How to restart an academic career during a pandemic

The challenge of moving back to academia after a career break – with additional obstacles from the Covid-19 situation thrown in...

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Motivations for a career move

This time last year I was an event manager who knew how to run a scientific event inside out. A long time ago I was a researcher and I pined for the chance to get back into the world of academia, to experience those eureka moments again. By chance, during a trip to the 'Big Bang Festival' science fair with my family, I discovered the Daphne Jackson Trust stand. The Trust offer the chance to return to academic research on a flexible part-time basis in the UK and Ireland, after a prolonged career break taken for family, caring or health reasons. This scheme sounded perfect! 

I was nervous but realised I had nothing to lose so embarked on the challenging application process, reading lots of papers and honing my writing skills, both scientifically and for the layperson. As I clicked submit, doubts set in: who would want me? Although I had published papers I’d been out of real science for over 10 years, and completed my PhD in microbiology 20 years ago. I was hoping to build on my molecular microbiology skills in infectious diseases and re-train in the area of microbial bioinformatics.

Starting research in Covid lockdown #1

Several months later and after an intense interview, I was successful in securing funding and I wept tears of joy. I was so honoured that the Trust believed in me. My new title is Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Daphne Jackson Research Fellow, at the University of Bristol. But, those tears soon dried up and the horror of reality dawned – it could have been hysteria, I’m not sure. My start date was set for the first week of April 2020. How was I seriously going to kick-start my research career and learn new coding skills after 20 years of a research gap and in the UK’s first official Covid-19 lockdown, during a viral pandemic? I needed help and fast.

Support for academic returners

My only form of communication with my team has been virtual; I still haven’t been into the office but I’ve been told I have a desk, somewhere! Also, I needed to find my laptop Terminal and learn Python or R or both to process some bacterial sequence data. Quite suddenly, all the live one-to-one courses and global science conferences stopped. Attending courses to upskill and conferences to network are a requisite for the Fellowship. Luckily, some coding courses were marketed online at a cost whereas others were posted for free on YouTube. I realised very quickly I simply had to go for it. So, I booked myself on some key courses, watched hours of YouTube, found help forums, created a GitHub profile, joined some geeky local coding clubs, found the University staff wellbeing and resilience workshop website and read more papers. To date, personally I’ve achieved a considerable amount, but I know I’m just chipping away at the tip of the iceberg in terms of the bigger picture. I’m certainly relishing this second chance, plus I’ve already fallen for the elegance of an R-coded ggplot2 graph. Did you know that beautifully wrong data visualizations can be displayed for everyone to comment/laugh/swoon on Twitter (@accidental_aRt)? I have many months of laughter ahead!

Networking with others has been more problematic. At the ground level, my mentors and collaborators have been incredibility supportive and helpful during this challenging time. Biweekly virtual group meetings and weekly department coffee mornings have been great for feeling connected and project planning. But honestly, I doubt anyone in the wider department really knowns who I am or my research project, the new skills I’m learning and what I’m interested in doing next. Is it possible to genuinely develop any form of meaningful relationship from an interactive group chat? I’m really trying not to think about all those missed coffee-morning, lunch-break, chance-chat opportunities. 

How to manage part-time research

I’ve got to be honest, since I started my Fellowship I’ve grappled with time management for effective part-time research, especially with the constant demands for running a family and the new challenge of guiding the learning of one’s own children during a pandemic when they have not been able to attend school. I took myself back to those hazy, rose-tinted PhD days where I truly developed my independent learning skills. I found that daily planning and getting organised are essential. Instead of a hardback blue laboratory notebook I now use OneNote as a work diary, recording daily thoughts and jotting down ideas on a regular basis. I’ve also started to use RMarkdown for my R scripts and Atom for other coding scripts.

The Covid pandemic has forced us all to re-evaluate our working patterns. I have focused on being flexible in my approach to my work. I didn’t want to set myself too many tasks that might be unachievable, enabling me to accommodate the unexpected; for example, my Dad got rushed to hospital in the summer and I had to drop everything. I prioritise my workload as part of my morning plan in OneNote, considering how long something might take to write and any associated deadlines. With a few papers in draft format and the urgent need to start writing for further funding, prioritising is essential. Over the past few months, I have found that building good habits is really useful and that procrastinating is simply a part of life. My ‘junk’ drawer has never been more tidy! But, being mindful, taking regular (but short) breaks, eating healthily, getting some daily fresh air, walking my dogs and just being grateful for the small things, have all helped.    

My research and what’s next?

If anyone is interested, I’m working on a study called METRIC, the ‘Influence of the human Microbiome in the acquisition of acute Respiratory tract Infections in the Community: a prospective cohort feasibility study’. The informal title of my project is: A sore throat and an upset tummy. Do our own bugs hold all the answers? I aim to investigate how both the gut and respiratory microbiomes differ in healthy adults compared to those that contract seasonal respiratory infection-like symptoms, like a cold. I will be using cutting-edge microbial bioinformatics to profile bacterial species identified in stool and saliva samples collected from volunteers, representing the gut and respiratory microbiomes respectively. Our overall goal is to identify specific microbiome patterns and predict which individuals are more susceptible to respiratory tract infections, therefore discovering the most vulnerable people in the community.

I will be applying for further ‘early career’ funding to expand this important topical study. This certainly isn’t my first foray in postdoctoral research but this is most definitely a second chance for a fair crack of the whip at my early career pathway.

Funding information with links
METRIC is funded by The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Primary Care Research, UK. Claire Woodall is a Daphne Jackson Trust Fellow  hosted by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute at the University of Bristol, UK. This Fellowship is supported by the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council, UK.


Top image of post: Gerd Altman from Pixabay

Claire Woodall

Research Fellow, University of Bristol

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