Since February 2020 I have conducted Zoom conversations with eight early career researchers about their experiences. They all completed Humanities and Social Sciences PhDs from Australian universities in the last five years, and are citizens and/or residents of four different countries (Australia, Canada, Indonesia and the USA).
Some are working as academics in universities, but others have professional roles in universities and industry.
When the pandemic set in, they agreed to a second conversation about their experiences during COVID-19 times. We discussed how they responded to the pandemic, and what it may mean for their longer-term career goals.
I wanted to share some observations from two of the questions asked during our conversations.
DID THEIR PHD EXPERIENCES INFORM EARLY CAREER RESEARCHER’S ABILITY TO RESPOND TO THE CHALLENGES OF COVID-19 TIMES?
I felt that the responses to this question addressed three key aspects around how PhD experiences influenced their ability to adapt.
Becoming independent and adaptable knowledge workers
Participants acknowledged that when they were asked to work from home they seemed to find the transition much easier than colleagues who had not completed research studies. They told stories of colleagues and family members who they had watched struggling to reconcile the complexity of treating home as a work place, and struggling to conduct family life and business in the same place. In contrast, ECRs had already worked from home or in hot-desk spaces while completing their theses and, now as ECRs, most continued writing up grants and preparing research publications at home. As a result, many ECRs already had the logistics of working from home worked out. Most already had a computer, a work space and strategies for integrating their work, research and home commitments. Some told stories of their capacity to “block out the noise” and focus on the task.
Concentrating, initiating and completing tasks independently, without direction or the physical support of the workplace or team members, were skills honed during participants’ PhD studies. While many were looking forward to returning to work, and missed the camaraderie of the office, they generally admitted that the resilience and persistence required to produce a thesis was good preparation for social isolation and working from home. Some even laughingly said that doing a PhD required self-imposed social isolation, and the pandemic conditions were not new to them.
Researching and engaging with online communities
Some participants had researched online communications and communities and admitted the lived experience was giving them a heightened understanding of these contexts. They reported having to adapt their online meetings to be more scaffolded than those held in-person. Informal meetings, where previously people had gathered and talked spontaneously, now required agendas and protocols to support successful online interaction.
Casual catch-ups and establishment of new networks were harder to achieve in the on-line environment.
Online meetings and teaching were generally agreed to be hard work and tiring.
In being exposed to new experiences, they could not help but critically analyse what was going on and seek to problem-solve. Again, they acknowledged that these skills had been honed in the PhD.
Leading and communicating
Those in academic, professional and industry roles noted the value of the leadership, communication and team-based skills that evolved through engagement with their advisory teams and other research stakeholders during the PhD. Having experienced rich and engaged conversation and having led research initiatives, they knew what was needed and missing in some communications. They had models to work from when looking at how to build online communities and engagements. Their awareness of what had and hadn’t worked effectively in complex, critical and ongoing research conversations helped them create and evaluate innovative online environments.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON EARLY CAREER RESEARCHERS’ PLANS?
Many had routinely fine-tuned and revised their research and career plans during their PhD studies, preparing them to be responsive to changed circumstances longer term.
The impact of the tightened funding environment and the increased priority of understanding COVID-19 had led them to adjust their plans and be alert to new opportunities. One participant had accessed grant funding to research the new priority of their university for online teaching and learning, another was working on two publications (outlining learnings and adaptions in curriculum design) as a result of the pandemic. While not diminishing the horror of the pandemic, they also see this as a time to identify new challenges and opportunities.
Most noted that their organisations were experiencing financial challenges and that job prospects and grant funding possibilities may change as their organisations and the broader society struggled with the economic impact of the pandemic. These struggles did not stop participants from hoping for better days and looking for alternative ways to realise the career goals they had set for themselves.
The inability to travel to attend conferences, undertake field work and access unique resources and expertise was noted as a disappointment and, for some, a significant frustration. All hoped that the potential for travel would return when it was safe, and as longer term delays became evident they continued to explore the potential for adopting virtual options. They looked to take advantage of virtual contexts as well as digging deeper to make the most of their immediate environment.
IS THE PANDEMIC A BLIP OR A GAME CHANGER FOR PARTICIPANTS PRACTICE?
Developing skills in the creation of new knowledge in their PhD studies had helped many realise a personal desire to make a contribution and understand the world around them. Participants varied in how they thought COVID-19 would impact their lives longer term. All wished the timeline for moving beyond COVID-19 restrictions was clearer. Some thought once the social isolation requirements ended things would pretty much return to normal.
Most hoped that online teaching and working from home experiences would change things longer term.
Time taken developing teaching materials and adjusting to change had reduced research time and time to progress career plans for some. Many expressed frustration about lost conference opportunities and delays to fieldwork and community engagement. In different ways, they all sought opportunities to contribute to the realisation of a new improved ‘normal’.
CLOSING COMMENT: MY PHD COVID-19 EXPERIENCE
Like my participants I have been socially isolated, negotiating conflicting emotions. It feels safer to be cocooned at home, but it is jarring to be so dependent on my laptop for social interaction.
The delight of getting to a meeting with the click of a computer key is contrasted by the exhaustion of trying to engage with an invisible audience and negotiate conversations without the aid of non-verbal cues. A degree of social isolation seems almost a prerequisite for PhD study. Sharing ideas, celebrating successes and navigating challenges are the other piece of the experience less suited to the whims of my new social life in front of my computer screen.
My conference travel plans, including giving two papers within Australia and two in Europe, have abruptly changed. Only one of the conferences has elected to progress virtually. In attending these conferences, my hope – beyond getting feedback on work to date – was to build my international research network. Reaching into the social media space is my Plan B for overcoming these missed opportunities.
I have found the quieter pace of life, working from home, extremely conducive to the reading and writing processes of higher education studies, allowing more extended time for critical and analytical thinking. Scheduling my day more deliberately has helped to keep me focused and on track for achieving my goals. Fortunately, the distractions of doing the laundry and watering the garden, checking the fridge for snacks, and doing some online yoga classes to combat the effects of eating snacks, help me remember to ‘come home’ from work, as well and maintain work/life balance.
Author Bio: Susan Gasson is a PhD candidate at QUT, completing a narrative inquiry into Early Career Researcher Pathways.