for my next Blogpost for that…

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