What can we expect in the next phase of the pandemic?


So, we made it to the end of the year!

We’re coming up to the third anniversary of the first death from Covid (January 11th 2020, in case you were wondering). I don’t know about you, but this year of the pandemic has felt more exhausting than the others. Perhaps it’s because there’s been a lot of pressure to be ‘back to normal’. In reality, the pandemic rages on… I had my first bout with covid in mid November. The so called ‘mild’ version knocked me right on my ass and resulted in a whole month off work.

A lot has changed over the last three pandemic filled years, so I thought I’d do a bit of crystal ball gazing and turn my attention to the future. But before I do though, a heartfelt THANK YOU to everyone who filled in the reader survey I put in my last post. 952 people completed the 2 minute survey and left over 800 comments. The answers you gave are going to be very helpful for my site rebuild and I got a bit teary reading through the many lovely, affirming comments. Thesis whisperer readers are the best! If you haven’t had time to fill in the survey, I’d still like to hear from you here. I’ll keep it open until the end of January.

To be honest, until I saw the results of the survey I was wondering if it was time to quit blogging. Everyone keeps telling me ‘blogs are over’, but your feedback convinced me that there was still appetite out there for new Thesis Whisperer words. So I will keep going with my monthly publishing schedule. You will see changes to the site over the next year as I slowly invest in building a more sustainable, user-friendly and searchable format.

Speaking of changes, here’s a couple of thoughts, in no particular order, of where academia is heading in this next phase of the pandemic:

Academic job numbers will continue to bounce back – but the jobs will probably be shittier.

In June we did another annual report using our PostAc algorithm to measure the health of the research job market. Here’s the trend graph for academic and non-academic research jobs in Australia:

You can see that demand is trending above the pre-pandemic base line in both markets. But a closer reading of the job ads themselves shows many academic jobs are on limited time contracts and offered at lower levels, suggesting that universities are very tentatively refreshing their workforces. We have data for New Zealand and for the UK, which shows similar trends in all three markets.

The good news is that there continues to be strong demand outside of academia and the trend towards remote work is still strong. PhD holders should be in a strong position next year, and hopefully the market will hold up even if economic conditions become more shaky. If you’re looking for a postdoc in the next year, remember that some discipline areas have much stronger demand than others. If you want to see a more detailed analysis, check out the slide deck here.

A new generation of research tools will continue to change the way we work – and how our students study.

Forms of social graph analysis are being built into some of the key tools for academic work. I’ve watched with interest the rise in network-style literature searching tools like Connected Papers and Research Rabbit which I think are a quiet revolution in the way we discover and analyse literature. If you haven’t played with either of them, check them out.

I’m also really excited by network style personal databases like Obsidian, Roam research and Notion. Obsidian is the one I am using and recommend because it’s really great and free for students. Check out this video from a 5th year PhD student for some ideas about how to get started in Obsidian. I’ve been playing with Obsidian Publish as a new way to present Thesis Whisperer material, so stay tuned!

On the (maybe?) darker side, I’m also fascinated with the rise of generative AI technology. We’ve had large language models like GPT-3 around for a while, as well as AI art generators like DALL.E-2.  Recently, Meta had a bit of egg on their face after their new AI for producing scientific papers, Galactica, immediately started producing racist nonsense and had to be shut down. However, it would be wrong to dismiss the transformative effects of AI on our work – it looks like GPT-3 inspired language models could make the university essay obsolete very soon. Might be time to review your assessment strategies…

For a bit of fun, please enjoy this AI advent calendar 🙂

New – and more fractured – social networks

Sadly, I am no longer ‘present’ on Twitter. The take over by Elon Musk is taking it nowhere good. While @thesiswhisperer Twitter account will remain to distribute links to new content, I have moved conversations with readers and listeners to Mastodon. You can find me at aus.social/thesiswhisperer . Tune into our latest On The Reg podcast for a description of Mastodon if you are interested in joining, but confused. In the discussion guide I published with the podcast I have included a bit of an explainer about Mastodon. There are servers for different academic disciplines emerging. Inside Higher Ed is arguing that Mastodon has captured #academictwitter and I think they might be right for now, but it remains to be seen what happens long term. Once you’ve made an account, you can use a tool like Movetodon to re-follow people who have migrated there already.

I’m upset about Twitter and wrote about what I think will happen there in this Twitter thread. I will have to completely renovate my social media course as this change is huge. Nothing else works in quite the same way as Twitter for research dissemination, particularly for direct contact with journalists and politicians. I’m watching the new Post.news site with interest as I suspect the centre of gravity will end up being wherever journalists go.

Covid will continue to affect learning and teaching

Look, the pandemic is not over – you can’t wish away a virus. I read the articles about new vaccines and the slowing of new virus variants with hope in my heart, but realistically we need to keep building pandemic resilience. This takes the form of lobbying our universities for better air standards in classrooms and mask mandates at peak periods. We also need to look at the way we are teaching. Many are fatigued with online learning (I know I am), but we need to keep it in the mix as an option.

As a manager, I still have to make plans for unexpected staff absences, including my own (sadly, I had to cancel our first face to face bootcamp this weekend as I am still too unwell). At ANU, we have invested in new technology that will enable us to run classes in blended mode. Our new OWL is a sophisticated webcam and area mic set up powered with face recognition AI, which enables people to be seen and heard in the room and online. While we plan to go back face to face teaching and learning, I hope our OWL will enable people can zoom in if they are unwell or worried about catching the latest variant.

I hope the end of year period is peaceful and restful and I’ll see you back here on the first Wednesday of the new year