Talking about lockdown and COVID-19

A woman writing on post-it notes stuck on the window of her apartment
Photo by on Unsplash

Around the world, lots of researchers are currently at home, during a crisis, trying to work (as Parks Canada management so aptly said). The Australian Research Council, along with many other funding agencies, have released guidelines on responding to the impact of COVID-19 in grant applications (here is a UK version – 104 Kb PDF). I’d like to expand on their advice.

At some point in the future, you are probably going to want to describe how COVID-19 affected you in a grant, job, or promotion application. While we are all in this together, your capacity to get work done will vary tremendously, depending on how you, your government and your university have responded to this crisis. Your grant application will be read by someone from a different university, in a different State (or even a different country), with a completely different experience of this crisis. They will be empathetic, but their experience of the crisis will be different to yours. You need to help them understand what you went through, so that they can compare your application to others. You want to try to level the playing field.

What happened?

To describe what happened, you need to know exactly what happened. You need facts. What restrictions did your government implement and when? On what date did your university close down? When did it open up again? On what date did your kids’ schools close down? When did your kids go back to school? These things will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and those details will disappear from websites as countries recover. I think that university administrators could help by preparing a fact sheet for their university that lists these facts.

You want to be able to say something like “In response to government restrictions, my University closed access to campus from Monday 23 March 2020. I have not had access since.” This is a statement of fact, and will provide your reader with much more information than “My ability to undertake research has been impacted by COVID-19.”

It is important to be able to express these statements in terms that your reviewers will be able to understand and compare. While it may be technically correct to say that you have not had access to campus for 203 days, I think that it will be easier for a reviewer to understand and compare that interregnum if you express it as “6 and a half months”. This is particularly important for things that have happened sporadically, like kids being home from school. While you could say “My children were home between 24 March and 1 May 2020, and then again between 8 June and 10 September 2020”, it is probably going to be easier for the reader to understand if you say something like, “My children were attending school from home for four and a half months during this period”.

What happened to you and your household? 

You also need to understand and express your own personal circumstances. Nobody can do that but you. Some of this will be statements of fact. Some of it will be statements describing the effects of those facts. For example, “All schools closed on Tuesday 24 March 2020” is a statement of fact, as is “I am the primary carer for two children, aged 6 and 8.” Both those statements are clear, but they don’t convey impact. You can convey impact with a statement like, “While the eight year old adapted well to online lessons, I have needed to spend approximately four hours per day helping my six year old with their schooling.” PS: Try not to blame your kids – it isn’t their fault. Some of the advice in Kids in bids might be helpful in this context. The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women academics as primary carers and you can draw on some of the published data for evidence of this.

In addition, you need to make your professional situation clear. “I moved all my teaching online” is a fact, but it doesn’t help the reviewer understand how your situation varied from anyone else. A much stronger statement is: “I taught face to face on Thursday 12 March 2020. By Wednesday 18 March, I had no students on campus and one week later I was full-time at home and teaching remotely.” This can then by buttressed by describing how many classes and how many students you teach. You might also want to describe the effects of remote teaching on your students. For example, “Teaching remotely has been difficult for both me and most of my students. I am now spending approximately four hours per week consulting with students, which is double what would normally happen face to face.”

Because this is a research application, you need to describe the effect on your research life. This will vary dramatically according to your research methods. I have spoken to people who have had to kill off the insects and animals they had so carefully cultivated and nurtured, and others who have not been able to undertake fieldwork or laboratory experiments. Some people have experienced setbacks because they are not able to access books, or have not been able to access studios. Almost everybody has found that talking to colleagues via phone and laptop does not facilitate the same free flow of ideas as talking face-to-face in front of a whiteboard or over a coffee. Finding ways to express this, as clearly as possible, is important.

Some things are harder to express than others. It might be possible to say something like “In the past five years, I’ve submitted, on average, three journal articles per year. This year, I have only submitted one.” You might be able to describe how your plans have been disrupted, particularly for international travel or fieldwork. “I was due to present at Important Conference 2020 in June. The online presentation was well received, but I missed the opportunity to discuss these ideas face to face with colleagues from around the world”.

For a lot of people, there might be some good news, too. Some aspects of your research may have benefited during this period. If you’ve been able to do more work on theory, or finish off some papers, then that might help people to understand what research work you were able to do during this time. However, keep in mind the importance of the work to your overall research. Being able to say “I’ve tidied up all my references in Zotero” is probably not going to help much. On the other hand, saying that “I’ve continued to contribute to academic society by reviewing five journal articles” might be helpful for people to understand what you could actually do during this time, and what part of your research you were able to put energy into.

What were your priorities?

Beyond what the legal situation was, and how that impacted your working life, I think that it is OK to talk about where you put your priorities at this time. In terms of how you reacted to the pandemic, what choices did you make?

I think that it is important to say that you spent time taking care of yourself and your family, your students, your post-grads or post-docs. There might have been urgent requirements from work that needed to be addressed. Each person will have made different choices, based on their own capacity and their own ability to respond. (The No academic assholes rule comes into play here). Finding ways to talk about those choices may be difficult, but it may also be important to put everything into perspective.

This crisis has literally bought our working life and our home life into collision. Handling that clash has been difficult. As Isis the Scientist has written:

“On a normal day, I put on my little professional outfit, go to work, and teach. Then I come home to the private space that is mine. It’s personal and it’s safe. My family is here. My stuff that I like is here. I didn’t agree when I took this job to let my students and colleagues in here.”

In dealing with that collision, we’ve had to make personal choices. I think that, during this time, each of us has shifted our priorities, even if we may not have realised it. Sarah Hayes has written very beautifully about how she set clear priorities for her work and her life after becoming a mum. Some of that advice might be helpful at this time.

You might have listed the facts and describe their effects, but it all doesn’t quite add up until you add a statement like this:

“My post-graduate students were really suffering during this time, and I spent a lot more time than normal working with them. In particular, it was difficult for new students to understand the requirements of PhD confirmation when they had never mixed with other students”.

This also provides a way to discuss your own mental health at this time. We have all had to cope with the fear that goes with this pandemic, that sits over our heads, constantly distracting us. How each of us has reacted to this situation will differ. Some people have powered on while others have really suffered. Often it has been uneven. By talking about what our priorities were during this time, we can talk about what we needed to do to take care of ourselves, our families, our students and our work.

Once you’ve done all this, you’ll have quite a long statement, I think. You may need to crunch it down to fit into some applications. You may need to vary it, according to the requirements of the application and the purpose of the application. Over time, the importance of this statement will reduce, as the effects of this particular crisis fade (I hope). However, I think that we will be talking about this for some time to come, so I think that it is important to capture this evidence while it is fresh.

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