Going back to (a new) normal: reflections from three academics as universities and society begin to re-open

Post authors: Dana Turjeman, Sondra Turjeman, and Meghan Duffy

This blog is directly connected to a post two of us (Dana and Meghan) published on March 15, right as things in the US were beginning to shut down due to COVID-19. In many places, discussions on re-opening the economy are at full speed (even though many places are still seeing significant, and even rising, levels of infection). We’re now moving into a phase where more people are going back to work (including in labs and doing fieldwork), and where people are increasingly moving about. 

While there are important benefits to a slow, thoughtful re-opening, this doesn’t mean everything is back to normal. The virus is here to stay at least until a vaccine or a cure, or both, become widely available. As things reopen, members of the scientific and academic communities will likely face challenges that will surface for the first time (even as we recognize how fortunate we are that we still have paying work). Here we raise some of the potential challenges that are likely to arise in the coming months. This time, we’re excited to add a third author, Sondra Turjeman, a PhD student in EEB at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

As more and more places are re-opening, we’ll have to adjust to a new normal. Many of us will be able to go outside more than we did during the months of lockdown. Some of us can already go back to the lab or do fieldwork, and we may even be meeting friends and colleagues in socially distant, safe ways… but this doesn’t mean life is back to the way it was before the pandemic. Indeed, it might never go back to what it was before.

General overview

  1. Some people might not feel comfortable going back to work on site, or sending kids back to school (more on parenting in a follow-up post coming soon). This might be related to being in a high risk group, or living with someone who is. But, especially with so much still to learn about the virus, even people who are not in a high risk group have reasonable concerns about whether it is safe to be out and about. Others may not be able to get back on site, even if they have work that cannot be done remotely — perhaps they temporarily relocated, still don’t have childcare, or may be facing other responsibilities. It’s important to keep in mind that everyone is trying to figure out what makes the most sense for their situation, balancing a million different factors, often without as much information as we’d like when facing big decisions. Not surprisingly, that’s stressful! One thing we think is important to emphasize up front is raised in this tweet

    A major theme of this post will be: different people will have different comfort levels throughout the reopening process and different abilities to resume activities. We should try to keep as much work remote as possible and should support people as they navigate hard decisions. No one should be pressured into doing something they are not comfortable with, even if their peers or advisors made different decisions.

Tensions and inequities associated with reopening

  1. Currently many states and countries are starting to re-open. In some cases, this is against a backdrop of greatly reduced COVID-19 cases, but in others, reopening is occurring even as cases increase. Already, some places have had to pause reopening plans, or are talking about reversing them, as cases rise. It is clear that this will continue to be a “patchwork pandemic”. One side-effect of this regional patchwork, as well as the differences in individual circumstances, is that the feeling of togetherness felt by many may start to fade away. There were already tensions due to some people being more heavily impacted by the shutdown than others; those tensions will likely increase, and new ones will likely emerge. 
  2. Public transportation and travel will likely be challenging for a long time. The inequality between those who travel by public transit and those who walk/bike or have a car (and can afford parking) will get worse. Add to this that people of lower socio-economic status were already affected more severely by the pandemic (see here for some evidence), both directly and indirectly, and this is another source of inequities in terms of the impact of the pandemic and re-opening. 
  3. Furthermore, travel to and from various countries may remain limited, and some may be unable to fly safely. This means that someone’s ability to resume their work might depend at least partially on how far they have to travel, including whether they have to travel internationally. People with study plots or sites that can be accessed by car may be less impacted by COVID-19 in the long run (though some people have already lost this field season), whereas those who regularly traveled great distances to field sites may need to find completely different projects. Similar to questions related to re-opening more generally, even if flying somewhere is technically possible, not everyone will be able to or will feel comfortable doing so. It is important that students (and more senior researchers) are supported in making a choice that feels right for them, even if it means less (or no) progress on a particular project. 
  4. More generally, even aside from issues related to field work, different (sub)fields will be impacted differently. Students, for example, basing their research on literature reviews, surveys, and available datasets, may be able to continue with their projects as planned or with minor changes. People doing lab-based work might be differentially affected some people might be able to get lab work done, while others will not. People doing human subjects research are also very strongly impacted right now in many places, that research is on hold with no sign of starting up again. How students plan their research, continue studies that were paused, fill missing gaps (e.g. in multi-year studies), and meet deadlines will have to be more fluid between and within departments. Faculty on dissertation, hiring, and tenure committees need to recognize the very severe disruptions many people face, and hopefully departments and institutions will encourage serious discussions about this.

Implications for work schedules & planning ahead

  1. One of the bright sides of the shutdown was the way it emphasized that we really can do a lot of things from home (albeit sometimes at odd hours!) Hopefully this will lead to longer term flexibility in work-from-home options as well as work hour requirements. For certain kinds of research, people might now realize that hiring people who would work remotely can work out well, even if they are unable to relocate. (Here’s an article by Kevin Burgio & colleagues that has suggestions for a successful remote postdoc.) We hope it will also lead to students having more freedom in setting their hours. Sondra notes that, if she had to set a “dream schedule” for herself, it would be to work from 7a – noon each day. She is a morning person, and is most focused at these times five hour bites keep her from burning out, and when she is not burnt out, her productivity is similar to what it was in an 8+ hour day. 
  2. Having said that, a too-flexible work schedule might turn into nonstop work. This is not sustainable. Furthermore, balancing the challenges of being at home (e.g. cooking, cleaning, child care) with work can lead to exhaustion, even if it isn’t a result of working “overtime” or even typical, pre-corona hours. Whether you have kids at home or not, we should all explicitly prioritize self care, have leisure time, and enjoy strictly non-productive time, to maintain long-term productivity (and well-being). Before Corona, some of us almost never worked at home in the evenings. Now that we are working from home all the time, it is harder to distinguish between the end of the work day and the beginning of personal time. We have found ourselves sitting down at the computer in the evenings “for just a few minutes” and getting sucked in. Meghan has also realized how important her walk or bike to and from campus was in terms of allowing for a little down time between work and home, particularly in terms of shifting from ‘work mode’ to ‘mom mode’.
  3. We’re trying to do a better job of staying in the moment and getting comfortable with uncertainty. Meghan is an overplanner, liking to have Plans B through Q for all sorts of different situations. But the past few months have made it clear that things change very rapidly and that a lot of that planning used up energy needlessly. Various things to which she devoted a lot of mental energy ended up resolving themselves (for example: the question of whether to send her preschooler back to daycare this summer became moot when daycare announced the earliest it will reopen is late summer). This also keeps happening in terms of lab re-openings: the situation changes so quickly that it’s forcing us to learn to be more flexible! So, while there is clearly a need to plan ahead at some level (e.g., for research and teaching), it’s also worth considering whether that thing you’re stressing about and planning for really needs to be dealt with now, or whether it would be better to wait for more information.

Implications for learning, teaching, and student wellness

  1. Last semester, we had to switch to remote teaching and remote learning pretty quickly. For the fall, we have the benefit of time to plan for true online learning, but it is still quite different than in-person learning and a big adjustment. Some students may benefit from this system; others may resent the online format. It seems likely that the fall semester will involve a mixture both across and within universities: some classes will go back to in person, but others (especially very large courses) will be online. (Michigan has said that the largest courses “are likely to continue to be taught remotely” in the fall, but we’re still waiting on more information about what fall semester will look like.) For online courses, finding a “study buddy” to hold you accountable and with whom to discuss material is more important than ever. With time, distance learning tools will improve, and more of us will learn how to teach effectively in this format. In the meantime, actively fostering an interactive learning environment through discussion and study sessions with peers will make a big difference.  

Implications for research and research student life

  1. Many of us might feel the need to make up for the things we didn’t get done during lockdown. However, overworking might have severe negative consequences in the long run. Try to focus on what you achieved (even if that was just getting by, but maybe also research wise — even small achievements count!), and start to go back to your routine slowly.

  2. Real-time check-ins. Some of us can technically go back into the office or lab. While this is wonderful, as discussed above, some people will not feel safe, or be able to go back to meeting people in person (and, based on what we know about how the virus spreads, having groups of people in small rooms together is not a good idea). As much as possible, and with much sensitivity, we need to continue adopting technological solutions, like Slack, that will ease communication in real time to preserve the collaborative nature of research. We should also be considerate of those who are in different locations, don’t have reliable internet access, or may have different priorities and availability. People should not be pressured into returning to the lab, field, or office, and they should not need to explain why they are unable to do so. Unfortunately, quite a few people indicated feeling pressured to return to the lab in this informal twitter poll:

  3. Also, remember that even if something is allowed under your local & university guidelines, it doesn’t mean you need to do it (e.g., see the traveling point above, as well as EpiEllie’s tweet near the top). Before scheduling anything in person, think hard about whether it really ought to be happening in person. If it’s just going to be people sitting around a room talking, that can probably be done virtually. We should all still try to do as much virtually as possible. You might need to say “Can we please schedule this meeting online?”, even if you’re meeting someone who’s senior. Hopefully people will default to keeping things online, but, if they don’t, it is OK to explicitly ask to stay on the safe side whenever possible.
  4. Balancing all of the possibilities. Big lectures and international conferences will likely remain virtual, making it easier than ever to join a weekly seminar on a different campus or country altogether. On the other hand, the peer-pressure that normally pulls you away mid-sentence from your work to walk down the steps and attend a lecture is gone, as is the social pressure to keep your phone in your pocket throughout the talk. (As we worked on this post, we realized we’ve independently found it helps to have something such as knitting or beading to keep hands busy while watching.) Making the decision to attend a lecture will require self-discipline, and it may feel hard to shell out conference fees when you are participating in your pajamas, even if we acknowledge there are still costs associated with putting on virtual conferences.
  5. Consider that members of research groups are now even more spread out across many time zones and countries. Many international students returned home when campuses and dorms closed, and many domestic students dispersed as well to be with family or other loved ones, or to be in a different setting. In addition to support services, practical considerations of continued participation in courses, lab meetings, and mentoring despite time-zone differences must be considered. Similar considerations are important for multi-group collaborations. Finding the balance between conflicting schedules might be a challenge but is a necessary component of the flexibility we all need to practice these days.

Post-graduate school implications

  1. One major consequence of the pandemic is substantial uncertainty related to post-graduation plans. Many schools have announced hiring freezes. Those applying to and accepted for postdocs aren’t sure if they will be able to begin (some universities’ administrative offices are closed, there are substantial delays in obtaining visas right now, and hiring might require saying that the person can work remotely at present — which isn’t the case for all types of work). Or, all of those things might be proceeding as normal, but, for a particular person, it may now seem less clear whether this is a good time to make a cross-country or international move. Some people are already treating this cohort of students as the “lost cohort”, who’ll find it extremely challenging to find a first job in academia. How should universities and individual academics support this “lost cohort”? This is a question that those of us who have faculty positions must especially grapple with. And how can the candidates of the “lost cohort” support one another and encourage schools not to lose them?
  2. Even if schools begin hiring or can enroll new postdocs, the process is likely to look very different than it did previously. Most likely, the initial interview will be online, but what about a second visit? If a job candidate chooses not to / cannot fly to a campus for an interview how will that affect them? Can we work out a way to fund postdocs who are not (yet) physically present? (As a reminder, there’s a link above about remote postdocs.) We hope that this leads to long term changes that will make things more equitable for example, for people for whom travel or moving was already particularly challenging. 

Coming out of COVID-19 shutdowns while also fighting against systemic racism and anti-Blackness 

  1. Systemic racism is felt in all aspects of life from access to higher education to healthcare options to simply going for a run. Recently, following the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and too many others, the problem of systemic racism is being brought to the forefront throughout the United States. This is coming in the midst of a pandemic that has hit communities of color particularly hard. We hope the ongoing protests and the much-needed conversations that are beginning will lead to meaningful change in academia and society more broadly. However, this means things are especially hard right now for scientists and academics of color, and especially Black scientists and academics. We encourage White readers in particular to read and reflect on this excerpt from the June 1st “Monday Motivator” email from the NCFDD (which you should definitely check out – facultydiversity.org), written by Dr. Anthony Ocampo and Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore:

    Usually, at this point in the summer, we’d be checking in to see how the writing is going. And yet, as we write this, it feels like our own writing projects are futile amid the backdrop of everything happening in this country. The reality is, this has been a particularly heavy week in an already difficult year. The murder of George Floyd and the continued violence against Black Americans are horrifying and traumatic. Knowing that we have family, friends, and students who face these same threats is distressing. Seeing people we know go about their daily lives as if nothing is happening is heartbreaking. It was inspiring to see so many people organize and march for Black lives over the weekend, and yet, watching the violence and devastation in cities we’ve called home stunned us into silence.
    On top of this, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. COVID-19, while affecting us all, impacts us, our loved ones, and our communities in such different ways. We are coming off a semester of converting all of our courses online and caring for and homeschooling children. We and others we know are dealing with the heartache of losing people to the virus. We’ve attended funerals on Zoom. We have loved ones who survived COVID-19 but are still on the long road to recovery. We have undertaken efforts we never imagined to protect our household, our society, and ourselves, but in the process, we have been unable to see the people we love, and we have no idea when—and for those with family who are ill, if—we are going to see them again.

White academics must do anti-racist work, and must not expect people of color to educate them. If you’re looking for ideas of what to do, this google document on “Concrete Steps for Recruiting, Supporting, and Advancing Underrepresented Minoritized Scientists” has lots of good suggestions. Please also read this open letter to the EEB Community, and begin working on the suggestions it contains. 

Concluding Thoughts

Three months ago, when we wrote our first post with some advice for graduate students and their mentors in the time of coronavirus, we noted:

  • your health and well-being, and that of your loved ones, comes first;
  • a need to recognize that people are making hard choices, dealing with difficult circumstances, and doing the best they can;
  • the importance of a routine, but also of being flexible and experimenting with new approaches; and
  • the importance of communicating clearly and regularly.

Those are all still true. 

Things will continue to be uncertain and to change rapidly, and people will continue to be impacted differently. We need to approach our work and our colleagues with compassion, and we especially those in positions of relative power and privilege need to be working to make sure everyone in our community is supported and included. 

We’re currently working on a related post focused on academic parenting in a pandemic — stay tuned!

About the authors
Dana Turjeman is a PhD student in Quantitative Marketing at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where she is also the wellbeing and research productivity chair in their PhD forum. Sondra Turjeman is a PhD student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she studies animal behavior (reproduction and migration) using molecular tools. Meghan Duffy is a regular writer at Dynamic Ecology, and a Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan; she is also the Chair of the Rackham Graduate School’s Task Force on Graduate Student Mental Health.

3 thoughts on “Going back to (a new) normal: reflections from three academics as universities and society begin to re-open

  1. Thank you for this thorough, well organized post. I appreciate your perspectives so much. (And thank you for the shout out on our remote postdoc paper!) I’m so looking forward to the upcoming post focused on academic parenting in a pandemic! COVID-19 obviously and quickly cancelled my spring fieldwork, but the loss of school and childcare has had more subtle effects. For example, I have a microscope and a box of pollen slides from my postdoc project at home. I haven’t touched them since March — I can’t count pollen after bedtime, I’m too exhausted for microscope work, and I don’t have the long stretches of uninterrupted hours to get in a microscope groove during the day. So even though all the pieces are here and my partner and I are splitting childcare/homeschooling time equally — and even though I used to count pollen at home consistently as a remote postdoc — it’s been totally missing from my new work from home routine.

  2. This post captures nicely what I think is one of the core realities of COVID 19: even as one virus reminds us how globally interconnected we are, the reality is if you ask 1000 people there are 1000 different stories about how COVID has affected them. Some feel lonely and isolated. Some feel overwhelmed by full houses, especially if they’re young children while trying to do a job. Some have had their research massively interrupted. Some have gained more time to focus on their research. And etc.

    PS – I am right there with you, Meghan, on who knew the 10 minute transition (for me bike ride) to and from work was so important!

  3. Pingback: Academic Parenting During a Pandemic | Dynamic Ecology

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