COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities for Graduate Students and Postdocs in the Chemical Sciences

Joerg Schlatterer, Ph.D.

“COVID-19 is here,” I think to myself. “Now What?”

It is a chilly Monday afternoon. I am typing from my home in Washington, DC and sipping a hot cup of tea. Things have changed dramatically. Not long ago, I was in California helping deliver an exciting new career and professional development workshop to an amazing group of postdocs at the Berkeley National Lab. A couple of minutes ago, I received the text message, “Berkeley Service will be suspended due to COVID-19 and Shelter in Place …” Everywhere around the globe, Ph.D.s inform government decisions that aim to contain a powerful virus, a strand of ribonucleic acids.

The current global challenge has a bitter short-term impact on our everyday lives. However, there might be positives as well.

As Ph.D.s, we can rediscover that our unique set of competencies have the potential to make a difference to the world. Some of us advance knowledge that helps unravel how viruses such as COVID-19 work. Others gain understanding into more basic principles related to COVID-19, such as RNA replication, folding, and structure.

Regardless of our training, as scientists, we all help communicate critical scientific knowledge to many different audiences, including politicians, lawmakers, investors, colleagues, friends, and family. We have learned about how to conduct research responsibly and that high levels of ethics are essential for meaningful progress. As a result of our training, we are viewed as highly professional individuals with high-level leadership potential. Communities around the globe trust Ph.D.s to make well-informed management decisions.

Reframe the Effects of COVID-19 on Your Research Progress

As a result of COVID-19, many universities have changed how and when students learn. As a graduate student or postdoc, you might be concerned that critical experiments for your next research article will be held up. How will you get your first position after graduate school or postdoctoral training if publication is delayed?

This is a valid question, but the situation is not a hopeless one. In contrast, this is an opportunity to play to your unique strengths and prepare yourself for success. Demonstrate that you are resilient and build your unique story that shows your true value to future employers.

For example, if you are concerned about publishing, you should consider crafting a review article in your specialty area. Discuss your review article plan with your mentor(s) and receive realistic feedback. Identify potential co-authors on your campus or anywhere in the world who could contribute to the article.

Writing a review article is one way that you can demonstrate discipline-specific knowledge and your collaboration and teamwork skills. In addition, have you thought about sharing your research or other scientific topics with wider audiences through blog entries, videos, or webinars? Doing these things could significantly broaden your professional impact. Did you know that “Broader Impacts” is one of two review criteria for the National Science Foundation?

If you have had to cancel a planned internship or research experience abroad, you might want to explore which remote opportunities would allow you to gain similar learning outcomes.

Furthermore, the current global challenge allows you, as a teacher, to learn about the newest and most innovative remote teaching technologies. Learning and applying these technologies within a short time frame helps demonstrate your adaptability and your growth mindset.

Ultimately, think about what you can do within your unique context of knowledge and experience to move forward by learning and sharing. Do not let time pass unproductively, and make sure to add your contributions swiftly to your master CV that includes all of your educational, professional, and community activities.

Keep Nurturing Your Relationships

Social distancing limits our physical interactions with colleagues, friends, and family. We might all take this extra space, metaphorical as well as literal, to start thinking about our purpose in life, the past, and the future. We might start appreciating more deeply the communities that give us purpose and we might also start gratefully recognizing all the personal and professional relationships that have contributed to who we truly are.

The current uncertainty due to COVID-19 is challenging for everyone. However, it might provide us a unique opportunity to reflect on where we have been and where we are going, our relationships, our experiences, and our plans. Call up a good friend, family member, or mentor and nurture this relationship. Share your thoughts and concerns with someone important to you. 

During this time of extra reflection, you may be developing greater self-awareness through understanding your own values, strengths, wants, and needs and how these may grow and/or change. Before you call, think about things along those lines you may want to share. Be open to insightful questions and important feedback. These types of conversations can help you find out who you are and who you will become as well as give you a deeper understanding of the person with whom you are sharing.  Encourage your conversation partner to ask you for feedback, as well. Your experience, questions, and suggestions can help guide others through challenging times just as they help you.

Graduate school and postdoctoral research challenged the physical and mental well-being of young chemists even before COVID-19. Now, it may feel like uncertainty has the power to control your mental health, but do not lose hope. The global community needs you.

Stay healthy and take a walk, exercise at home, join a workout class via video conferencing, or engage in other physical activities that energize you. Phone or video call conversations with friends or family can also have a positive impact on your mental well-being. In addition, your university might have mental health resources available that are accessible remotely.

As for me, I’m going to make another cup of tea and video call a friend.

COVID-19 Resources

Disease Information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC is the only source you should be checking for relevant information regarding COVID-19 in the United States.  Misinformation is rampant; protect yourself by having the right knowledge.

For those of you in the United States and Canada, be sure to get information about your state or province directly from your governor or premier. Likewise we encourage our international readers to evaluate their sources of information carefully to ensure scientific reliability.

Video Calling Apps

Here is a list of video calling apps that you can easily set up and start using today:

Facebook and Instagram both have video chat features built in as well!

Remote Learning and Professional Development Opportunities

The following are great remote sources of professional development courses and certifications that can give your resume a boost:

Resources for Supporting Grad Student Well-being

Here is a link to a document that was developed by the NSF INCLUDES Alliance: Inclusive Graduate Education Network (IGEN) Research HUB, a partner of the ACS Bridge Project:

Share What You Learn

Whether you are taking advantage of wealth of information offered to you in The Chemist or learning remotely from another source, enrich your experience by sharing it. Choose an article from the magazine or a new idea from your online studies and share it with your peers. Discuss its content and exchange your thoughts with each other.

If you are interested in contributing an article to us here at The Chemist, please email your suggestion to GradED@acs.org. We are looking forward to hearing from you!