COVID-19 and Postdocs: Frequently Asked Questions
(Version 1.0; last updated May 27, 2020)
Input from Drs. Emery Bresnick, Lachelle Weeks, Allistair Abraham, Olga Guryanova, Alisa Wolberg, Cindy Dunbar, Anna Marneth, Ze Zheng
See General Tips for Trainees for FAQs on virtual interviews, virtual talks, staying productive and wellness.
Note: Please review ASH's disclaimer regarding the use of the following information.
Will COVID-19 impact my research timeline?
Losing time and momentum in lab may adversely affect your research timeline. At most institutions, benchwork has stopped. Similarly, at some institutions, mouse colonies have been cut, and breeding has stopped or been restricted. Careful planning and redirecting that time outside of lab to be productive can help you weather the setback.
How can postdocs be productive with stay-at-home directives?
For postdocs whose time at the bench is limited, time at home could be used for other activities:
- Generate a new individual development plan (IDP) that is focused specifically on the stay-at-home time and next steps moving forward. Include specific plans for writing papers, planning experiments for you and your mentees, and writing specific aims pages for projects you are leading. Discuss your IDP with your mentor.
- Update your lab journal/notebook. Analyze and organize your data and summarize your results. This will make existing gaps in your projects more obvious and will save time in the future when you are writing up results.
- Conduct primary and secondary data analyses. The outcomes may help you plan future experiments and/or publication in target journals.
- Write manuscripts. This is a unique opportunity to focus on writing research papers that might otherwise not be generated, or to get a head start on writing portions that are feasible (Introduction, Methods, some parts of Results) even if data collection is not complete. Start by preparing an outline and work with your mentor to develop the storyline and how to best present the data. Read the references you plan to cite.
- Write a review article. Many journals will consider unsolicited reviews. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the editor-in-chief of the journal. Even if it doesn’t get published as a separate article, these materials will be advantageous when you are writing your research manuscript, grant proposal or working on your thesis. As a bonus, all that reading will enhance depth and dimension to your understanding of your projects and spark new ideas!
- Write grant proposals. Develop ideas based on existing data. If possible, incorporate interdisciplinary methods that do not require bench time (e.g., genomic or other datasets). If this requires new collaborations, reach out to colleagues.
- Expand your skillset. Large amounts of educational content are being offered for free during the pandemic. Do you want to learn programming with R? Effective business management? Creating beautiful scientific illustrations? Being an engaging speaker? Mastering bioinformatics and/or statistical skills allowing you to perform your own data analyses? Identify a strategic skill necessary to give you a career edge and master it.
- Read prior papers from your lab and from your field which may help expand your foundation in your work.
- Network. Connect with peers for sanity and support. Reach out to your mentor and additional mentors for career guidance. Join a virtual community of like-minded scientists for intellectual stimulation (and potential collaborations). It is likely the next few years will see an increasingly competitive job market due to the slow economic recovery. Building a support network now will be critical for weathering this and future storms and re-emerging stronger than ever.
- Attend virtual conferences at reduced cost compared to in-person meetings. Hearing talks can provide fresh ideas and perspectives on your research interests. Volunteer to present seminars via relevant virtual series at your institution or through your societies. Organize your own seminar series!
- Write up standard operating procedures and other protocols for benchwork or analytic work. These documents will help in mentoring students and new research group members and facilitate transitions when you leave your current research group.
- If your research focuses on a disease that makes patients more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection, think about how your research could contribute to understanding the disease etiology.
- Invest in an external monitor for your home desk/office. These are usually not expensive and can greatly enhance productivity.
Will COVID-19 impact grant deadlines and start dates?
- Although some grant deadlines were extended earlier in the pandemic, those extensions have passed. ASH and NIH are currently operating within normal grant timelines.
- Some funding agencies have announced that start dates for grants have been postponed. Check with your agency to find out whether your grant will be delayed as well.
- Some non-governmental organizations have already made cuts in funded grants. Keep abreast of the situation with each of your funding organizations to aid in your planning.
- If you plan to submit a career transition grant, such as an NIH K award which has a limited timeline allowed for applicants completion of degree or post-graduate training, you may want to email the agency to find out whether this timeline will be extended.
What are some best practices for postdocs planning to restart their research projects?
- Understand the research restart policies of the institution and know when you will be allowed in the lab – (which days, how many hours), at what density, and with what technical support and access to core facilities and animal programs, etc. Volunteer to play a role in setting up specific plans for your research group.
- Develop a lab re-entry plan for your own research. When research institutions reopen, most will operate on a limited basis to accommodate physical distancing. It is important to prioritize experiments. Having a clear plan for what experiments need to be done and in what order will help you maximize the precious hours at the bench. Maximize “pipette time” while in the lab and “analysis time” while at home.
- Collaborating with a labmate can help you finish certain projects. In exchange, offer to help them when they can’t be in the lab.
- Plan ahead and tabulate key reagents and experimental animals you will need to order. You will want to ensure availability from venders and estimate shipping times.
- If your work uses animal models, contact your institutional office overseeing animal welfare to confirm operating policies and availability of support staff for animal care.
- Stay healthy. Follow good health practices: stay home as much as possible, wear masks, and wash hands to ensure you are able to continue working. Do not ignore or hide symptoms or exposures-coming to the lab if you are sick or at risk to complete an experiment is unacceptable. Have a back-up plan for completing ongoing experiments via collaborations with other members of your research group.
How should senior postdocs prepare for the next phase of their career during COVID-19?
- Take this time to bolster your scholarly accomplishments as detailed above. Publications are the currency that increases competitiveness for grants and faculty positions. Take this time to write up unpublished data and prepare for future publications. Consider writing a review article in your research area.
- Think deeply about your next scientific steps - where do you want to take your work? What questions do you want to answer? How can this be translated into future applications for funding?
- Prepare and perfect draft cover letters and research plans for each potential “next step”, whether in academia, teaching or industry. Get feedback on these materials from peers and mentors.
What should senior postdocs do if offers of employment have been rescinded due to COVID-19?
- Contact your prospective employer and try to negotiate a new start date.
- Speak immediately with your current mentor and program director and let them know about your job situation. There may be options at your home institution for extending your current position or a new position, or they may be able to help you reach out to other institutions with job openings.
- Continue talking with colleagues and chairs at other institutions in anticipation of positions reopening. We will eventually move past COVID, and science WILL continue.
- You can also revisit conversations with prior job prospects where you previously interviewed. Let them know that your plans have changed and that you are interested in a possible job opportunity.
- Review the language in a contract, specifically the section that specifies conditions that would nullify the contract. Many institutions and companies have instituted hiring freezes, but rescinding a contract is a legal matter, so speaking to an employment lawyer may be worthwhile.
- Consider alternative career options that would allow you to fulfill your potential.
There could be a second wave requiring research lab shutdown. What are the best practices for preparing in case that happens?
- Discuss a contingency plan with your research mentor and the rest of your research team.
- Make sure that you have stocks of important cell lines, preferably in two different places (e.g., 80oC freezer and liquid nitrogen tank), so that you do not lose key reagents during another shutdown.
- Cryopreserve embryos for critical mouse lines. You may also consider submitting or donating your critical mouse lines to open resources, such as the Jackson Laboratories.
- Always store your data on cloud servers.
- Back up your computer frequently and if you have a laptop, take it home every night in case you are not able to get back into the lab, either temporarily due to a positive case in the research area, or for an extended time due to a second wave.
Any advice for postdocs about visa concerns?
- Talk to your embassy and institutional officials, such as departmental administrators and international student/scholar office. Let them know your situation and seek their advice and help.
- Identify colleagues who may have similar concerns as you. Team up to develop strategies and solutions. You are not alone.
- You may need to consider speaking to an immigration attorney.
For additional information, see:
- National Institute of Health (NIH) COVID-19 Response
- National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research COVID-19 Funding Opportunities
- National Institute of Health (NIH) COVID-19 Related Programs