Research education in the post-COVID world

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Ollie123

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Just curious for a quick take on this from board members. My center - like many other workplaces - has shifted to a much more "flex work" model since the pandemic. Faculty, staff and trainees work from home regularly unless doing things that require a physical presence in the office (e.g., running participants through lab visits). This generally works fine and people at all levels appreciate the added flexibility. The challenge has generally been with trainees (primarily post-docs) and junior staff who came through their undergraduate education during the COVID era.
- Some of the junior staff seem to have a genuine resistance to physically showing up anywhere...ever. Without getting into research nuances, several of our labs ship devices back and forth to participants - things sit in inboxes for sometimes a week or more at a time without being processed because no one comes in. In-person meetings start late because people are "just driving in" at 11AM and run out the door the second its over. Equipment breaks and nothing gets done for 2-3 days when someone is in the office next.
- Post-docs are...simply not getting good training experience in my eyes. They're writing papers, but they don't see how labs operate because this no longer happens in hallway conversations and is now private zoom meetings between people in remote locations. Cross-team work and collaborations that were often driven by the post-docs are floundering because the "water cooler" conversations aren't happening. This always used to happen organically where the post-docs would get involved in one another's projects, help out, get additional authorships, develop new skills, etc. Now I find myself trying to "force" this as PI, but that isn't very effective as I can't perfectly predict what is really going to pique someone's interest enough to make them dig deeper, think about new applications, etc. I also frankly don't have time to keep tabs on what everyone else is doing.


I feel a bit like the out-of-touch CEO writing some popular press article about how things need to go back to the way they were but that really isn't my intent. I'm just seeing our folks struggle more than before. I haven't ran the numbers, but it certainly seems like we're seeing decreased faculty job market success for fellows and decreased grad school entrance success for staff. Papers keep getting published and grants keep coming in, but everyone below the PI seems to be functioning more as an assembly line worker and I think that inability to speak to the bigger picture is part of what is hurting people as they try to move to the next step. Trying to cultivate expectations of coming in has generally been ineffective because it can't be done consistently - people switch teams, suddenly need WFH accommodations, etc.

I'm curious:
1) Are others here seeing the same thing? Or have we either just had a streak of bad luck or collectively made some bad hiring decisions?
2) Those of you in research settings - how are you working to mitigate some of the above effects?

There are some genuine advantages to the remote work era. I run labs in two different cities and I'm not sure I'd have even been willing to attempt that pre-COVID. Established collaborations are MUCH easier to maintain and some new collaborations have grown easier. Yet it still seems like some areas are falling apart at the seams...

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I don’t think you’re out of touch any more than the manager of a loading dock working with people who are asking to work remotely. Some lab work can be done nearly entirely online (most of my work, tbh). Other labs needs people to be present.
Select for it more, maybe? Ask for examples of running live in person work in app materials? Idk the extent to which you manage the hiring of the folks tho. Other than that, require it of the position and try to shape behavior? It should not fall on a few people to manage all of that.
It’s tough. I had to be firm when some trainees wanted to live out of state in 2022, and others thought they decided they were now in an online program.
 
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To clarify, I'm asking more in capacity as a training director vs PI. While I can't say I've had zero issues in my own lab, we're definitely having fewer issues because I'm at least trying to select for these things. I've engendered some negative feelings because I expect people to be here far more than most, but so be it.

"Decided they were now in an online program" is a good synopsis for a lot of what is happening. People show up for class and take exams (metaphorically - AMC setting and we aren't degree-granting), but as we all know that is maybe 20% of a good graduate education. The other 80+% isn't completely gone, but a chunk of it is and the rest doesn't seem to work as well. I'm looking for ideas to make it better.

The training role aspect is harder because I'm tasked with overseeing the development of people who are not my direct reports in any capacity. I can put my clinician hat on and advise without being emotionally invested in their success, but that doesn't feel like good mentoring (which - at least for me - has always entailed a greater degree of emotional investment on my part than I had with patients).

Regardless of the practical pieces (i.e., I can't MRI people by satellite), I'm curious how people foster collaborations and informal idea exchange among large distributed groups. Formal channels for this (i.e., writing/publication) are endemic to academia but notoriously slow and inefficient. The whole premise of university settings as I see it was the potential for rapid diffusion of ideas via informal communication within a local context. That seems to be the primary thing COVID "broke" and I'm unsure how (or if) it is fixable.
 
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I've definitely noticed this in my setting. I work in a diagnostic clinic that is part of a larger home-based ABA service provision agency. While the vast majority of therapy service have always been delivered in the community at clients' homes, Prior to COVID staff would frequently come into the office to use the computers, make or pick up clinical materials, and meet with other staff. A side effect to this was the informal check-ins to review programming, discuss tough or unusual cases, ask for an clinical article or training, or even just grab a cup of coffee or eat lunch between sessions. Now, I can literally go a week or two without seeing other staff. I have to be in the office for assessments, and I am usually the only one there. We never run out of printer paper or ink anymore, and there's never a line for the microwave. We recently moved to a new interim office space, and didn't even make keys for everyone. You'll see an envelope with someone's name on the counter, and it will be in the same spot when you come in next week. Trainings are done via Zoom, so you don't get the informal (but, imho, very important) clinical discussions between training sessions or before or after things start. I think a lot gets missed- staff have access to all the support and resources they need to do the job, but all that extra, non-planned, organic stuff is just missing. Staff don't walk by my office and hear a discussion between me and another clinician about a tricky case and sit down to listen in just because they can. I'm not passing out articles just because they are related to something I heard folks discussing in the lunch room (there isn't even a lunch room in the new office). It's hard to figure out how to replace all that stuff because it was never scheduled or planned before, and doing so now takes away some the organicity and timeliness of it all.
 
I can’t speak to anything research related but I have been on a fully virtual clinical team for almost 3 years now & have really enjoyed the experience.

One of the biggest things that contribute to our connectedness (which I would rate as better than any other in person team that I’ve been on) is our longstanding daily chat (I’m VA so it’s a Microsoft Teams group chat but Slack & Discord are great options).

We say good morning, make jokes, ask question/for help, ask for feedback, throw out ideas, share successes and receive validation, etc day in and day out. People will also post that they just had a really tough session and see if anybody is around to immediately or same day debrief (and at least one team member will always respond affirmatively).

Without this chat, I would feel like much more like an independent contractor, lone wolf type who just does my specific job and then moves on with my day.

We have also been having quarterly virtual retreats that are a combination of team building/fun, new learning/training and reflection/program building, which helps all of us to spend time together, recharge a bit, maybe feel inspired about something and remain invested in our operations.
 
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Thanks all, this has been great so far.

@summerbabe Can you share a little more about those virtual retreats look like? Would be helpful both for the present issue and also for me creating cohesion across my lab locations.
 
Adding on (since my patient looks like a no-show), I think there's two related but distinct things going on potentially.

- Operations everywhere have changed everywhere due to COVID.
- Team culture & team building has also changed everywhere due to COVID....but even without COVID, positive team building is relevant and something that every supervisor, leader, PI, etc can tweak and improve (hopefully with the active participation of their team).

Pre-COVID in the VA, I pretty much only saw Skype & then Microsoft Teams as a means to an end. I would ask people mostly logistics-based questions (How do I put this referral in? Has my 1300 patient checked in yet?) and people would ask me similar things.

I bet a lot of VA folks still see/use Teams in this way and this way only. But my specific team has radically changed how I use this technology now, which then allows me to add to our team culture for the better because I receive genuine benefits so this loop is self-reinforcing
@summerbabe Can you share a little more about those virtual retreats look like? Would be helpful both for the present issue and also for me creating cohesion across my lab locations.
Feel free to PM me with specific questions but broadly speaking, there will be at least 1 fun thing/activity that we start with. Like we did a show & tell of something in our home which was neat because you get to learn about people's non-work interests. Sometimes there is a group wellness activity like virtual yoga (which makes more sense for us since we have heavy daily clinical loads).

Then there's usually structured time for 'business' like guest speakers come and talk about something relevant for our work or process improvement discussions. So probably structurally the same as other work retreats you've been to.

But I think it should be very tailored to what you think your team/workgroup needs to function better.

If you feel like people don't know each other very well (which would then impact holistic discussions about the work y'all are doing from happening), I would focus on things like ice breakers & activities that get people interacting and laughing together so faces are put to names which then hopefully encourages people to make more connections. Doing stuff like this at the start of an academic year/cycle could be a great idea to integrate new members with old members.

If you feel like people know each other well already but are working too disjointedly, maybe some space to reflect on team goals/directions, how individuals are feeling about their roles & what they are/are not getting out of the experience, and then brainstorming ways to make the process experience better for everybody could be helpful. Depending on the size of the lab, small group breakouts can also be an effective way to include everybody's voice.

And then follow up on whatever comes from a retreat with tangible action and positive reinforcement that intentionally shapes the team culture in these more positive ways.
 
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To clarify, I'm asking more in capacity as a training director vs PI. While I can't say I've had zero issues in my own lab, we're definitely having fewer issues because I'm at least trying to select for these things. I've engendered some negative feelings because I expect people to be here far more than most, but so be it.

"Decided they were now in an online program" is a good synopsis for a lot of what is happening. People show up for class and take exams (metaphorically - AMC setting and we aren't degree-granting), but as we all know that is maybe 20% of a good graduate education. The other 80+% isn't completely gone, but a chunk of it is and the rest doesn't seem to work as well. I'm looking for ideas to make it better.

The training role aspect is harder because I'm tasked with overseeing the development of people who are not my direct reports in any capacity. I can put my clinician hat on and advise without being emotionally invested in their success, but that doesn't feel like good mentoring (which - at least for me - has always entailed a greater degree of emotional investment on my part than I had with patients).

Regardless of the practical pieces (i.e., I can't MRI people by satellite), I'm curious how people foster collaborations and informal idea exchange among large distributed groups. Formal channels for this (i.e., writing/publication) are endemic to academia but notoriously slow and inefficient. The whole premise of university settings as I see it was the potential for rapid diffusion of ideas via informal communication within a local context. That seems to be the primary thing COVID "broke" and I'm unsure how (or if) it is fixable.
The challenges were part of why I got an MBA and PMP certification (I left academia right afterward, but both ended up still being useful!). Those of us who went into research are generally taught to do research well ourselves, but not to build a research team. Certainly not to run a program. Basic process like interviewing for grad school aren’t part of our education (hence, I think, why interviewing processes are so bad that I was able to get a publication about that). We aren’t taught project management except by observation, usually.
Now I’m out of academia but I still work with cross-org virtual teams on research.
Basic project management processes (project charters, which you already basically do if you aren’t a p hacker; RACI charts; Gantt charts; daily or weekly stand ups; project dashboards, etc., are all potentially useful ways to help virtual teams function. Probably not necessary to run a lab as a full scrum, but there are some useful concepts to pull out of project management. Tbh I’d thought it was likely a baloney cert when I started, now I wish I’d done it in grad school.
 
We see this too, in my AMC setting. We repeatedly explain to people that we - as a program - do not believe that 100% remote work provides a meaningful training experience, and that is what we provide - training. They are free to seek 100% remote work when they are independently working in the world, in whatever research or clinical capacity they may pursue. But if they want to participate in our training program, then there are expectations that they will be in person from time to time. We don't even mandate 100% in person work - just occasional in person contact and experience.
 
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