Some ECR responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

Susan Gasson is a PhD candidate at QUT, completing a narrative inquiry into Early Career Researcher Pathways. She is also a Senior Lecturer at JCU, with the role of Advisor Development in their Graduate Research School. Her research interests are in the areas of Higher Education and Communication.

In the midst of gathering data for her PhD study on Early Career Researcher Pathways, the pandemic came. As a narrative inquiry researcher she was collecting stories, from eight Early Career Researcher participants, to increase understanding of becoming, and being, an Early Career Researcher. The need to account for the pandemic emerged during data collection for the broader study and led to a variation to her Ethics application and additional conversations with participants.

Susan welcomes conversations about Early Career Researcher employability and the influence of the PhD (susan.gasson@hdr.qut.edu.au). She is keen to collaborate via zoom or skype if you are open to discussions about collecting data or datasets in this area from other countries and disciplines, as well as co-authorship of publications and grants. Her ORCID is 0000-0003-2058-3074.


Chameleon | Photo by Ante Hamersmit | unsplash.com

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.

5 comments

  1. It might also be useful to collect ECR responses as to if they received relevant training in online working and how useful that was for COVID-19. As an example, did PhDs who had been trained in how to teach online find it easier to do so, and did this carry over to general working online? Did those who had received formal training in online team-based project work, find this easier? While PhDs might have some general advantage in approaching online work, I suggest that specific training in the skills for working and teaching online would be more useful. This is something I suggest all degree programs which aim to produce professionals, undergraduate and postgraduate, should include. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/search/label/professional%20doctorate

    Like

    • Hi Tom, Many thanks for providing this feedback, great point. I actually did ask questions about teaching online and professional development during candidature with some participants. An interesting response was that yes, they knew how to use online tools and had varying experiences of online learning. But, COVID-19 meant it all got “serious” very quickly and the intensity of the use of tools, and the reality of having no option but to use those tools, made for entirely new and for many more intense experiences. Inger’s point, as always, is a good one. What I have seen also is the value of aspects of becoming a researcher that also inform the transferrable skills story. Best wishes, Susan

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      • Susan, I remain unconvinced by the transferrable skills story. If someone is going to be teaching, they need to be trained and tested to ensure they know how to do it. A researcher may well pick up some skills along the way which would help with this. However, much of what they have picked up is likely to be at best irrelevant, and may well hinder, rather than help with teaching. Like many, I first tried to replicate face to face lectures and paper based exams online. But after being trained, reading the education literature, and actually being an online student, I realized this is about the worst way to do it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s not directly connected to COVID, but one of the things I find very difficult is the assumption that all ECRs are young people, straight from school to university, with no life experience and no family commitments. This assumption holds for less than 10% of the PhD students at my university – most of us have chosen to take a PhD later in life to retrain as a researcher or academic.

    As and when we graduate we will also face significantly different challenges than our fresh-faced colleagues. While we may have a better idea of how to write a resumé or CV, and may have other skills to bring to a role, we also face age discrimination and general distrust.

    In specific relation to the COVID pandemic, many of this group of people, though early in their research careers, may be late enough in life to be considered very vulnerable, and may not be able to participate in person, even when restrictions are reduced for the more robust of us.

    Please don’t lose sight of this in your research!

    Like

    • Thank you. Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. The term early career researcher fails to acknowledge the vast breadth of expertise and talent many bring to the role. Delightfully they are represented in my participant group and will undoubtedly add richness to my findings.

      Liked by 1 person

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