Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Julia T. Scho on the challenges and positive experiences of researchers and scientists working around the globe during the pandemic

Julia T Scho

The pandemic has been a challenge for almost everybody. Cancelled conferences, field trips, experiments, suspended research, travel and visa restrictions, bad job prospects and no childcare, are just some of the problems  academics have faced since March. While the virus highlighted  problems in our society and probably made the work-life balance, especially for scientists with children, even more challenging , it also marked  a  time of  change. Quick solutions for a more digitalized world, e.g. with new online formats for scientific debates or movie screenings were found, people discovered how useful science communication is, supportive communities formed and life choices were  reevaluated.

We have collected the voices of German researchers and scientists working around the globe during the pandemic. Via our survey, over 100 scientists shared their experiences  from the last months and  the personal and professional challenges they faced:

97% of the respondents found that the pandemic has affected their research and life in many different ways. 21 % think Corona has changed their career path compared to  79% who haven´t seen any big impact on their career so far. When asked about  concrete challenges, researchers identified key struggles with childcare, travel restrictions and funding during Corona.

“Not having childcare between mid-March and early July and being at home with a seven-month-old baby and a five-year-old. Both kids required full-time care and home-schooling, and for 3.5 months, I was only able to work on my research and prepare fall-term classes while the kids were napping/sleeping, i.e. in short bursts during the day or late at night. Balancing the children’s needs with my own needs, stress, exhaustion, and demands of a tenure-track job was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.”

Especially the lack of childcare in many countries during the lockdown had a huge impact on academics, their work productivity and wellbeing. As the pandemic is still ongoing there might be  long-time effects for  scientists with families  compared to  scientists without  care duties when it comes to the number of papers published during this time, submitted proposals or career decisions which were made.

In addition, travel restrictions are a burden for academics who are used to traveling around the world on a daily basis. “I was supposed to start a position in Japan but am currently not allowed to enter the country. Therefore I am unemployed at the moment.”

As air travel is very limited these days, and visas are suspended, jobs are at risk in addition to conferences and collaboration being cancelled.

Funding is another aspect academics are struggling with during the Corona crisis: “I lost 6 months of my research, now funding is running out and no way for me to finalise my projects without funding extensions, which the EU won’t grant.”

With labs being closed and research suspended, a shortage of material and recruitment problems this is just the tip of the iceberg. Due to the pandemic jobs were lost, academic funding has become  insecure and finding a job right now, depending on the field, may  be devastating.

In addition to this anonymous survey, four German researchers share with  us their personal experiences l of living nearly half a year  with the Covid-19 situation. In these talks, we discussed: What  personal challenges did they face and what coping mechanisms they used during the crisis? Has Corona changed their career path? What might change in the academic world in the long run, when it comes to funding, career perspectives, digitalisation and online teaching, academic exchange or the implementation of home office?

What were the concrete challenges?

How has Covid-19 affected research and life? Has the Corona crisis changed the career path of academics? In addition, what are the challenges for scientists during this pandemic?

While for some, Covid-19 has not affected their research  much, it has certainly had a huge impact on their personal lives e.g. when it comes to moving to a different country during a pandemic, having no childcare or rethinking what you really want in life.

Stephanie Forkel, Christian Glaser, Katharina Brinkert and Torsten Weber provide us with some insight into  their challenges during the Corona crisis.

How has Covid-19 affected your research/life?

Stephanie Forkel [1]: As part of my academic role, I serve as a journal associate editor. During lockdown, it was difficult to find reviewers who were able to make the time on top of their already compromised research time and personal commitments.

Stephanie Forkel

Another effect of COVID-19 was that all work-related interaction suddenly happened on a screen – giving a talk, attending conferences, writing, whiteboard sessions, online classes etc. An online scientific life offers many opportunities, for example, being a guest lecturer in New Jersey from the comfort of my home in Bordeaux, or presenting at conferences just after an online meeting with my local team. However, it didn’t take me too long to develop screen fatigue. In parallel, social life also happened online with virtual baby showers, birthday parties, dance nights, sports classes, and theatre plays. But those were more interactive and therefore more captivating. I wanted to combine the more lively nature and interactive exchange with scientific discussions. As such, we developed a new pioneering online format (@CNSeminars) through which we can host movie screenings, scientific debates and have guest collaborators, such as scientific journals, for special interest sessions. Through this new format, we already had very stimulating scientific discussions leading to joint publications and we can facilitate the dissemination of research findings within and beyond the scientific community.

Life wise 2020 is cancelled. I had just moved to France before the pandemic had reached Europe. Having been used to the buzz of an active London life, the silence in the empty city of Bordeaux and the lack of social interactions was a rather dramatic change. With much of the administrative and public life in France having been slowed down due to strikes just before the lockdown, I didn’t have the best start here and was very much not prepared for this lockdown life. My social security – and by proxy my health care coverage – had not been set up yet, the new house only had half of the electricity working, and I was struggling to keep on top of the ever-changing rules and regulations as information in English was only available with a delay. Despite the stressful events, I also experienced beautiful encounters with my neighbours. In times where supermarket aisles were temporarily empty, and restaurants had to close, the ones on my street offered their food to all residents. Living in a beautiful old city street in houses with French balconies, neighbours started chatting across the street and checking in on each other. Having my Sunday morning coffee by the window turned into an exciting “Frenglish” conversation about current politics, human rights, mathematical models, international relations, and French literature. So while I didn’t have time to get to know my new city, I learned that I am living in a wonderfully supportive community in the heart of this unknown new home.

And COVID-19 certainly made me reevaluate my choices and put them in perspective and going forward I will do more of what I love in a place that I like to be in with the people I hold dear (in a country with a sound healthcare system).

Christian Glaser [2]: Good question. My research is not affected that much from the Corona crisis as I can do everything remotely. I even have more time to work, as there are less meetings than usual. However, the working conditions got bad, especially when we were still in the US with no childcare during the lockdown.

Christian Glaser

We moved back to Europe earlier than planned and could not even say goodbye to our friends. Back in Germany, we self-quarantined for two weeks at my brother’s place, which was like a small summer vacation, but with very limited space to work properly. Afterwards we went to my parent’s house, which allowed me to resume my work as the grandparents could take care of our child.

Our move to Sweden also didn’t go as planned as we could not take the plane and had to take the car. But in the end things worked out quite well and now I have my own office and can work from the university or from home.

Has the Corona crisis changed your career path?

Katharina Brinkert [3]: The corona crisis gave me time to think, is that really what I want to do? It made me more conscious if I really want to do this job.

Torsten Weber

Torsten Weber [4]: I had changed my career path shortly before the Corona crisis hit in, in February 2020. In retrospective, this may have been the perfect timing because my work in science communication and public relations is less dependent on access to archives or fieldwork than it had been when I was a full time researcher. On the other hand, many people have now discovered how useful science communication and social media are to promote one’s research and publication activities. I did not have many boring moments in the first six months in my new job and I have often worked overtime, on weekends and even in my holidays.

What are the challenges for scientists during this pandemic?

Christian Glaser: This depends on the specific subject. We are building detectors in the South Pole, which has been a challenge as the work season got cancelled and delayed the project for a year. It is not clear if it will get better next year, so work is piling up. Fortunately I am in the lucky position that I don’t have to go to the South Pole and can work on my project from Sweden.

The lack of childcare is also a big challenge for researchers with children. Whenever there is a Zoom meeting there is a child playing in the background. In Sweden, luckily the situation is much better than in other countries right now as Preschools are open. With a toddler and newborn I am still able to work.

Stephanie Forkel: Taking a big picture perspective, one consideration is that scientists are probably the best-equipped career group during this pandemic as we are used to new evidence changing future research and recommendations. The public is not commonly involved with the scientific method, and they are now seeing science unfold in real-time, leading to errors, new evidence, changing methodologies, and changing guidelines on masks for example. We have seen how easily this can lead to misinformation and anxiety and I believe as a community, we should make an effort to communicate science and the scientific method but also consider that what we say has an impact and as such choose our statements carefully.

On a more individual basis, scientists face many of the same challenges other career groups are facing when it comes to home office life. The pandemic has affected the different scientific fields in different ways. While a lot of research was suspended leading to many delays in data collection, analysis, write up, publications, grant applications and much more, other fields were busier than ever trying to accelerate their research, put in grant bids, and passionately communicate their science.

An evergreen challenge for scientists, especially early career researchers (ECR), is uncertainty. As short-term contracts are still the norm, often just a few months or a year, many ECRs found themselves at the end of their contracts or even out of a job in times where funders, universities and research labs had to develop their new positions and financial budgets for the foreseeable future.

In times like these, being far away from home and loved ones can be tough and sometimes devastating when borders are shut, but life continues to unfold (e.g. Zoom funerals). This pandemic has catalysed life decisions, and many people in my scientific circle have since changed jobs, left academia, decided to leave the countries they are currently living in, or finally move outside the city to have a garden.

What was helpful; what coping mechanisms did you use?

How have academics adapted their research/career to the new normal? What will change in the long run? What were the positive takeaways from this situation?

Home office was one of the biggest changes researchers had to face and organize. Scientists are used to being flexible in life, most quickly adapted to the new normal and found creative ways to stay organized, connected and sane during these challenging times.

How have you adapted your research/career to the new normal?

Torsten Weber: Our institute closed in March and partly re-opened in June. During that time, I mostly worked from home but like many of my colleagues, I lack the appropriate infrastructure at home. Simple things like a proper desk, office chair, printer, a fast internet connection. When Japan declared the state of emergency in March, these things quickly sold out in Tokyo. ‘Home office’ without an office at home means less productivity and can be frustrating. On the other hand, ‘working from home’ has allowed me to spend some time outside of Tokyo’s overcrowded concrete jungle. I temporarily moved to the countryside where infection rates are much lower and I could avoid the crowds in the city.

Researchers are known for having a notoriously bad balance between work and life. But I fear this may get even worse if ‘working from home’ without appropriate support and physical distance between home and work becomes the new normal.

Stephanie Forkel: Early this year, I left the UK and moved to France to take up a position at the CNRS/University of Bordeaux. I had just enough time to meet the new team before the lockdown. Luckily, we were not actively collecting data and were, therefore, able to adapt to remote working quickly. As a team, we have a very collaborative working style using whiteboards to plan manuscripts and grants, and we use cloud-based platforms to write together. COVID-19 has undoubtedly shaken up our work routine though. While scientists usually don’t work 9-5 at the best of times, the boundaries between work and home have drastically shifted to accommodate homeschooling, caring responsibilities, and other personal needs. While juggling to accommodate those new demands has been hard on many, it also sparked creative new ways of working together. Given that my team already worked cloud-based using collaborative online platforms, a minimal transition period was needed to adjust to the new situation. I was luckily able to work effectively from home, which led to a boost in my research in terms of papers and grant writing during the early days of the pandemic as. I also quite enjoyed the slightly more personable experience during meetings where small glimpses into each other’s world or soothing virtual beach backgrounds made meetings very enjoyable in times where we can only mind travel.

What do you think will change in the long run?

Katharina Blinkert

Katharina Brinkert: I think in the long run there will be more digitalised teaching and recordings from lectures. There will be more access to online material, which we are developing right now.  And there will be a lot more home office. I hope there will be more flexibility with home office and this will also affect the way we commute or travel.

Christian Glaser: Funding might be a big problem. On the one hand, the economy is going down? everywhere so there might be less money for scientific research in the future. On the other hand, the value of science might increase and result in more support for research.

Another problem is that moving around is getting more difficult during a pandemic. Currently our new Postdoc is stuck in Italy and had to postpone his job start for a couple of months.

Furthermore, some countries might get less attractive for scientists than others. Especially the US with their visa restrictions got less attractive for scientists. For Europe, this might turn out as an advantage as it will attract more high-qualified researchers.

Even though Covid-19 had a huge impact on academic and personal life – which is still on going and will most likely alter the way we work, travel, commute, conduct science or exchange ideas – there are still positive outcomes from this situation and a variety of coping mechanisms which helped dealing with the negative and though effects of the pandemic in a meaningful way.

What is your positive takeout from this situation?

Katharina Brinkert: I can do my job. As my job is so flexible, I can work from home wherever I want. I hope this flexibility will continue after Covid-19.

Christian Glaser: Many positive things especially that I could spend a lot of time with my family in Germany which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Torsten Weber: Much of my research in East Asian history deals with war, conflict, and suffering. Reading diaries and other historical sources has helped me to relate to the experience of generations who underwent terrible times and crises. As of now, the Corona pandemic is relatively minor compared to the wars and massacres I study. This historical comparison helps me to put the current situation and restrictions in perspective.

Stephanie Forkel: This virus blatantly and dramatically highlighted the cracks in our societies. Still, one definite undercurrent is that it forced us to pause, recalibrate and rethink the way we live, connect, and the impact we have on the people and the world around us. Amongst the positive outcomes for me is the appreciation towards scientists and essential personnel, an increasing interest in science communication, a slower pace of life, new creative ways to connect, and increased awareness of how politics affects public health. Now would be a good time to reevaluate current life choices and initiate changes to make the world we live in a better place for everyone.

When it came to coping mechanisms for all the challenges related to the ongoing pandemic, those polled came up with a variety of ways to keep organized while in home office, stay connected to colleagues, friends and family and to stay sane.

“I started doing a lot of exercise at home and had plenty of social online meetings with friends around the world. The most effective was ‘Friday DiscoNight’ 🙂 I brought together my friends from around the world, we have a collaborative playlist on Spotify. On Friday eve we would meet online, drink and chat, before we start flashing projector or cycle lights and all dance together in isolation to the same music.”

While exchange with friends and family and online meetings with colleagues are essential in these times, they can get time consuming, especially long Zoom meetings or digital conferences. That’s why it is also necessary to stay organized, especially if you have to work and take care of children. Having a well-planned schedule, daily routine and if possible separate work- and living space can be a “lifesaver”.

When it comes to mental health and self-care during the pandemic many found it helpful to stay active, spend time outdoors in nature, practice yoga, meditation and don’t spend too much time on social media or the news to manage feelings of anxiety. Coffee, cookies and ice cream also seemed to be a good coping mechanism☺