Moving Ahead with Your Research

The University has recognised that many early career researchers have been particularly badly affected by COVID. Principal investigators, line managers and mentors have been asked to arrange supportive conversations with their researchers about the impact of this year’s events, in order to identify what support is needed. There are more resources for researchers on the dedicated “Support for Early Career Researchers” pages from ERO.

This page is designed to help you prepare for these conversations about how COVID-19 and the University closure have affected your research and career. There are some simple templates to help you think about your recent progress and productivity. Being prepared will make it easier for you and your line manager to identify the right support and resources to help you overcome short-term interruptions and set-backs. COVID-19 has seriously impaired some people’s ability to complete their proposed work, so there is also guidance on how to approach a more substantial review your research plans.

Preparing for your review meeting

The outcomes of the meeting with your line manager will be much more beneficial if you are honest about the impact of remote and home working. The support that the University has developed for early career researchers has been designed with the expectation that staff will have experienced disruption, so don’t feel that you have to gloss over any difficulties or put yourself under additional pressure if disruption continues.

During the meeting you will work with your line manager to quantify these consequences in terms of the equivalent length of a “pause” to working under your usual working patterns. This means that if you’ve only been able to work half of the time you’d normally be able to for 6 months, you would quantify this as a 3 month pause.

A few simple steps will help you to prepare for the meeting.

  1. Track your time and activity for a few days so you can explain any new working patterns. We have produce a simple Shape of Your  Day  template to help with this.
  2. Summarise the achievements and activities you have been able to make progress on during remote and home working – this might include progress on manuscripts or proposals, supporting colleagues, updating online profiles (including PURE), building your network through social media or online talks.
  3. Reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on specific research tasks using our simple COVID Impact template. Here you can also capture the alternative approaches you’ve taken where possible (i.e. online interviews -vs- in person; data analysis rather than gathering) and anything you’ve done to support colleagues. It’s important to include information on how you’ve supported others – collegiality has helped us to get to this point.
  4. Look ahead to the next steps in your research with our Risk Register. This also prompts you to think about any additional resources that might help to reduce or manage risks in the coming months.

Resources to help you get back on track

During the meeting, there may be a number of resources you can discuss with your line manager. These will vary depending on which School/Deanery you are based in, and your role. (For example, lecturers may qualify for research leave or a reduced teaching load, whereas this will not be relevant for postdoctoral research fellows.) These include:

  • Access to broad training (provided by the IAD), resources provided by your College or School (such as the SERCH resource from CAHSS) or support from a mentor
  • The University’s career service for research staff provided by the IAD. This includes 1:1 appointments with an adviser.
  • Small amounts of funding for research. The various University level schemes are listed on the ERO page for Seed Funding. This is updated as new schemes emerge but many Schools also offer local seed funding for research. Be sure to check whether you qualify for these funds – if not, it may be you can team up with a more senior colleague to apply.
  • Additional support from colleagues such as technicians, access to facilities to help with your research or collaborations with colleagues
  • Support to develop a fellowship application
  • If your research requires access to a lab, building or facilities on campus, your line manager should be able to advise you on how you can get access. If you cannot work effectively from home and your usual work place isn’t open, ask about alternative options. The University is developing a booking scheme to allow priority access to some buildings and spaces.
  • If you are not on a research-only contract, you can ask about having an increased proportion of your time allocated to research activity or to have other responsibilities reduced for a short time. You might also be eligible for research leave.

The process for prioritising early career researchers will vary across Schools. In all cases, though, the criteria for allocating support will include

  • the career stage of the researcher, so make sure you provide evidence that the disruption has come at a critical point in your career (perhaps whilst working on preliminary research which would have underpinned a fellowship application or whilst you are approaching the end of a contract without completing a vital publication)
  • caring responsibilities. The University wants to redress the inequalities that some groups have faced during remote and home working. You don’t have to disclose details if you aren’t comfortable – just to indicate which factors have affected you.
  • the contribution the researcher is making to the school’s strategic research goals and ambitions.
  • Research support will also take into account Equality, Diversity and Inclusion issues. The University recognises that female researchers, those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and those with other protected characteristics, frequently face additional structural barriers to enhancing their careers.

More substantial reviews of work

In some cases a more substantial review of research plans might be needed. We don’t know how long Covid-related restrictions will be in place, but we suggest it is sensible to plan on a 2-year time-frame. So if your research relies on travel, face-to-face methods of data collection, or other activities restricted by the pandemic, you should start thinking about a Plan B.

If you do need to adapt your research, the University has a number of resources to help you access training and support, and identify possible new methods or data-sets.

Given uncertainty over the duration of the pandemic, it’s difficult to take decisions on adapting research. A useful approach is to reflect on the intended outcomes and outputs from your research. It might be helpful to consider these with a “traffic light” in mind.

Green tasks might include those that :

  • are possible to complete under any working circumstances
  • could be completed if small changes were made to approach or methodology (moving workshops online for example)
  • need additional support  to complete or deliver (support moving events online; reviewed ethics approach to engage participants in different ways)

Amber tasks might be those which are critical to progress subsequent aspects of research, but can’t be achieved with existing resources or time. They

  • could be completed with a different methodology or approach if additional resources are available (training, extra time, support from colleagues with new expertise)
  • are achievable if additional funding is available (extensions to project length, access to additional resource to buy-in support

Red tasks

  • can’t be completed within the project timescale even if we return to a pre-COVID lifestyle within a few months
  • are no longer relevant because of societal or other changes that COVID has caused
  • may free up project resource for Amber tasks if the funder will agree to project re-scoping

You might also identify tasks that aren’t critical for progress in other areas, so can be postponed or de-prioritised until time-critical work can’t be completed.

The suggestions above are general, but hopefully will help you to revisit your original project plan pragmatically to focus on what is now achievable and what must be supported and prioritised. You might find it helpful to discuss options with another postdoc, researcher or your mentor before discussion with your manager.

You might also find it helpful to review the SERCH resource (written for CAHSS researchers, but including many University-wide resources) if you are considering a rethink of your methodology or a shift to digital approaches. There may also be opportunities to take on different responsibilities for a short time to help reduce pressure in other areas – perhaps taking on some teaching responsibilities.

The discussion with your PI or line manager should be a positive and constructive one, but you may have some anxieties. If you are worried about how to present your case or have had challenges with communication in the past, it might help to use a checklist, such as the one from Judy Ringer  called “We Have to Talk – A Step-By-Step Checklist for Difficult Conversations “. This isn’t to imply that the conversation will be difficult, rather that the template will help you to think through any potential tensions in advance.

Supporting your wellbeing

If your wellbeing has been affected by remote and home working, or additional demands or burdens caused by COVID-19, there are many resources to support wellbeing and mental health around the University.

Health & Wellbeing resource bank The University has a dedicated page for wellbeing during lockdown; part of a wider Health and Wellbeing resource bank which includes links to resources on physical, mental and financial health.
Supporting the wellbeing of others If you are concerned about colleagues or students, the Wellbeing Resource Bank includes advice on supporting othersThe Student Disability Service also has a guide to Helping Distressed Students.
Guide for new research staff The IAD’s guide to Researcher Resilience, Thriving in your research position and its wellbeing themed Guide for new research staff were written pre-shutdown, but include advice that remains relevant.
Pop-Up IAD workshops. To complement this, many of the online workshops in the Pop-Up IAD have a wellbeing slant.
Online mental health resources. Remember that the University has subscriptions to a number of online mental health resources.