Sometimes the most challenging part of adjusting is letting go of elements that you love about your project. This is a PhD candidate’s account of their challenging and stressful attempt to adjust the parameters of their project to fit within the new restrictions we are all now familiar with.

How did you and your supervisors approach the idea of adjusting your project?

My research is aiming to understand why hotel employees do not engage with sustainability initiatives. I focus on room attendants and housekeeping work due to its well-know initiatives (i.e. reusing towels) and the environmental impact of cleaning. My research design included three phases: speaking to management about expectations of sustainable behaviours, observing room attendants in their day-to-day work and interviewing them.

At the end of February, I was just finalising my management interviews and scheduling my observations. At this stage, Covid-19 was only tangentially on the agenda of the properties I was working with. However, starting March, the first thing I noticed was an increasing delay in response to emails from my industry partners. This made planning my observations challenging. I had to start thinking about alternative options for data collection. My supervisors kept calm and stayed optimistic. Their attitude helped me to not panic.

Given the introduction of social distancing rules, I was forced to abandon my observation plans and move my interviews online. At the end of March, when Australia closed its borders to all non-residents, the properties I had been working with informed me that they could no longer participate in my research. They had to let all their housekeeping staff go. Even online interviews were not feasible as their staff were distraught given the current situation. It was heartbreaking to get this feedback as I had been working with the properties for some time.

My MCR was scheduled for beginning of April and I decided to go ahead. I presented several alternative plans to continue my data collection. Fortunately, I passed, however my committee acknowledged that tourism and hospitality has been one of the hardest hit industries. Rescoping would be difficult given the long-term impacts and availability of alternative data sources and required more time.

Have you seen a significant change in your project? What are the key adjustments that you have made?

After my MCR I tried several different avenues for adjusting. I was looking at different ways to use my already available data to answer my research questions. I also investigated new strategies to collect my outstanding data. However, as the project is intrinsically linked to an industry that was shut down globally, it was quite difficult to predict how and if these strategies would work.

In addition to reviewing academic literature, I kept up to date with industry developments via newsletters and webinars. In May, it crystallised that the industry’s focus moving forward would be on hygiene and safety. Recovery efforts needed to focus on establishing trust in cleanliness to attract future guests. However, it also meant that continuation of current sustainability efforts would be impacted. Additionally, it was still unclear when and if hotels would be able to re-open. My re-scoping efforts were seriously undermined, hence I decided to take an interruption of 6 weeks.

Do you feel you have gained some benefit from this process?

I learnt that a researcher needs to be flexible. Whilst you can (and should be!) passionate about your topic, you need to adapt to challenges that you will encounter along the way. My research project had been borne out of my long-term industry experience and is very close to my heart so being flexible has been a steep learning curve.

I also learnt to be kind to myself. There is no need to force yourself to continue with your research if your mind is not up to the task. At that point it is better to let go, interrupt and focus on nursing your mind back to full energy. I read a lot of books during my interruption. Reading always had a nurturing and recovering effect on me.

I also learnt to speak openly about my challenges. This can be to your supervisors, fellow PhDs, or even a professional. There is no shame in seeking help. On the contrary, speaking about your challenges allows you to organise and articulate them better for your own benefit. Sometimes you just need someone to listen to be able to help yourself making decisions.

What was the most challenging aspect of the process?

Knowing when to stop and take a break. Nobody wants to admit that they are at breaking point. It takes some strength to make this decision.

Do you have any advice for other candidates and their advisory teams? Any resources or publications you would point people to to help them on their journey?

Letting go. Firstly, learn to let go of research avenues that are not feasible anymore regardless of how close the project is to your heart. Build flexible and alternative strategies into your design from the start. I believe no research ever goes to plan. Secondly, let go of your research and focus on your mental health once you realise that your batteries are empty. How does the saying go? “You cannot pour from an empty cup.”