It’s been more than two years since the start of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic and more than one year since vaccines have become widely available in the United States. Many research institutions are behaving as if the pandemic is behind us. But, advisors and mentors: have you checked on your trainees? Students and early career researchers have been among those most impacted by the pandemic in the scientific community.
The effects of two years of disruptions on academic research teams will be felt far into the future. Some of these disruptions have been more obvious, like social distancing measures in labs, virtual platforms to host meetings, and changes in mentor-mentee interactions (Speer, Lyon, & Johnson, 2021). But students and early career researchers have also dealt with fewer opportunities for professional development, barriers to degree completion, and changes to their research projects (Coté, 2022; Swanson et al., 2022). For students, these changes have the potential to impact their exploration of scientific careers and preparation for graduate school. For postdoctoral researchers, the pandemic may interrupt technical and social training needed for advancement to the next career stage. Thus, in the coming year, we recommend that principal investigators and mentors of all stripes familiarize themselves with how their trainees are doing beyond the progress they’ve made on a project.
Before the pandemic hit, undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences had more opportunities to explore, socialize, and experiment with different possible career pathways. First- and second-year undergraduate students may ordinarily explore several academic disciplines before focusing on one. Increasingly, many of these students will complete internships, engage in faculty research, and participate in career development activities, both in and out of the sciences. Even students who begin their undergraduate degree programs “convinced” of their commitment to the sciences may explore different professions and post-graduation plans, such as graduate school, medical school, or certificate programs.
In various ways, pandemic restrictions have interrupted extracurricular activities that allow students to test out various career options while simultaneously creating financial stress and issues related to physical and mental health for many (Coté, 2022; Swanson et al., 2022). We have met undergraduate researchers at our own institutions who concurrently enrolled in multiple internships on top of their lab work in an effort to make up for “lost time.” Some undergraduates believe they will be less competitive for graduate school admissions because of canceled internships and courses, while some are less likely to apply to graduate school due to pandemic-related changes and stressors (Coté, 2022). Mentors should thus be aware that undergraduate students starting in labs in the fall may be experiencing more stress and uncertainty than they would have before the pandemic.
Just as exploration of academic interests and careers during the undergraduate years has been disrupted during the pandemic, so too has exploration of scientific interests during the start of graduate school. Lab rotations have been delayed and shortened, and many have occurred in facilities with occupancy limits or remote work requirements. Under these conditions, it was difficult for graduate students to fully understand what it would be like to work in a particular lab group. In some cases, we have seen students respond to these limitations by “playing it safe” with their rotation lab selections, opting to rotate in labs they are familiar with, rather than trying something completely new. This is an equity issue, however, because Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and Native American students generally have less access to mentors, social support, and professional development than their peers (Estrada et al., 2018; Rainey et al., 2019). In other words, students from groups who have been historically excluded from scientific careers are especially well-served by meaningful interactions with multiple groups during their lab rotations.
Considering these changes, mentors should expect that some graduate students will continue exploring different topics and methodologies well after settling on their thesis or dissertation project, a time when students typically hone their focus on a narrow research area. Every academic undertaking is a progression that builds on itself, so it should be no surprise that these past two years of disruptions due to the pandemic will have lingering effects on trainees’ self-discovery and development as scientists.
One of the most salient impacts of the pandemic on training relates to limitations on physical access to lab spaces. Most institutions had some level of reduced occupancy requirements during the pandemic, which led research groups to renegotiate how group members could use their (now) limited time in shared facilities. In some cases, undergraduate and early graduate student access was deemed a lower priority than access for more senior-level group members whose projects were more well-established. Although this prioritization may have helped to move research programs forward, it also limited training for students who had no option to learn technical skills remotely. Meanwhile, in the classroom, many lab-based courses were canceled and replaced by different courses entirely. For example, one of the authors enrolled in a microbiology lab course as an undergraduate, only to have it canceled and replaced by a guided review of microbiology research literature – eliminating the opportunity for hands-on lab experience completely. Beyond this, students in the life sciences whose in-person courses were replaced with remote courses struggled to understand course material and feel like members of the campus community (Supriya et al., 2021). Mentors should be aware of the ripple effects of limited in-person access to training on current undergraduates and early-year graduate students, whose at-the-bench training was altered or missing altogether. They may notice that their trainees do not have experience with common techniques and methods, making it more important than ever to have open conversations with trainees about their previous experiences, and guide them with patience and empathy.
Beyond learning discipline-specific techniques and methods, the pandemic has shifted how trainees have opportunities to integrate themselves into the scientific community. For example, one author used to spend a great deal of time on campus gathering with faculty, graduate students, and/or undergraduate mentees to brainstorm ideas and work on projects. Now their group meetings are smaller and are often canceled due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic and its impacts on personal lives. Remote work can make it harder to forge relationships with potential or current advisors and other faculty members. As a result of the pandemic, advisors and mentors may find that their students are less familiar with the members of their dissertation committees and other departmental faculty. Those graduate students who require access to campus facilities to collect data for their thesis or dissertation research may have less data and less familiarity with their project when defending their proposed research in preliminary exams or committee meetings. Especially when faced with advisors or mentors who are not empathetic to their concerns, these obstacles have led some graduate students to question their desire to complete their program and/or continue working in science (Coté, 2022; Swanson et al., 2022). Again, these relatively short-term impacts on the way academic teams work are likely to have long-term implications on how trainees experience programs, jobs, internships, conferences, and other opportunities to interact with the larger professional community.
The 2022-2023 school year might prove to be the most “normal” year we’ve had since the pandemic began. Despite the relief this might bring, we ask that you engage your team in conversations about how their personal and professional lives may still be impacted. Even when your team gets “back to normal,” please consider what your students and early career researchers may have been experiencing these past few years. In the face of so many changes and obstacles since the pandemic began, your support can make a difference in the lives of your trainees.
Coté, L.E. (2022). Impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community in the United States: findings from a national survey [Manuscript in preparation]. University of California, Berkeley.
Estrada, M., Eroy-Reveles, A., & Matsui, J. (2018). The influence of affirming kindness and community on broadening participation in STEM career pathways. Social issues and policy review, 12(1), 258.
Rainey, K., Dancy, M., Mickelson, R., Stearns, E., & Moller, S. (2019). A descriptive study of race and gender differences in how instructional style and perceived professor care influence decisions to major in STEM. International Journal of STEM Education, 6(1), 1-13.
Speer, J. E., Lyon, M., & Johnson, J. (2021). Gains and Losses in Virtual Mentorship: A Descriptive Case Study of Undergraduate Mentees and Graduate Mentors in STEM Research during the COVID-19 Pandemic. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20(2), ar14.
Swanson, H. L., Pierre‐Louis, C., Monjaras‐Gaytan, L. Y., Zinter, K. E., McGarity‐Palmer, R., & Clark Withington, M. H. (2022). Graduate student workload: Pandemic challenges and recommendations for accommodations. Journal of Community Psychology, 50(5), 2225-2242.
Supriya, K., Mead, C., Anbar, A. D., Caulkins, J. L., Collins, J. P., Cooper, K. M., … & Brownell, S. E. (2021). Undergraduate Biology Students Received Higher Grades During COVID-19 but Perceived Negative Effects on Learning. In Frontiers in Education (p. 428). Frontiers.
About the Author:
Ross Pedersen (Twitter: @RossTAPedersen) Is a postdoctoral fellow in Yixian Zheng’s lab in the Department of Embryology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore, Maryland, where his research aims to elucidate the pathway governing nuclear lamin assembly following mitosis.
Aaron Valentine (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a master's student at the Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Pathology.
Laleh Coté (LECote@lbl.gov) is a trained biologist who now works as an educational research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where she conducts research on STEM education and has developed mentor training curricula.