Friday, March 20, 2020

(Experimentalist) grad students + postdocs in the time of covid-19

As I write this, a very large fraction of the research universities in the US (and much of the world) are either in a shutdown mode or getting there rapidly.  On-campus work is being limited to "essential" operations.  At my institution (and most of the ones I know about), "essential" means (i) research directly related to diagnosing/treating/understanding covid-19; (ii) minimal efforts necessary to keep experimental animals and cell lines going, as the alternative would be years or decades of lost work; (iii) maintenance of critical equipment that will be damaged otherwise; (iv) support for undergraduates unable to get home.

For people in some disciplines, this may not be that disruptive, but for experimentalists (or field researchers), this is an enormous, unplanned break in practice.  Graduate students face uncertainty (even more than usual), and postdocs doubly so (and I haven't seen anything online discussing their situation.  An eight week hitch in the course of a six year PhD is frustrating, but in a limited-duration postdoc opportunity, it's disproportionately worse.  The economics faced by universities and industry will also complicate the job market for a while.), and are often far from their families.

If we'd experienced something like this before, I could offer time-worn wisdom, but we've never had circumstances like this in the modern (post-WWII) research era.  This whole situation feels surreal to me.  Frankly, focusing and concentrating on science and the routine parts of the job have been a challenge, and I figure it has to be worse for people not as ancient established.  Here are a few thoughts, suggestions, and links as we move to get through this:

  • While we may be physically socially distancing, please talk with your friends, family, and colleagues, by phone, skype, zoom, slack, wechat, whatever.  Try not to get sucked into the cycle of breaking news and the toxic parts of social media.  Please take advantage of your support structure, and if you need to talk to someone professional, please reach out.  We're in this together - you don't have to face everything by yourself.
  • Trying to set up some kind of routine and sticking to it is good.  Faculty I know are trying to come up with ways to keep their folks intellectually engaged - regular group meetings + presentations by zoom; scheduled seminars and discussions via similar video methods across research groups and in some cases even across different universities.  For beginning students, this is a great time to read (really read) the literature and depending on your program, study for your candidacy/qualifier.  Again, you don't have to do this alone; you can team up with partners on this.  For students farther along, data analysis, paper writing, planning the next phase of your research, starting to work on the actual thesis writing, etc. are all possibilities.  For postdocs interested in academia, this is potentially a time to comb the literature and think about what you would like to do as a research program.  Some kind of schedule or plan is the way to divide this into manageable pieces instead of feeling like these are gigantic tasks. 
  • The Virtual March Meeting has continued to add talks.
  • My friend Steve Simon's solid state course lectures are all available.  They go with his book.  They are also just one example of the variety of talks available from Oxford - here are the other physics ones.
  • Here is a set of short pieces about topology in condensed matter from a few years ago.
  • And here is a KITP workshop on this topic from this past fall.
  • These are some very nice lecture notes about scientific computing using python.  Here is something more in-depth on github.  Could be a good time to learn this stuff....
  • On the lighter side, here are both PhD Comics movies for free streaming.
Feel free to leave more suggestions and links in the comments.  I'm sure we could all use them.  Stay safe.

1 comment:

Josué L. said...

I really appreciate you acknowledging how hard it may be to have a normal scientific routine. And for trying to establish some framework to how we should use our time away from the lab. I for one am now being forced to actually learn some theory and do some real rigourous simulation work since all my experiments stopped (at unfortunately the wrong time... when everything was working!!!).