By Noah Bressman, Kelly Diamond, Sarah Friedman, and Joe Heras.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has disrupted so many of our lives. Some have become ill and/or helped care for sick family members. Some of us are experiencing unemployment. Those of us who are parents have had to watch children while also doing their jobs from home, online learning rapidly becoming the norm, and then the entire field season has pretty much been cancelled. It is not easy for anybody to try to continue with some semblance of life, let alone go through big life changes like moving or starting a new job.
I (Noah Bressman) learned this firsthand when I defended my PhD at Wake Forest University alone via Zoom, moved (four times) across the country with everything either shut down or dangerously open along the way, and started a new job as a postdoc at Chapman University this spring, all during the height of the pandemic. With campus closed, my orientation was abbreviated at best.
Because I have not been able to meet anyone in person or interact with other postdocs, I have no in-person social circle and I still do not really know what my role as a postdoc is—I am not quite a student but not quite a professor? Through social media, I realized that I am not alone; there are plenty of other people going through something similar to what I am going through.
We may not have an in-person cohort, but we can form an online one to share experiences and learn from each other.
With the fall semester approaching, many others out there who are going to be starting new positions and will be struggling with the same issues. To help build a sense of community in this time, some members of my “cohort” shared their thoughts, fears, and difficulties of starting their new positions during the pandemic, but also offer some words of hope:
Kelly Diamond: In January 2020 my partner and I moved from South Carolina, where I had finished my PhD, to Seattle, Washington, for my current postdoc fellowship. My dissertation focused on biomechanics and ecomorphology while my postdoc work is exploring how machine learning can be used in 3D image analysis. While both are focused on morphology, the techniques I’m currently implementing are entirely new to me. These new methods are simultaneously exciting and infuriating, especially in the current reality of remote work and layers of communication challenges.
Sarah Friedman: I am currently finishing up my Ph.D. at UC Davis and am preparing to move across the country to start a postdoctoral fellowship position at Yale University in September 2020. Suffice it to say, the pandemic has complicated nearly every aspect of starting my new position from moving logistics to the fellowship program design to the research I had proposed to work on.
Joe Heras: In the midst of this pandemic, I’m in the middle of transitioning from my postdoctoral appointment at University of California, Berkeley to an assistant professor position in the Department of Biology at California State University, San Bernardino.
How is your orientation/settling in impacted?
Kelly: Fortunately, I was able to do all of my orientation training before everything shut down. However, Seattle didn’t stay open long enough to develop any kind of social support, which is definitely the biggest challenge so far. My partner and I got married right before everything shut down, we joke we are honeymooning on our own private Pandemic Island in the middle of our new city!
Sarah: Moving to a new place is challenging in the best of times. During a pandemic, even simple tasks are monumentally more complex. It has become an exercise in navigating basic city services, like obtaining a residential parking permit, while bureaucratic offices are indefinitely closed. Additionally, without being able to meet new people or explore my surroundings, it’s clear that the pandemic will delay feeling “at home” in my new city for quite some time.
What are you most uneasy about?
Kelly: I’m most uneasy about finding my next job. My goal has always been to love my job and live in a place my partner and I can enjoy our time off. I was planning to restrict future job/postdoc searches to the southeastern US to be closer to our families, but now we just want stability more than anything else.
Sarah: I am most immediately concerned about getting sick nearly a continent away from all of my friends and family. Additionally, my partner, an academic on the west coast, and I are now forced to navigate the two body problem while trying to minimize potential exposure travelling to see each other.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced starting a new position during the pandemic?
Sarah: I would say the biggest challenge so far has been figuring out moving logistics. Pre-pandemic, I had imagined a fun road trip across the country with stops at various National Parks along the route. Those grand plans vanished pretty quickly once the shutdowns began. Now, the plan is to get across as quickly as possible while minimizing potential exposure. We have decided that avoiding large cities and camping wherever possible are safer bets, but the complete lack of information has made planning into an unfortunate guessing game.
Joe: There are plenty of challenges that I face at the moment and patience is truly a virtue. With all California State Universities moving forward with a remote teaching plan for the Fall, I am preparing all of my materials from home, and I have invested in a nice pair of Sony headphones (to reduce any audio difficulties that I may face).
How have your future plans/ goals changed because of the pandemic?
Sarah: The position I am starting is somewhat unique because I am one of 10 postdocs participating in a new fellowship program designed to foster interdisciplinary collaborations. Unfortunately, that specific framework depended heavily on personal interactions, which are significantly hindered for obvious reasons. I am concerned about missing out on these opportunities as well as those that come from interacting with the broader scientific community at my new university. Considering most of my past research experience has been computational, I was also looking forward to the opportunity to diversify my skill set with lab-based work that I had proposed in my fellowship application. Now, I will have to rethink my postdoctoral research program, taking time out of an already limited two year position.
Noah: I was supposed to co-teach a marine biology field course this summer, which would have been my first instructor experience for a full course. However, this is no longer happening. This course was one of the things that drew me to my current postdoc position because I thought it would help me gain the teaching experience that my CV lacks, ultimately helping me get a professor position. Instead, to increase my teaching experience, I developed a Ted-Ed lesson and guest lectured (via Zoom) for a few courses. As part of my postdoc, I was also supposed to mentor undergraduates and guide them through research projects. In all likelihood now, I probably will never meet some of these students in person before they graduate, let alone provide them with in-lab mentorship. Instead, I will encourage them to take up projects using open-source and previously-collected data while remotely teaching them the analytic skills necessary to do so.
What are the most creative or best solutions to pandemic-related issues in academia that you have seen or implemented?
Kelly: Many of the most creative solutions to pandemic related issues that I’ve seen are related to outreach and child care. While this may not seem like a strictly academic issue, professors and postdocs are parents too. I love that my neighborhood has turned into a village where the kids are always outside laughing and playing. I started an outreach project where neighborhood kids could ask me questions about animals and answering those questions is often the highlight of my week!
Sarah: My current lab has been bringing in different early-career scientists to speak about their research in our weekly Zoom lab meetings. Since we’re all attending virtually, there is no reason to keep meetings limited to just local researchers. I think it’s a very creative way to meet new researchers and keep up with cutting edge science with the current limitations.
Joe: This Fall, I am teaching an upper division Evolution course, which entails a mixed strategy of synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (self-paced) methods to keep students engaged in the material. My plans are to use zoom for synchronous activities, which includes live lectures and breakout sessions for discussions. For asynchronous activities, I’ll use a mixture of surveys (Google Forms), discussion board posts (Slack), and pre-recorded videos (YouTube) to explain difficult concepts and assess students’ progress throughout the course. Also, I’m thinking of ways to conduct research during this difficult time, which will be mostly in silico. I’m an evolutionary geneticist and I intend to have students extract candidate genes from online genetic databases (e.g. GenBank and Ensembl) to look for patterns of adaptive evolution. My hopes are to have students in the field and in the lab by next summer 2021. This is my COVID-19 pandemic plan for my first year as an assistant professor.
What’s one good thing about starting a job in the middle of a pandemic?
Kelly: As an introvert, the best part of starting a job in the middle of a pandemic are the new online learning and networking opportunities. Personally, the hardest part of networking at conferences is actually walking up to the person I want to talk to. But in zoom there’s no need to psych yourself up to try to breach the social circle! You can just ask your question because you’re already in the conversation! Hopefully these interactions will help me get a job when all of this is over! If nothing else I get to learn new things I would not have had time for without the pandemic!
Sarah: I think everyone has been incredibly flexible and understanding of the difficult circumstances. Though I know it is far from universal, my experience interacting with other academics at this time has been largely positive.
Joe: I’m fortunate to have a position in science under these difficult circumstances. My new colleagues in the biology department at California State University, San Bernardino have reached out to me to say hello and offer support through answering my questions related to starting my position as an assistant professor.
Noah: I have a lot of time to revise and publish manuscripts from my graduate program without tons of new work piling up. I am also doing a lot more #SciComm outreach than I normally would be doing, which is always great! Whether its through Skype a Scientist, blogs, or social media, I am trying to stay productive/sane through educating others.
Though the pandemic is scary, difficult, overwhelming and isolating, remember, you are not alone. Billions of people are affected by these unprecedented circumstances, which means there are undoubtedly others having the same shared experiences even in academia.
Some may even be struggling more than others. Together, they are coming up with creative solutions and learning from each other. By helping each other, and sharing these experiences together, we will build a supportive community to get through this.
We have created a Google group for people starting new positions or have advice for those starting new positions during the pandemic. If you would like to join a Google group of such people to share advice, form a cohort, and learn new solutions for your issues, please email NoahBressman@gmail.com.