COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities for Graduate Students and Postdocs in the Chemical Sciences

“COVID-19 is here,” I think to myself. “Now What?”

It is a chilly Monday afternoon. I am typing from my home in Washington, DC and sipping a hot cup of tea. Things have changed dramatically. Not long ago, I was in California helping deliver an exciting new career and professional development workshop to an amazing group of postdocs at the Berkeley National Lab. A couple of minutes ago, I received the text message, “Berkeley Service will be suspended due to COVID-19 and Shelter in Place …” Everywhere around the globe, Ph.D.s inform government decisions that aim to contain a powerful virus, a strand of ribonucleic acids.

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity..”
—Albert Einstein

The current global challenge has a bitter short-term impact on our everyday lives. However, there might be positives as well.

As Ph.D.s, we can rediscover that our unique set of competencies have the potential to make a difference to the world. Some of us advance knowledge that helps unravel how viruses such as COVID-19 work. Others gain understanding into more basic principles related to COVID-19, such as RNA replication, folding, and structure.

Regardless of our training, as scientists, we all help communicate critical scientific knowledge to many different audiences, including politicians, lawmakers, investors, colleagues, friends, and family. We have learned about how to conduct research responsibly and that high levels of ethics are essential for meaningful progress. As a result of our training, we are viewed as highly professional individuals with high-level leadership potential. Communities around the globe trust Ph.D.s to make well-informed management decisions.

Reframe the Effects of COVID-19 on Your Research Progress

As a result of COVID-19, many universities have changed how and when students learn. As a graduate student or postdoc, you might be concerned that critical experiments for your next research article will be held up. How will you get your first position after graduate school or postdoctoral training if publication is delayed?

This is a valid question, but the situation is not a hopeless one. In contrast, this is an opportunity to play to your unique strengths and prepare yourself for success. Demonstrate that you are resilient and build your unique story that shows your true value to future employers.

For example, if you are concerned about publishing, you should consider crafting a review article in your specialty area. Discuss your review article plan with your mentor(s) and receive realistic feedback. Identify potential co-authors on your campus or anywhere in the world who could contribute to the article.

Writing a review article is one way that you can demonstrate discipline-specific knowledge and your collaboration and teamwork skills. In addition, have you thought about sharing your research or other scientific topics with wider audiences through blog entries, videos, or webinars? Doing these things could significantly broaden your professional impact. Did you know that “Broader Impacts” is one of two review criteria for the National Science Foundation?

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