How COVID-19 Will Impact Your Academic Life

Teaching will be to small groups or at a distance to large groups. University campuses will be void of students. Due to their low use, teaching spaces will be converted to offices, and research spaces to allow for new physical distancing requirements. International travel for researchers will be virtually impossible, so collaborations will be maintained by virtual means. With academics working away from the office and less face-to-face interactions, there’ll be a period of (further) difficulty reproducing research. Then, we’ll come to realise the aspects of our approaches that are essential to reproducibility, and work will be not just reproducible but also more scalable and transferable than before COVID-19…

Okay, that might be too out there for some. Or not addressing the needs of others.

But, if you’re a subscriber to Nature News, you may have seen their series called “Science after the pandemic”. And if you’re not a reader, it is worth taking a browse through those articles. They cover a range of topics from publishing research, to university teaching and research, to research conferences, to research funding and the global research landscape. And if you’re a better listener than reader, listen to Episode 409 of Freakonomics Radio.

The topics are great, but they are opinion pieces (like this blog), with some data (like I try to as well). Thus, the articles might slide past your pet topic or region. Or they may not even think about something you consider important. Or they might miss a central theme within your area of research, university, employer or way of life.

So, how could you chart the impact of COVID19 on you or your work? How do you get specific or cover impacts others might not have considered? Or how do you take into account what your employer or government is saying about the way we must work? My suggestion – indeed the approach I adopted for myself – is to do some wargaming or scenario planning. It doesn’t have to be overly complex or long. I did my three plans (see pics below or follow this link to editable versions in OneNote) while watching TV, using my tablet and stylus. But you could just as easily use paper and a pencil, or a Keynote or PowerPoint Slide or some other program that creates flow-charts or network diagrams.

The key is to just keep adding what you think would be an obvious next step. Nothing is off limits. Nothing is wrong. They are all just possibilities. You might highlight some because they are more or less desirable (e.g. social distancing might mean all people get larger workspaces; and/or you’re forced to work from home every second day). You might highlight others because they’ll materially impact your life (e.g. you can no longer use the shared kitchen; and/ or BYO cup at the cafe).

So, here are my scenario plans for three different topics relating to the impact of COVID-19 on universities – Social Distancing; Teaching; and Research.

Social Distancing

Figure 1: Impact of social distancing measures on university activities

PhD students are feeling micro-managed. Yet, others in the same group are feeling well supported.

Social distancing might have – indeed already has had – a large impact on PhD student supervision. Some supervisors seemed to have immediately googled “best practice virtual team management”; read that meetings should be regular; and instituted daily catch-ups. What they failed to realise was prior to that (i.e. in the absence of COVID-19) they were essentially unavailable and/or regularly cancelled, and rescheduled meetings. Thus, students have experienced two opposite impacts. The first is over supervision or micromanagement. In a time where most have not been able to collect data – so there’s even less to manage. The second, opposite effect, is genuine interest in the work. Feedback on proposals or drafts or ideas. Progress is being made. So they are feeling supported.

I should say this has happened across many sectors – not just supervision of PhD students. Managers everywhere have shifted from unavailable to highly available and it has been taken in the same way students have responded to meeting their supervisors more regularly – sometimes as micromanagement, other times as a welcome increase in interest and availability.

But, like I said, you should do your own diagram to see what it means for you, in the context of your work and the supervisors, students or staff you have.

Not sure how COVID-19

will impact you? Try

wargaming different scenarios.


Figure 2: Impact of COVID19 on teaching at universities

Lifts will be restricted to 2 people per ride. So class sizes will be smaller. They’ll be shorter, to allow for the longer transit time up and down buildings. They’ll be on lower levels of the building so students and get in and out quicker, without mixing with staff.

An interesting thing I found looking at the impact of COVID-19 on university teaching activities relates to mass transit. Particularly within campuses. I’m thinking of things like elevators and escalators. Universities have tended to have activity separation. So, teaching, research, administration, and services occupy different floors or buildings. Usually teaching and services are at the bottom, and research and administration above. From a mass transit perspective that’s the best scenario. But if your lecture theatre is large there’ll be a limited number of egress points. And full utilisation might necessitate escalator or elevator use – meaning lots of people in close contact for a time. Or the lecture will have start late and finish early to accommodate the increased time it takes to arrive and leave.

Of course, lots of universities have taken to separating activities into buildings. With entire precincts devoted to teaching (and others to research and others to administration). Which means lots of students in one place at one time. All needing to get up and down stairs, elevators or escalators. Again, scheduling/timetable changes might be necessary (see section on Lifts in this article). Or an entire redesign of what spaces are used for what activities, and when.

Like I said, this is within campuses. Transport to and from campuses is a whole other thing. And, there are already suggestions of organisations offering dedicated mass transit for their staff (subject to a negative COVID-19 test). When many university campuses are large drawcards of people and traffic (as large as the nearest CBD), it is hard to see how this approach can be practical for universities.

But you can begin to see how you might at least see the problem, in order that you might address it.


Figure 3: Impact of COVID-19 on research at universities

Fraud will become (even more) evident, and then research will become easier to reproduce.

It is already well discussed that large chunks of published research cannot be reproduced. As we spend more and more time away from our work, it stands to reason covering up our mistakes, missteps or deliberate mischief will be harder. In some cases, paper records will be digitised. Or entire records will shift from paper to on-line only, exposing them to greater numbers of eyes. Eyes that will identify this poor behaviour.

This might seem overly negative. But it is not all that farfetched. Other sectors already manage fraud by enforcing leave. For example, within the banking and finance sector, certain staff are required to take two weeks continuous leave every year. And, within the human resources profession, it is a common understanding that excessive accrual of annual leave can be a sign of fraud – because taking leave might expose the individual’s fraudulent activities while they are not around to cover up or distract.

You could also envision that lack of in-person contact will mean we’ll need to get better at communicating our research approaches. That’ll mean descriptions of research methods should improve. There might even be a greater use of video to describe methods, kind of like a cooking show or video blog. Thus, our ability to reproduce research will be improved.

So, there you have it. Some of the things that might happen in response to COVID-19. What will you do?

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research, and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart, making academic ideas practical; the art of the #pracademic. Richard’s clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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