We are all in the same boat – aren’t we?

by Mirshat Abdurishid, Marta Salvado Silva & Nina Lautenschläger

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Doctoral Students and their Research in the Max Planck Society

A pandemic is something that none of us expected to be dealing with during our PhD projects. It is a situation that is new to all of us — full of uncertainty, worries and changes that impact our daily lives. Despite general rules like (1) keep social distance, (2) avoid traveling, (3) wash/ disinfect your hands regularly and (4) don’t leave the house if not necessary - which are all quite similar throughout Germany - our work as Doctoral Researchers (following referred to as DRs) has been affected in different ways. This is mostly due to our different research backgrounds, but also depends on the ‘Bundesland’ (or ‘federal state’) that the institute is located in and how the directors of each institute implement recommendations from the Max Planck President. Thus, some of us are still going to our work place every day whereas others have been in the home office for several weeks now. 

To obtain a clearer view on how the COVID-19 pandemic affects DRs from different sections in the MPS, we conducted a small survey with DRs from the nine Max Planck institutes in Berlin and Potsdam. In total, 151 DRs participated in the voluntary survey. We received responses ranging from DRs in their first year to  those in their fourth year with almost an equal distribution. Almost ⅔ of the participants were from a CPT institute with the remaining ⅓ evenly split between DRs from either a humanities or biomedical institute (Fig. 1). 

Effects of the emerging Pandemic

The rapidly evolving crisis in Germany led to many Max Planck Institutes deciding to either shut down or enter a reduced operation mode.

As the government decided every few days on how to handle the crisis and contain the infections, it was uncertain whether public life will be shut down and if employees can still go to work. Thus, we asked the DRs how this exceptional situation was managed at their institute: 

Most DRs were informed one (24.2%) or two weeks (24.2%) before a potential shutdown of their institute, however, 35.6 % only got  information a few days in advance. There was very little or no confusion in the days before changing the operation mode for 56.1% of participants, while 23.7% stated there was some or great uncertainty on how to proceed with their work (20.3% took a neutral position in the matter).

Even before the shutdown of some institutes, the President of the Max Planck Society encouraged employees to work from home if possible. We therefore wondered, if anybody still felt pressured to continue working at the institute despite that. The majority of DRs (73.2%) did not feel that way but nearly one fifth (18.8%) felt slightly pressured to go to the institute. 8% of participants stated that they indeed felt pressured to keep on working at the institute (Fig. 2).

Most of the institutes in Potsdam and Berlin are currently running at reduced and emergency operation mode, respectively (Fig. 3). Only 25.5% of DRs indicated to work from home since March 13th or even before, while 58.4% started home office in the course of the following week (March, 16th-20th). 16.1% selected that never started working in the home office as they continue going to the institute.

Further, we were curious whether everyone received all necessary information and equipment to be able to work from home (e.g. VPN and server access, or even computer equipment). 

More than 80% of DRs that are now working from home reported that they received all the necessary information and were fully equipped. Well, this sounds like everyone is ready for the home office – or does it? 

Indeed, 75% of the participants are currently working in the home office. However, we want to point out that there are still DRs going to work regularly. The survey showed that a fair share of young researchers from Potsdam still work at the institute every day (7.3% of total participants), sometimes (10.7%) or in shifts (6%) (Fig. 4). Nearly all of the participating DRs from the institutes in Berlin responded that they are momentarily working in the home office.

The different situations between Potsdam and Berlin emerge from a decision by the Berlin Senate, ruling that all research institutes in Berlin must have entered emergency operation mode by March, 20th. 

Taking a look at the number of cases, Potsdam (222.36 infections /100,000 inhabitants) is far ahead of Berlin (129.18 infections/100,000 inhabitants, data from RKI COVID-19 dashboard, date: April, 14th 2020). This poses the question: Why were the institutes in Potsdam not shut down by the government as well? Potsdam is located right next to Berlin and there are many people commuting between the cities on a daily basis. 

As the survey revealed, about 25% of the participants were still going to work, albeit to varying degrees. We wanted to know if these DRs were still given the opportunity to work from home.

Indeed, most of them were either highly encouraged to do home office (71%) or given the option to choose between working from home or continue coming to the institute (26%). A small percentage stated that the permission for home office was only granted under certain conditions, e.g. if one belongs to a risk group or has children to take care of (2%) (Fig. 5).

However, those that were given the freedom to choose might find themselves in a predicament: stay at home and risk being regarded as lazy by their supervisors/ PIs (especially in face of colleagues that still ‘diligently’ go to work) or continue working on-site despite the potential danger of placing oneself and others at peril. Being faced with an agonizing decision like that can put tremendous pressure on those affected.

The Impact of COVID-19 on PhD Projects

As these are extraordinary times, we wanted to know how DRs are adjusting to this new reality, especially working from home. When we asked the DRs to rank how much the COVID-19 situation has impacted their project on a scale from 1 to 5 (1=not at all, 5 = to a great extent), we obtained a broad distribution of answers:

33.3% of the DRs stated not to be affected at all or only marginally, while 28.7% selected that their work was affected to a medium extent. 38% have the feeling the pandemic impacts their project to a great extent.

How much a student’s project is impacted depends on very different aspects. For some DRs, whose projects are in the final phase of writing (about a third of the DRs) or who are not dependent on experimental work (e.g. DRs in humanities) or certain equipment (e.g. computational analyses), it might be easier to transition to home office. DRs that depend on samples from patients/ animals or specific technologies at their institute and whose experiments may have been interrupted, feel that the shutdown affects their productivity.

In addition, despite the majority of DRs (> 80%) mentioning that they received all necessary equipments required to work from home, a significant share (~ 15%) did not. Being ill-equipped to carry out important tasks (e.g. not having access to a laptop capable of handling simulations or data analysis) can severely impair productivity and hamper project progress.

However, not only the ongoing work of the DRs was influenced by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Also future plans have been upset, as one can see in the list of the most predominant effects on the projects of DRs due to COVID-19:

  • A conference they would have liked to attend has been cancelled 

  • Their work is on hold until the shutdown is over

  • A collaboration or stay abroad got cancelled or postponed

  • Researchers that just started don’t know what to focus on now

 Another interesting read about how early-career scientists are coping with the COVID-19 challenges was published in Science Magazine by Elisabeth Pain, where young scientists describe the impact the pandemic had on their research and their personal lives. 

Work in the home office

Even those that are allowed to work from home full-time might feel pressured, e.g. to be more productive than their peers in the lab. Almost half of the participants claimed not to feel pressured by doing home office (47%) but nearly an equal portion did (40%) (Fig. 6).

So, how are DRs holding up at home in their new temporary office?

Some DRs might feel pressured to perform better in face of colleagues that still go to work or by no longer having an ‘excuse’ (e.g. friends, outside activities) to keep them from working in times of a nationwide lockdown. We should keep in mind: this is a pandemic and this is all new to everyone. It is expected and normal to worry about the situation and we should not feel guilty about being less productive than usual.

It can be especially difficult when your home, usually a place to relax, suddenly also becomes a makeshift worksite where you are expected to perform. In these extraordinary times, all aspects of the usual work-life balance might be affected. When being asked what they miss most, a fair share named the interaction with colleagues (58%), physical activities (51%) or a daily routine (40%). On a work-related level, 28% stated to lack access to important equipment and 19% wished for more regular meetings with their supervisors (participants could select more than one option) (Fig. 7).

The access to important equipment and the absence of a daily routine seem to have the biggest impact on productivity. The temptation to stay in bed "a bit longer" instead of starting the day by commuting to the institute does not help either. Additionally, preparing meals takes more time than going to the cafeteria or getting a sandwich from the bakery. Sitting the whole day, potentially in an uncomfortable chair or on the couch, also does not improve your posture  and concentration. Thus, going for a walk or a short bike tour outside may compensate for the distances that you would usually cover on a normal work day and might help to retrieve motivation. For more ideas on how to make the most of the current situation, check out the latest article by the Mental Health Initiative of the MPS: Should I stay or should I go (out)?

As shown in the quotes below and corroborated by the survey, many PhD students are saddened by the reduced interactions with their colleagues. An overwhelming 81% feel that they have significantly less contact with their colleagues compared to the time before the shutdown (Fig. 8).

Many DRs stated that the reduced personal interactions have a big impact on their mood, morale and productivity. The lack of contact not only means limited ways to exchange experiences and opinions but also less opportunity to discuss ideas, results and plans related to one’s PhD project. In severe cases, isolation can also take a heavy toll on mental health, especially for those that live alone or are barred from regularly seeing their loved ones.

Working in the home office can indeed decrease contact with your colleagues and your supervisor, but it doesn’t have to. Some DRs counteract isolation by having lunch or a beer hour with their colleagues via zoom. Others also organize a daily coffee break in the morning to keep contact with their fellow researchers.

On a positive note, 65% of the participants claimed to have found more time for non-work-related activities (Fig. 9).

Among the most popular choices were cooking (55%), spending more time with their families/ partners (28%) and going for a walk (24%). Tragically, 14% responded that finding toilet paper and fruits in supermarkets had become a physical impossibility (participants could select more than one option) (Fig. 10).

It is good to see that some DRs can spend more time on the things they enjoy, especially in such difficult times. However, spending more time with your family might also mean that you have to take care of your children while trying to be productive. Many of us can only imagine how difficult this must be. If you are finding yourself in this situation, there are some helpful tips for parenting during the COVID-19 outbreak from unicef. Therefore, it is crucial to show sympathy for each other as everyone is sitting in a different boat trying to conquer the same waves.

What Comes After the Pandemic?

Currently, we can see a slow improvement as new COVID-19 cases decrease and the number of people who recover from the disease increases. Soon we will be able to resume our work at the institute, but how easy will it be to find a way back in? A high percentage of the participating DRs stated that they will be able to immediately (40.4%) start working on their projects again and 30.5% said there might be a few days of delay. 10.6% think that there will be at least one week of delay in the beginning. 

Many DRs might worry about their progress and how to catch up on the time that they could not spend at the institute.

We asked the DRs whether their contracts will be extended due to the (mandatory) home office. The majority of the DRs (65%) are unsure about whether their contract will be extended due to the COVID-19 situation. 22% of the participants said that they do not think that their contracts will be prolonged, while 9% are optimistic about a potential contract extension. Only 3% were certain about getting a contract extension (Fig. 11). 

One thing is clear: For now, we can only wait for new decisions to be made.

New updates on the situation in the MPS can be found on the MAX website.

And in case you have any worries or questions, feel free to reach out (e.g. to your PhD representative or directly to the steering group) – you can find all the important contact information on the website of the PhDnet.

Another interesting read is a recent article on how early-career scientists are coping with the COVID-19 outbreak in Science Magazine by Elisabeth Pain, where the thoughts of some DRs . 

Stay Healthy! 

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