Geohealth News

The Coronavirus Hurts Some of Science’s Most Vulnerable

Early-career researchers hang in the balance of coronavirus uncertainty.

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Daniel Gilford has studied climate science for nearly a decade, and after 2 years as a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University, he felt ready to take the next big career move: a faculty position.

Last fall, Gilford spent between 200 and 400 hours filling out applications, he said. The hard work paid off because he landed three in-person interviews in 2020, traveling to schools to spend 16-hour days teaching classes, giving lectures, and meeting with departments.

“In-person interviews are sort of the final stage of the academic job track,” Gilford said. “When you get to that stage, you’re usually a finalist in the top three.”

After the last interview, Gilford flew home in early March, just as the coronavirus was spreading in many communities. In the weeks that followed, the world changed drastically: Dozens of states imposed stay-at-home orders, and the economy screeched to a halt. “I heard that all three of the places I had had in-person interviews had frozen their hiring,” Gilford said. Soon after, two of the positions were canceled.

“To invest so much, and then basically be told not only are they not hiring me, they’re not hiring anyone,” Gilford said. The news was “pretty disappointing.”

The hiring cold snap is just one symptom of universities adjusting to a new economic reality during the pandemic.

Eos spoke with students and postdoctoral scholars in the United States about their experiences working during the coronavirus pandemic. Many expressed concerns about finding a job, accessing fieldwork or the lab, and the emotional toll of weathering the disaster.

Science “stands to lose out on several years’ worth of the best upcoming new minds,” said Bob Kopp, a professor and director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences in New Brunswick, N.J.

As Gilford’s supervisor, Kopp sees the challenges faced by early-career scientists. “We need a stimulus act that preserves the STEM workforce of this country,” Kopp said.

Hiring on Hold

Universities around the country are taking massive, unprecedented pay cuts: They’re losing tens of millions of dollars in room and board expenses, watching their public support from states and other funders dwindle, and eyeing shrinking endowments. To survive, schools are looking for any way to tighten their budgets.

As a result, many universities have imposed hiring freezes for the next 6 to 18 months. According to a crowdsourced list of hiring freezes by former tenured professor and career consultant Karen Kelsky, more than 350 universities around the world have halted hires. Some, like the University of Oregon, also froze offers for graduate assistantships.

Rutgers postdoc Gilford is thankful to have a job, an apartment, and good health for him and his family. “In that regard, I feel very lucky and blessed,” he said.

But Gilford said, in terms of his career, “it looks like for the next year I will possibly be in a holding pattern.”

“I thought this was the time that I would finally get to shift into sort of a more permanent position,” Gilford said. “I’ve been traveling with my family for almost a decade now.”

“It’s not the step that I wanted to be at this point in my career,” Gilford said. “Given the unknowns, it’s also possible that something new could come up.”

Locked Out of the Lab

Students looking to continue their research worry about completing their work and connecting with others.

Ph.D. student Emily Slesinger planned to spend the next year in her lab at Rutgers. Now she doesn’t know when she’ll be back.

As a fourth-year student, Slesinger works with eight undergraduates to extract lipids and analyze proteins from black sea bass. Her research investigates climate change’s impacts on fish, and she’d collected tissue samples from fieldwork in the first years of her Ph.D.

But now her work is on pause. “If I’m back in the lab over summer, I might be okay,” she said. “But if I can’t get back in the lab till the fall and end of fall, then I probably will definitely push back [her defense].”

It’s not clear when Rutgers, and many other schools, will allow researchers to work again.

Boston University recently announced that the school may not reopen until January 2021, given the logistical, health, and safety concerns of thousands of students flocking back to school. The university’s president said that those working in labs and research enterprises will be the first allowed back on campus.
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The day Slesinger cleaned and locked her lab for good, she posted a photo to Twitter, saying goodbye to her “dearest love,” the lab. Amid the uncertainty, Slesinger said, “the lab was sort of this safe haven.”

“I feel like sometimes when the rest of the things in my life are chaotic, lab work can kind of make me feel like I have a little bit of control,” Slesinger said. Shutting the doors “was difficult.”

A significant portion of science takes place outside of the lab as well. Master’s student Emily Iskin at Colorado State University said that canceling conferences could be particularly impactful on early-career researchers. Meetings put green scientists in the same room with “the people who’ve written the seminal papers,” said Iskin. In the past, she’s been “starstruck” presenting to “this person I’ve been reading all of their papers for the last year.”

The experience of directly interacting with established researchers is inspiring for early-career scientists, she said, and a ripe time for informal job hunting.

Lifeboat Through Troubled Waters

For many early-career researchers, their degrees and appointments are their lifelines to regular income and health care. That puts them at particular risk from institutional changes. As an article in Inside Higher Ed noted, universities rushed to give extensions to tenure clocks for nontenured faculty. Aid to graduate students and early-career researchers has been more dispersed and slower to come to light.

Although Ph.D. student Slesinger said she feels “really fortunate that I have a job and I’m still getting paid,” she wonders if graduate students will continue to receive annual incremental salary increases, a recently enacted policy at Rutgers.

Jacob Partida, an incoming Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology–Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program, wondered if he’d have access to health insurance over the summer if classes were canceled, tweeting he “might still be able to work on my advisors’ project as an employee, but might not get the student health care—at a time I might need it most.”
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Two weeks later, Partida said that the program announced remote summer classes for admitted students and that health care coverage should still be in effect. “As a student, I’ll have an income, health insurance, and something meaningful to focus on,” Partida said. “If things were any different, I can’t say I’d have any of those privileges.”

Some universities have extended students’ time to graduate: the University of California, Berkeley, prolonged all doctoral students’ normative time to graduation by one semester. A running list of extensions is also included in career consultant Kelsky’s crowdsourced list.

The Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington extended guaranteed support for students from 5 years to 6, said professor and chair of the department Eric Steig. Doing so was challenging, he said.

“We hope that we can actually afford that,” Steig said. “We will find a way to do it, but it’s a little bit of a risk.”

An Emotional Toll and a Call for Compassion

Weathering uncertainty in the job market and research opportunities leaves early-career researchers at risk of mental health challenges and burnout. Just like other professionals, early-career scientists may have caretaking obligations, difficult living situations, and additional teaching responsibilities.

Leonard Jones, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington in Seattle studying the population genetics of amphibians and reptiles, noticed that he now plays a new role for the undergraduate students he teaches: an interpreter of the news.

As an evolutionary biologist, students looked to him for pressing questions about the coronavirus. He fielded questions on exponential growth, the origins of coronavirus, and flattening the curve from his introductory biology students. “You have to put on a different type of teaching hat,” he said. Since the university went remote, Jones leads classes over Zoom from his living room before spending hours writing his dissertation. He said he’s “already experience substantial Zoom burnout.”

“We’re already in a vulnerable position as graduate students, but we’re also carrying the dual load of trying to focus on our dissertations,” Jones said. “Then a lot of us are trying to teach while doing that.”

While working remotely at home, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution postdoctoral scholar Vashan Wright also noted a loss of “ a physical sense of belonging” that “many early-career researchers need.”

“COVID seems to have taken away physical community and may exacerbate things like anxiety,” Wright said. “I think it’s clear that some early-career researchers have mental health issues, that are born out of the rigors and the pressure related to academia.”

Nadirah Farah Foley, a Ph.D. candidate in education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education that amending expectations may help early-career scientists weather the storm.

Adjusting the number of papers required to graduate or the fieldwork expected or relaxing the restrictions for coauthored work could give graduate students more leeway to finish their degrees. “I hope departments can begin a dialogue among faculty members and graduate students about how to adjust dissertation formats or requirements,” Foley wrote.

For those applying for jobs and funding, Wright hopes scientists can stay collaborative by sharing resources, helping one another, and diversifying the geosciences.

Faculty member Kopp agrees supervisors must temper expectations.  “A flowering of scientific creativity during this time period and making it seem to junior faculty, or early-career folks, that that is the expectation we’re setting is well intentioned, but potentially damaging.”

“People talk about Isaac Newton having his most productive year during the plague, but Isaac Newton was also an extreme introvert who never had a family,” Kopp added. “We need to be treating everyone, including ourselves, with compassion.”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), Staff Writer

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2020), The coronavirus hurts some of science’s most vulnerable, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO143564. Published on 29 April 2020.
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