While we await the new normal…


Dear Labby,

I am a sixth-year graduate student whose research was suddenly stopped by closure of the university due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although personally I have not been affected by it. I need at least six months of full-time work to complete my thesis. However, the university is still closed and I hear rumors that it will open on a shift basis, which will not allow me to complete my work. This will also impact my ability to apply for a postdoctoral position, so I am very worried about my future. What should I do?

Dear Anxious,

We are all in this unusual situation together, and as Labby writes these words in late May most of us don’t know when we will be able to reengage in full-time research, or what the future holds. Since this is a global tragedy; we will all make accommodations. This is what Labby tells students about how to handle the situation: It is very difficult to have perspective about this, but many older scientists have dealt successfully with previous disruptions (e.g., World War II, 9/11). Stay the course and look forward.

Life will eventually return to a new normal, where we can all reengage in unfettered research. For now, think about your long-term research goals; these may become less ambitious because of the circumstances—everyone will understand this. Have a Zoom meeting to ensure you and your committee are in agreement. Then carefully design the short- and long-term experiments, with all the controls, that will be most critical to your project. Carefully plan your time in the lab to be most productive, rather than deciding what to do when you get there. If your research lab reopens with shifts, make use of the time between them to reevaluate the experiments you have done and plan to do. Working in shifts to maintain social distancing provides a wonderful opportunity for collaborative science where colleagues might complete your experiments; you could help them in the same way if their shift prevents their completing necessary work that goes beyond the allotted shift time. Keeping you, your colleagues, and staffers safe is paramount.

At the same time, read or reread papers related to your project and assemble the information into a review that can be the foundation for the introduction to your thesis. Graduate students in Labby’s lab have often wished they had written their thesis introduction earlier as it would have better guided their research. The current circumstances can help you achieve this!

This interruption will inevitably delay completion of research projects. Time to graduate for those impacted by the pandemic will be longer, and everyone will understand this. As of now, we don’t know if the country will be subject to a second wave of infections, which could delay research yet further. If this happens, what is expected of graduate students certainly will be reevaluated.

As life returns to the new normal, you will be able to embrace an exciting postdoctoral experience! Now is the time to read widely to identify the best labs where you can advance your career. Prospective PIs will understand the consequences of reduced research and potentially delayed publications, so in your application include a detailed summary of what you have accomplished, and plan to do, before you graduate.

This pandemic is something none of us in three generations has ever experienced before. The uncertainty that comes with it is very unsettling, especially if compounded by tragic personal loss or the terrible hardship that many are enduring. But we are lucky to live in this age. After the polio outbreak of 1916, it took 39 years before the Salk vaccine was available. Now we can hope for a vaccine within a year or two. You will be able to finish your PhD, and seek a postdoctoral position, albeit perhaps on a slower schedule. It is a good time to reflect on the great advances in science that occurred since 1916, and use that history to rekindle your enthusiasm for the privilege of doing research for the betterment of humankind.

Stay safe!


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