Rethinking academic priorities during a pandemic

5 minute read

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing people work. Overnight, a good proportion of the global workforce had to go home and work remotely. Due to this not planned shift, I already perceived that it’s very hard to sustain to work at the usual pace during this pandemic, since, for instance, kids are at home, you may have many concerns about the future, etc. Actually, it’s OK to be unproductive during this period.

Take my personal case as an example. These days, I would say that I am working around 1/3 of what I am used to work. With two small kids (2yo and 4yo) at home, with the neverending house duties, and with a close relative with serious illness, I can hardly find some good quite hours to seat and work. As a consequence, the pile of work is nowhere near to be empty. It is really consuming to see this huge pile of work and not being able to get things done (even though I know that this is not particularly because of my laziness).

After thinking for a while, I come up with the obvious conclusion that I will not be able to finish this pile of work. Simple like that. Instead, I have to better prioritize what really needs to be done. The work that is not a priority right now will be on hold until I get to my normal schedule (if, by that time, that work is still any relevant).

The point is, what is a priority in our pile of academic work?

My first thought was that everything is a priority. Well, if everything is a priority, and knowing that I’m not able to do everything that I want to do, then nothing is a priority.

I term of research, I then realized that only the work that would help students to graduate is a priority. Then, any work that does not have students is consequently not a priority at this moment. But still, I also interact with many students, from undergrads to PhDs, and they do differ a lot in terms of their needs. For instance, if I am involved in a work that is lead by a PhD student that wants to apply for academic jobs very soon, this would definitely be on my top priority. However, if a student wants to graduate soon, but does not intend to go for academic jobs, or perhaps the student already has a job (many PhD students in Brazil work part time during their PhDs), then this kind of work is also on my priority, but not as high as the student that wants to go for academic jobs. This is because one more publication could play a key role on the student assessment.

Also, I am rethinking my students’ the research agenda. During this time, I already mentioned to them that they are not require to work on full speed. On the contrary; they have to focus on their health, and on the health of their loved ones. If everything is fine, they could get back to work. But if they think they could provide some value on any work COVID-19-related (e.g., improving the visualization of COVID-19 cases in Brazil), they are also free to put their current research “on hold” and focus on any COVID-19-related work. Students looking for academic jobs very soon were not encouraged to do so.

For teaching, my university suspended in person and online teaching activities, and we will get back only after this pandemic is done. So teaching is not a concern for me right now.

This year I am also chairing a conference, and editing a journal. I see this kind of work as a priority. The reason is simple (and similar to the one I gave previously): some students finishing their degree need their papers published in order to increase their odds when applying for other positions. By doing these works, I would, indirectly, help others to improve their odds. The same is true for reviewing a paper. If I compromised to review, the review will be there by the time that we agreed. I can’t just say that I am not review the manuscript anymore. The negative impact on the reputation of the missing reviewer is not comparable to negative impact on the CV of the first author of the paper (often someone under time-bound contracts that needs that paper to be published more than anyone else). So reviews are also on priority. Any other kind of service and meetings are on hold.

Part of my job as a professor is also to raise funding. Although funding is extremely important to help us pursue our research agenda, I don’t see fundraising activities as a priority right now. Yes, I know. Funding is always important. But any grant that I may happen to apply these days, I would only receive the notification (luckily) by the end of the year, and, if accepted, I would only see any penny somewhere in 2021. By that time, this funding might not help any current student who is on the academic job market right now. Obviously, this eventual funding could help other students, but other students are not a priority at this moment. I recently also started to collaborate with the industry. However, trying to establish an industry collaboration requires a ridiculous amount of time (in meetings, dealing with bureaucracies, etc). So, no. New industry collaborations are not a priority at this moment. However, it is obviously a priority to keep working on the already established collaborations (but the pace of work should also be discussed).

Yet, although it takes me about 1–2 hours to write down this blog post, I still see this as a priority. First, things became clear to me when I write here. Second, I may also help someone else who is struggling to balance work life academia, in particular during COVID-19.

Needless to say that new commitments are very likely to be declined (regardless of the subject, unfortunately). Apologies in advance.