This time last year, on the 31st March 2020, I delivered my very first interactive virtual career workshop. Using Zoom and other on-line learning tools that, only a few weeks before, I had never even heard of, and together with an education technology co-host, whom I had only met ‘virtually’ during the same period, I engaged PhD and postdoctoral researchers in a series of presentations, breakout discussions, exercises, reflection and even peer coaching.
With positive and encouraging post-workshop feedback from the participants, and with a spring in my step (well, in the hands on my keyboard), I took a leap of faith and ‘pivoted’ all my subsequent workshops to online. So, here I am 12 months later with what feels like a lifetime of virtual experience and exponential learning that I have gleaned through webinars, trial and error and informal discussions with career and education development professionals. Having formerly considered myself to be settled in my routine of in-person workshop delivery, I am now a fully-fledged e-career development adviser and coach!
And what about you? What’s your story? What changes did you have to make to enable you to adapt to the sudden and life-changing pandemic? How have you coped? I heard today that one of the UK’s major funding councils has issued the following statement for those applying for grants in the near future: CVs can be used to describe personal COVID impacts; peer reviewers will be encouraged to consider the impacts of COVID on researchers and their careers.
It’s likely that other funders will act similarly, inviting researchers to justify their alternative activities during periods of restricted lab access. I would not be surprised to see employers doing the same, both within and outside of academia.
For every downside of a situation (and we’re talking about a very big downside in the case of Covid-19), there are also positives to be gained. Our collective experience of the pandemic perhaps enabled us to more readily empathise and understand the difficulties that we’ve had to endure during the past year, with people differentially affected in terms of work, finances, emotional support, caring duties, mental health and more. For PhD and postdoctoral researchers, this has meant a combination of interrupted (and sometimes ruined) experiments, delayed research progress, reduced communication and contact with peers, lower levels of supervision and support from PIs – who have had to switch to on-line lectures or turn their attention to safeguarding their department or institution – coupled with increased personal commitments, that have all taken their toll to some degree (reported by, for example, in a survey conducted by Vitae, 2020; in primary papers, Myers et al, 2020; Weiner et al, 2020 and a mix of personal accounts from PhD students Khan 2020, some of whom included some positive experiences).
Are you able to identify any upsides in the past year? Have there been changes for the better that you’d like to see remain in place in the future? Here are some of my thoughts on this matter, derived from my own professional and personal experiences. You are very welcome to add yours:
- One major upside for me is to have been able to take part in, and contribute to, conferences I would never normally have been able to attend as they were too far away, too awkward to get to, or didn’t fit in with my working schedule. In previous times, I have exhausted myself trying to juggle meetings, organise transport logistics and book hotels. Now it’s all done on the computer in my home office. Not very exciting, it’s true, but much more convenient.
- Many conference registration fees have been drastically reduced or even offered free of charge, making these meetings far more accessible to those operating on limited budgets. What with this and the virtual accessibility of meetings, I have witnessed a much-enhanced diversity of participants. Having been involved in many equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives in a former role, our new way of operating has certainly opened up opportunities and welcomed the world into a new virtual space, beyond previous expectations.
- Networking in person has virtually disappeared (quite literally) in the past 12 months, however e-networking has gone some way to replace it. And whilst physical interaction has always been considered to be the preferred type of engagement, e-networking has allowed for other types of communication to come to the fore. For example, interacting in small virtual breakout rooms, sharing publications, new ideas and other information on platforms such as LinkedIn, Researchgate and specialist discussion groups, or contacting people more directly by email or phone.
- On-line job interviews via Skype, Zoom and other media has increased the accessibility of new job opportunities, and the on-line interview has its benefits: the interviewee is often in a more comfortable and familiar environment, with the possibility to feel more relaxed and even to create advantages such as having access to prompt cards, out of view of the interviewers during questioning.
- Work:life balance for some has been a positive experience, reducing stresses such as commuting long distances, exposure to pollution and the vagaries of public transport. Furthermore, for some, spending more time with family has been an unexpected bonus.
- Social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter have, from what I have seen, acted as havens for some members of the academic community to share experiences, offer support to each other and even include lighter and more humorous moments to help get through the bad times. Those of us who have helped to provide support in whatever way we can, have also benefited from sharing information and advice with our own communities.
- More miscellaneous social media posts have acted as interesting distractions, with people posting pictures of their pets, scenic evening walks and also random questions, such as how do you sign off your emails? Responses to this particular enquiry included “Best wishes”, “Kind regards”, “Cheers” and “Sincerely yours”, depending on the familiarity of the communication. Nowadays, perhaps a more appropriate example would be “Virtually yours”.
And on that note, I will sign off and wish you all good physical and mental health.