During the unprecedented time of the coronavirus pandemic, people around the world in many industries are working from home for the first time. For many, working from home means not only a change in the environment but a change in the type of work that can be done. Researchers can no longer go into the lab, even to finish experiments that were interrupted when sudden shutdown orders halted their progress. “Writing is really important right now,” said Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry Editor-in-Chief Joseph Loo. “Now I don’t have to convince a student to write a paper!”
Advice for Students
“Because you have more time, you can work on manuscripts more effectively,” said Organic Letters Editor-in-Chief Erick Carreira. “When time in the lab is absent, I’ve written manuscripts that I meant to that have fallen by the wayside. On a group of 3 to 4 students, on a zoom call, we go line by line.”
For younger researchers who typically spend most of their time in the lab, Carreira advises that they use this time to plan for the future. “This is a great time to read, think, plan out what you want your independent career to look like. What are the questions you’re going to ask, the stories you’re going to write?”
Some younger scientists were in the midst of finishing final research and writing their dissertations when lockdowns began, and now face new challenges as they balance the demands of home and family life with the pressure to finish their theses. For Lottie Ayres, who is completing her Ph.D. at Durham University, the biggest challenge is finding time to sit at her computer and think. “I’ve found myself writing at 2:00 AM because the house is silent,” she said. “[The thesis] is taking a lot longer, and I’m tripling or quadrupling the timelines. For me, it depends on child care.”
Molecular Pharmaceutics Editor-in-Chief Lynne S. Taylor, advises her research group to create goals that are SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-framed. She says it’s important to estimate the time commitment for each goal and to anticipate the factors, both psychological and external, that may keep you from working well.
“It’s particularly hard for lab-based researchers, who are making the transition to focusing on writing. Writing is something that most people find really hard to do, so I wanted to give them some tools to make it not so overwhelming.”
Advice for Collaborating Remotely
As her group members need direction and Taylor is working from home with family, she’s designed systems to keep her research group members accountable to each other for their productivity. Partnering up researchers to discuss progress toward their goals is an innovative and effective method for keeping their work on track.
So much scientific research is based on group work, both in the lab and during the writing process. Remote work brings its own unique challenges to scientific collaboration. “You can’t underestimate the human element,” said Carreira. “The motivation you get from talking to someone else, the nonverbal cues, and looking at people’s reactions is so important.” Bioconjugate Chemistry Editor-in-Chief Vincent M. Rotello, similarly stressed the importance of teamwork. “I still have office hours on Zoom. I leave the time open and let people join if they want. Normally when I’m at work I’ll wander into the lab every once in a while, and just talk. That’s what I want to do here.”
Collaborating with others will turn out to be just as important as shutdowns lift and labs reopen. As restrictions ease gradually, many researchers expect that limited access to the lab will continue for the first several weeks they’re open. On her students’ time in labs, explained ACS Applied Polymer Materials Deputy Editor Jodie Lutkenhaus. “Their time in lab is cut probably fifty percent, but that’s not too bad because everyone’s going to learn time management really well. And they can help each other. It forces people to work in teams more than before.”
Advice for Maintaining Work-Life Balance at Home
Another problem for many researchers may be finding a form of work-life balance now that there is no physical separation between work and home space. “As academics, we love what we do anyway, so it’s pretty easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole,” said Crystal Growth & Design Editor-in-Chief Jonathan W. Steed.
With the shift to working from home, regular routines were upended. That’s why it’s important to try to build a schedule into your days. Waking at the same time, scheduled mealtimes, and having the same structure as before the pandemic all help in keeping healthy routines. “I still try to schedule the day. I actually write down a list of things I need to do,” said Carreira.
“To allow myself to be creative, I try to avoid scheduling any meetings in the mornings. I’ve been trying to spend the mornings reading literature and working on manuscripts and moving forward the research work,” said Taylor.
Sharing your space with family or roommates who are also working from home can bring its own challenges. As much as possible, create a designated workspace in your home that is separate from where you spend your non-work time. Having events to look forward to can also help to break up the monotony of the days. “The only way to help break things up is to schedule nonwork activities somehow,” said Loo. “A bunch of academic friends have a virtual cocktail hour every week, and trade notes versus what our schools are doing.”
Being aware that these are extraordinary times and it’s essential that we temper our expectations for productivity is also important. “Be kind to yourself,” advises Taylor. “Efficiency is hard at the moment, and there’s a lot of mental distractions going on.”