The coronavirus pandemic has left many fellows in a state of pause—without precedent for guidance. But while benchwork may be on hold, you can still make progress during your time as an NIH trainee. The COPING (Creating Optimism, Purpose, INtent and Goals) series is designed to be a beacon light to help fellows navigate their way and create a positive outlook during this difficult time by encouraging a forward-looking approach with attainable goals.
In our first set of articles, Drs. Erin Walsh, Triesta Fowler, and Yvette Pittman of the NICHD Office of Education each address a COPING concept. Dr. Erin Walsh provides welcomed optimism by reminding fellows of the range of opportunities still available from home. Dr. Triesta Fowler addresses the reality that not everyone has an easy work-life balance when both work and family life converge in one location, requiring time management with purpose. And Dr. Yvette Pittman encourages self-advocacy with intent, allowing you to reach your personal goals.
Three voices. Three perspectives. Three articles to help NICHD fellows make use of their extended time at home. This is no doubt a stressful phase for everyone, but with a little planning and a lot of patience, you have an opportunity to accelerate both your career and personal development.
Finding Optimism While Teleworking as an Early-Career Scientist
By Erin Walsh, PhD
Since March 16, when the NICHD Office of Education began teleworking full-time, I’ve experienced a swarm of emotions: of course, fear that I or my loved ones would get sick; anxiety and frustration at the idea of trying to accomplish my work while fraught with fear; uncertainty; cabin fever; and on a more positive note, calm and content on beautiful spring days while relaxing at home without a single interruption from the outside world. Importantly, it has been comforting to know that I am not alone in experiencing this roller coaster of feelings.
While recently perusing Science online, I came across an article that I thought would be of interest to our NICHD trainee community. The article, “How early career scientists are coping with COVID-19 challenges and fears,” highlights the personal accounts of 11 early-career scientists as they tackle this unprecedented research slow-down, along with strategies they have used to acclimate to the situation. Below, I have summarized a few tips you may want to consider for your own remote work and downtime.
Ideas for productive work from home
- Set up a designated workspace in your home—if possible, spruce it up with inspirational art/decorations.
- Focus on reading the literature, writing reviews, planning future projects, writing grant applications, or completing online courses (what a great time to finally learn some bioinformatics!).
- Work on data analysis and create new figures for manuscripts and/or posters.
- If appropriate, incorporate career planning and innovative ideas into your lab’s virtual lab meetings.
- Talk to your supervisor/mentor regularly and be honest about your productivity—discuss ideas such as writing a review, and don’t be afraid to ask your mentor for ideas.
- Stay up to date on the news but try to limit your daily exposure in order to reduce anxiety.
- Take advantage of wellness activities, such as those being offered by the OITE (see Announcements and Events).
Tackling Work-Life Balance with Purposeful Time Management
By Triesta Fowler, MD
The Cambridge Dictionary defines work-life balance as “the amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and doing things you enjoy.” However, work-life balance has taken on a new meaning amid this global pandemic. Work and home have merged into one location. Principal investigators and trainees in science and medicine will have to halt some of their research efforts and perform others remotely from home. This is a significant unprecedented adjustment to business as usual. The transition is further complicated by the demands of homeschooling and caring for children or other family members.
So, although it may be difficult to do, there must still be a balance between working and living at home. One way to begin is to get a clear understanding of your workload and the associated daily responsibilities. At the same time, create a similar list of things that need to be done at home. Make sure to include meals and breaks. Then have a discussion with a spouse/partner and children to determine what is the best way to manage the day. Do not make the schedule too rigid because home life can be unpredictable. If a reasonable schedule cannot be determined, consider negotiating with mentors and colleagues about daily tasks or projects. Make these requests as soon as possible to avoid compromising due dates and timelines.
Daily self-care is essential to managing the responsibilities of work and home along with the stresses of this difficult time. Activities that cater to your mental, emotional, and physical health are critical for your own well-being. Be creative and purposeful about securing time for yourself in the schedule. Keep the communication channels open with mentors and colleagues, cherish the time with family, and never forget the importance of making time for yourself.
Work-life balance within the same space will be overwhelming and difficult to attain. Take it one day at a time, acknowledging that some days will be better than others. But with purposeful management of your time, you will find a work-life balance that works for you—all in one location.
Meeting Your Professional Goals: The Importance of Self-Advocacy
By Yvette Pittman, PhD
Advocating for yourself is a skill we often avoid or just do not think about. When you hear the word “self-advocacy,” you might feel uncomfortable, as though self-anything is a form of boasting or bragging. But this is not the case. Self-advocacy is not only 100% necessary for your professional development, it could be the key to a new career opportunity.
There are many ways to approach self-advocacy, and it will look different for everyone. However, the process should always begin with reflection and self-awareness. It is important to first know yourself and what you want because no one will know what you need better than YOU! In other words, what are your goals, values, and passions? Self-advocacy is making sure your needs and interests are known—when you are true to yourself, it is so much easier to express your needs to others. One of the most important points to remember is that you should respect the needs of others while expressing what you need. Being proactive and assertive, but not aggressive, is always a plus—this is much easier when it is linked to your passions and interests.
Self-advocacy takes various forms. For example, you might want to volunteer to give a departmental lecture to become more visible to your colleagues—an essential element to advancing your career. Whether you’re dealing with large career-changing issues or need clarification from a recent discussion with your supervisor, self-advocacy is making sure others are aware of your needs and interests.
There are many benefits to practicing self-advocacy, including:
- building self-confidence
- communicating better with your colleagues
- addressing inequalities
- enhancing your problem-solving skills
- managing conflict
The last point, managing conflict, is an area where self-advocacy is particularly important. Many times, we avoid conflicts or difficult conversations, which is certainly not good for our professional growth. What’s most important is to always listen and respect the perspective of our peers and mentors. If something is not clear from a discussion, ask questions. If you need help, ask for it! There is a misconception that speaking up is disrespectful or displays defiance. But it’s the opposite. Speaking up is an opportunity to communicate effectively, express what your needs are, and this empowers you. Remember it’s okay to disagree—we can learn from each other.
The more you practice self-advocacy, the more likely it will become your natural reaction to life’s circumstances. And right now, life’s circumstances are likely to require a little self-advocacy.