As noted by Burgio et al. (2019), the expectation that post-doctoral scholars move for short-term positions poses a particular burden for under-represented groups, including women, which contributes to perpetuating bias and reducing diversity. The global COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to explore alternative options, such as remote or hybrid postdoctoral fellowships.
We’ve been experimenting with a hybrid model since June 2020. In this post, we share our experiences as postdoctoral fellow (Dr. Catrine Demers) and a supervisor (Dr. Andrea MacLeod) in the Multilingual Families Lab – aka MultilingualFamLab – at the University of Alberta, Canada. Catrine is based in Gatineau, Québec, and Andrea is just a quick 36-hour drive away (across 3453km) in Edmonton, Alberta.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Catrine began her postdoctoral fellowship remotely from Gatineau in June 2020 for three months. From September till mid-December 2020, she joined the MultilingFamLab in Edmonton. She then spent one month in Gatineau and returned to Edmonton in mid-January 2021. We will be spending another four months on the University of Alberta campus before Catrine returns home in the beginning of June 2021. Afterwards, Catrine will alternate between Gatineau and Edmonton for 3 to 4 months in each location. There is a 2-hour time difference between these locations.
CATRINE’S VIEW AS A POST-DOCTORAL RESEARCHER
From my perspective, completing a postdoctoral appointment in a hybrid format is the best of both worlds.
Since my research focuses on children and teachers within school settings, the in-person format is important for me to acquire knowledge of the community, the population, and the city. Nothing compares to living within your research field to get to know it. As with any type of living abroad experience, living in a different city, even within the same country, is enriching and eye-opening. Being in-person allows me to better understand the research context, and in my specific research, to get to know better the reality of the linguistic diversity, the community services, and the educational system. Being on site, even within the COVID-19 context, is helping me engage with partnered community organisations and network with other researchers. Since I am a newcomer to this city, my conversations with new collaborators have focused on being new to the city and to my positive experiences in the city. I have also found that being in the same time zone facilitates the coordination of meetings. There is also an advantage of being away from home, as it allows me to often be more flexible and to spend more time on research, especially when living alone.
On the other hand, the remote format is relevant in the COVID-19 context with the now-limited access to university offices. Almost everything can now be done remotely as most data collection and meetings have moved from being in-person to online. Being in a different time zone can be an advantage: we have found it helpful with short deadlines, for example with my supervisor sending me a version in the evening, then I work on it in the morning, and I can return a new version before my supervisor begins her work day. Working remotely has also provided more time for me to spend with family and friends, and benefiting from these social supports. It is not to be neglected as it helps with having a good life balance and has supported my wellbeing. This is even more true within the COVID-19 context.
Lastly, completing one or more postdoctoral fellowships often involves moving to another city or even country, but maybe only for a couple of years, or even just six months or a year. It is somewhat expected and normalised for postdoctoral fellows to do that. The next city to move to in the next year is often unknown and dependent on future opportunities (which are scarce). The uncertainty can be hard to manage. This situation can have an impact on the stability of the life of the postdoctoral fellow and this is influenced by their needs, goals, and situations. Just to name a few of these potential impacts: moving can make it harder to find a long-term partner, to foster a long-term relationship especially when the partner cannot move, to start a family, to take care of children, to take care of an ill family member, and to accumulate wealth. The remote option can help with life stability and make many postdoctoral fellows’ lives easier.
ANDREA’S VIEW AS A SUPERVISOR
I have found this hybrid approach presents a solution that balances Catrine’s longer term goals, benefits the lab by bringing in her research expertise, and moves my own research forward in exciting directions.
At the outset of her postdoctoral fellowship, we developed a plan to ensure that I knew Catrine’s goals and vice versa. We use this plan to guide decisions around roles and responsibilities, but it is also a living document that we can adjust as we move along.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Catrine began her postdoctoral fellowship remotely. She supported research assistants in the lab during the busy summer period through video conferencing and check-ins. As she noted, we were in different time zones and this helped us meet some tight deadlines by sending drafts at the end of my work day, and her responding early in her work day. During the summer months, she also supported knowledge mobilisation activities we took on with the lab members. She reached out online to nudge and keep the project moving, provided tips and support, and made sure we had time to share drafts during our lab meetings. This was all done online and really helped to keep everyone in the loop.
Following this initial remote period, Catrine joined the lab in person and continued to build relationships with the MultilingFamLab students, and more particularly with our community partners. She was able to access our lab, resources, and University to support her work.
Although her arrival coincided with the beginning of Fall semester, we were able to jump into projects and lab life since we had already worked together over the summer months. She even helped to make the lab more chaleureux, by buying some plants, setting up a tea corner, and decorating with our lab logo. During her time on campus, Catrine also networked with other early career researchers at the University.
To make sure she was included and part of the MultilingFamLab life, we meet weekly via video conference to discuss progress on research projects, provide feedback, and work through ideas and decisions. We use Trello to organise lab ideas, journal club readings, and questions. In this way, the information is available to all members, and everyone can chime in with their perspective. We also have a shared online folder and keep notes of our meetings in this space. By having a shared folder, we are easily able to look back on decisions, questions, and concerns.
In our experience and for our research, the hybrid format is the best of both worlds. While we had planned on a 25/75 week hybrid fellowship (3 months remote, 9 months in person), COVID-19 and our experience has shifted this plan to a 50:50 hybrid fellowship.
When planning for the in-person periods, we have chosen months that require more meetings, coordination, and in-person data collection (fingers crossed). This plan works best for life-work balance and the needs of the projects, but other factors may come into play.
Moving or travelling across cities or countries and renting a second home can be costly for the postdoctoral fellow. The subletting of the postdoctoral fellow’s apartment or house and the finding of a new place can add complexity and stress. The moving back and forth can also affect life stability of the postdoctoral fellow and work stability of both. Moving for only a couple of months at a time twice a year might not be feasible for others with families or other considerations. The plan we chose together was designed according to both of our needs.
We have found that this hybrid approach to a postdoctoral fellowship has been positive and productive for both of us. We recommend having an open conversation between the postdoctoral fellow and the supervisor regarding the postdoctoral fellowship format to acknowledge the needs of both. Within our current hybrid format, we have found that the key element to our success is communication: communicating about expectations and timelines, during in-person and remote phases.
Author Bios: Catrine Demers practiced as a speech-language pathologist before completing her PhD in Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Ottawa and Andrea MacLeod is a professor at the University of Alberta, where she is the Chair of the Communication Sciences and Disorders department.