Staying productive when the pandemic stalls your research

Dear Labby,

I started my third year in graduate school this fall, and I am starting to get desperate and depressed. No one in my lab (or others on campus) has been able to work full time, full speed since March. Yes, the pandemic requires our adjustment in space and time to preserve everyone’s health and the overall safety of those around us. But my progress has slowed to a crawl after a strong and productive start. How do I make up for lost time while I am losing more and more time and motivation each week? I have a genuine fear that I will not be considered qualified to be a productive researcher and scholar in either academia or industry, even if I eventually am awarded a PhD! Help!

Panicked Doctoral Student

Dear Panicked,

While none of us has a magic wand to make the last 12 months disappear, vaccinehelp is on the way. But now let’s talk about “in the meantime,” as the frustration over the slow pace of research is real. Labby acknowledges—and surely your graduate program and thesis advisor acknowledge—that all of this is beyond your control and theirs.

Your go-for-it attitude will serve you well, as you clearly know how to take initiative. First, do stay in strong communication with your PhD advisor and your lab members. Presumably you are having weekly virtual group meetings at which each of you presents your work and new ideas about plans for what you will do next. The feedback you give and get is certainly akin to what you would receive at in-person group meetings. Following up on their suggestions with co-labbers, your advisor, and members of other research groups is critical, just as it would be if you were meeting in person more often.

Be sure to attend virtual meetings, and even present a poster or a platform talk. Societies large and small will be conducting these meetings through at least the first part of 2021. One disadvantage of this type of meeting is the inability to easily network with new people over a cup of coffee. But one major advantage of this type of meeting is that scientists from many more institutions can attend virtually than are normally able to attend in person. And you can set up virtual coffee time with any of them via the electronic tools typically available.

Take advantage of downtime in the lab to do some professional development, again, virtually. There are a myriad of both technical and professional skills workshop webinars, many of them free and of high quality. They are offered by companies, academic institutions, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, scientific societies, and Learn a new technique, or how to evaluate one. Learn about curriculum vitae preparation, paper writing, seminar and poster presentations, how to prepare informative figures, and much more. You may want to take this time to do an individual development plan or to explore career alternatives that would be a good match for you (see

Use your “extra” time to write. Start writing the introductory chapter of your thesis. This literature review will serve you well when you finally begin the formal assembly of that thesis. Thinking about the context of your work within the larger literature now will also generate fresh ideas for you to follow. Consider writing a review paper with your advisor. Start (or finish) work on that paper you will publish in the peer-reviewed literature shortly after you can put more concerted time into your experiments. Outlining that paper, and allowing colleagues (including your PI) to critique it in preparation, will show you the holes you need to fill before submission.

And most important, take care of you. Eat healthy, sleep sufficiently, exercise and socialize (at the proper physical distance, masked) with friends and relatives. Give yourself some salutes as you navigate, and perhaps help others navigate, these months of a pandemic. All those in graduate education and hiring understand the current situation. Indeed the faculty are equally concerned for their careers for many of the same reasons. Labby encourages you in your own career. It will blossom more quickly than you anticipate.


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