Recently we have been running Grid workshops for postdocs at Imperial College London. The work was funded by UKRI Research England initiative to improve research leadership skills, especially for early career researchers (ECRs). It was commissioned by the Postdoc Development Center as the pandemic has left many ECRs in great need of tailored support. In this article, we look at how Covid impacted the postdocs we met at the Grid online and in-person workshops and three core challenges that emerge for them in a post-Covid world. Read on for practical insights and tips.
Positive impact of Covid on early career researchers (ECRs)
The pandemic has impacted people in different ways. What postdocs and research fellows appreciated about Covid:
- better work-life balance
- time for self-care and the difference this made
- the importance of social life and life outside work
- the value of having to build a routine
- opportunity for personal development and hobbies to develop a more whole self
- finding things easier as an introvert
- ability to connect with people far and wide through technology
- time saved commuting to work
- chance to catch up on work
Negative impact of Covid on early career researchers (ECRs)
Of course, it was not all good news. Covid was and remains a threat to us all. For some postdocs, the pandemic was very hard for a number of reasons:
- isolation, especially for new arrivers
- admistrative halt connected with settling in the UK (visa, opening a bank account, housing, etc)
- having small kids to look after at home
- lack of access to critical lab equipment
- Covid-safe rotational access to labs slowing work
- sense of stuckness against a backdrop of limited security and continous uncertainty
- mental health challenges
- lack of family and support networks nearby
- shrinking job market and career uncertainty
- reduction and uncertainty in funding sources from Brexit and Covid
Key postdoc needs in a post-Covid research landscape
The stories we heard were incredibly touching. They showed incredible resilience combined with a passion for research and discovery. Many of the people we met are not afraid to take risks. Anyone who is willing to move their entire family across the world is not lacking spirit. What powers them is a desire to contribute and make a positive difference.
And yet, postdocs are often underappreciated and without critical support, many do struggle in spite of being technically brilliant. Their key challenge is being able to navigate a far from straightforward research career maze. Here, we can help as irrespective of their future career choice, the three key personal challenges a postdoc will face now is how to:
- Maintain good habits gained under Covid.
- Spot and remedy any pre-Covid unproductive patterns.
- Best prepare for the future.
Below we address each challenge and how Grid can help.
Greater flexibility and choice fuel good habits
Covid helped many researchers from PhD to academic levels discover work flexibility. Many postdocs talked about having to juggle work and life in a completely different way during Covid. Being able to mix and match activities was seen as helpful to mental health and overall productivity. Some people spoke of feeling more whole. Many talked about being able to explore other talents and skills that would normally be taken up with travel to and from work.
Grid adopters tell us a similar story. Having more choice when it comes to the ‘what’ and ‘when’ proves beneficial to getting more done and feeling good about it all. Our Grid results show that combining flexibility with clear work goals supports wellbeing and personal agency. The stories we heard in our workshops corroborate this.
Much needed post-Covid work culture change
Working in a research office or lab can make flexible working harder in terms of how one works and where one works. For example, how do you explain that you really need a nap or a physical break to counter fatigue? Many people would be afraid to ask or claim it. Some researchers also believe that these choices are reserved for people with specific medical conditions. With work being often addictive and difficult to leave behind, this means that research cultures often tend towards long working hours and far less healthy variety to support health and wellbeing.
Many postdocs felt that working from home made them feel less guilty for adopting a more flexible approach to work. Taking a break to exercise or fit in a much-needed errand was less of an issue and ended up giving great comfort. This proved good even while work-life boundaries became fussier under Covid.
People who could work from home before the pandemic have long exalted the benefits of greater autonomy for years. While Covid helped many more try home working, not everyone was in the right place to benefit from it. As researchers return to labs and teams, they are often returning to cultures that made flexibility difficult in practice. This, along with the pressure many ECRs feel under to get results, place healthy habits at risk.
How Daily Grids support balance, productivity and wellbeing
In our Grid training, we start by teaching people the importance of building a great day. A great habit starts with what one chooses to do today. How a day turns out is known to influence our psychology. Repeated over time, it creates habits and patterns that either fuel productivity and wellbeing or destroy it.
With a day Grid, we tap into the power of the Grid framework to create balance and ensure that everything we need to look after – our wellbeing, work, personal lives and career – gets attended to. Day Grids help us train a good habit. We achieve this in three easy steps:
- Making a Day Grid to create critical support structure that balances wellbeing with productivity.
- Training the power of focus to tackle the right task in the most efficient and effective manner.
- Using energy surfing to eliminate drain and tiredness.
Tackling procrastination and other productivity sabatours
A crisis catches you in a state that is the cumulative result of your past choices.Dr. Magdalena Bak-Maier, Grid creator and productivity and wellbeing expert
If you tended to procrastinate before Covid, your habit will resurface again. If you didn’t seek help or advice, you’re less likely to seek these options post-Covid as they are not your natural go-to aids. Here are many more ways that we see ECRs sabotaging their career chances:
- working in isolation
- not asking for help and feedback
- difficulty completing projects and/or keeping going
- low self esteem and confidence
- lack of motivation or too much self doubt
- avodiance of conflict and decision making
- ignoring vital context and culture cues
- quitting for the wrong reasons
If you can recognize yourself in some of them, please seek help.
How Grid helps buffer against uncertainity
The Grid is a powerful framework, tool, and method that helps one be clear, stay focused and be motivated. Grid helps you get things done and ensures that you’re always working on your whole agenda. This includes your wellbeing and career.
Grid achieves this by building flexibility and choice into how we live and work. It combines planning with action taking. This means that when uncertainty strikes, one is better prepared to respond.
The versatility of the Grid framework means that one can easily:
- set Grid goals in order to have a clear aim,
- build balanced and healthy Grid days, and
- connect aspiration with daily action that supports goal realization.
All this is done with an artistic flair and privacy as the entire process and form are captured on physical paper or a private notebook. You can discover more about the technique and hear from a number of researchers and academics who have put the method to use in their life success stories.