Coronavirus diaries: a lockdown letter to myself as a PhD student

Nature
Open notebook with a sketch of a basketball and hoop

Credit: Adapted from Getty

One thing’s for certain: thanks to Coronavirus Lockdown, I have less time to spend on work now than I did six months ago. Once the ‘essential’ meetings are done for the day, there is very limited time to do the research part of my job.

But even that limited time has trickled away. This is reflected in the list I wrote a few weeks ago about what I had done during lockdown — there was a lot of not-work on there. The truth is, I have found it extremely difficult to get anything major done. I have not submitted a paper or written a grant application. It’s not for lack of desire. It’s just difficult at the moment to know what to prioritize.

Even without COVID-19, it isn’t always clear what should be your top priority as a scientist working at a university. I am envious of my son, who has had a great strategy. At the start of the lockdown, when it became clear he would be away from his usual routine, I thought he should learn things that might help him to get a job: touch typing, coding, speaking French. This was clearly optimistic-verging-on-ridiculous. He’s 12 and doesn’t need a job (just yet). He sensibly ignored me and focused on things that would make him cooler: he can now juggle, ride a bike with no hands and throw a playing card into an apple, but he can’t yet moonwalk (or beat me at basketball — although this could be at least partly due to my height advantage). He has inspired me to consider what really important things I need to master.

Hindsight is sometimes helpful, and I find myself wondering what I would have told myself to learn during lockdown, at different stages of my career. Of course, the main thing any of us should really be doing is looking after ourselves and each other, but once you’re comfortable and ready to turn your attention to work, perhaps this might help.

I would advise my PhD-student self that the key thing I need to learn is how to do science. This would cover:

The practical skills required to operate in a lab. In my case, that would be filling in the gaps that arose from not really paying attention in undergraduate labs.

The core knowledge associated with my subject. However, having changed fields between my PhD and postdoc, learning where to find information would be more helpful than learning the information itself.

How to think and act as a scientist. It’s useful to spend time learning the scientific method: how to read papers properly, how to think critically and how to do statistics. These tools can be applied in academia, but also across a range of scientific jobs.

Paths vary widely after earning a PhD. As a postdoc, I was focused on becoming a principal investigator so that I could run my own lab. I would advise myself at that career stage to:

Concentrate on my academic CV and how it can make me as employable as possible. Like it or not, this is mostly about getting papers published.

Learn the skills necessary to run a group. There is a lot more to this than having papers, and a lot of it involves working with other people.

Pick one area to work on. I am a magpie — I find all kinds of science interesting. This has stopped me getting bored, but it has potentially made it harder to find a funding niche.

My goal-focused approach as a postdoc was successful: I did become a principal investigator. But now that I am one, I am a bit unclear about how to direct the time I do have. It doesn’t help that I no longer have a specific target. And I don’t have a future me to advise current me on what I should (and shouldn’t) do!

One of the most common pieces of advice that scientists receive from each other is to ‘get grants, publish papers’ — but this doesn’t really give a direction, just a lengthening list of opportunities missed. It also contributes to some of what is wrong in academia, where the focus on the trappings of research — the grants and papers — gets in the way of the progress of research. This is driven by an imperfect reward system that sometimes warps individual priorities.

Maybe I should listen more to the people who say, “Simply do the best science you can and things will be OK.” I’d previously disagreed with this on the practical grounds that if you don’t have a career, it is pretty hard to do any science. But perhaps what’s meant is that your focus shouldn’t just be on keeping the job or seeking a promotion, but on doing the best you can in that job — whether you aim to thrive or to survive.

I’m afraid I don’t really have the answer. Maybe another month or so will give me the head space to work out the secret of the academy. Then again, I might be too busy playing basketball with my son, while I can still beat him.

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