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Coping with the Suspension of Many Research Activities
Advice for Graduate Students and Faculty
Last updated: March 24, 2020
The spread of COVID-19 poses grave risk to human health and well being, and none of us are living our normal lives. Businesses and restaurants are closed, and many University operations have been altered. Classes at UConn will be offered remotely through at least the remainder of Spring 2020. Commencement exercises in May 2020 have been cancelled. Meetings and defenses are being held virtually. The first priority for all of us must be to protect our own health and safety and the health and safety of those around us. Now more than ever it is important to take time to relax and unwind when pressure begins to build. We must also find ways to work effectively with one another, and it’s especially important that graduate students, their advisors, and their committees find ways to work together when their only contact will be on a telephone or through a computer screen.
Dana Turjeman and Meghan Duffy recently posted Some Advice for PhD Students and Their Mentors in the Time of Coronavirus. The entire post is worth reading, but this paragraph is especially important:
Turjeman and Duffy provide a lot of advice about scheduling activities, arranging virtual coffees or lunches, and respecting partners or housemates who are also working from home. They also reiterate that what’s really important is physical distancing. Social connections are even more important at times like these than they normally are.
Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a year on the International Space Station, also has some tips on isolation to share. Here are a few highlights:
- Follow a schedule
- But pace yourself
- Go outside
- You need a hobby
- Keep a journal
- Take time to connect
- Listen to experts
We recognize that the advice provided here is more practical and mundane. It’s intended to guide graduate students, their advisors, and their committees as they develop plans that allow students to make progress toward their degrees.
What should graduate students do for the rest of the spring semester?
Although the notice from the Vice President of Research notes that the suspension of research is currently scheduled only through April 22, graduate students should assume that normal patterns of research will not resume before the end of the semester. In particular, they should assume that:
- They will not have access to laboratories, offices, or other University facilities.
- They will not be able to travel to out-of-state research sites.
- They will not have access to printed materials from the Library.
- They will not be able to meet in person with human subjects or to take samples from them.
There may be rare cases in which extraordinary circumstances justify an exception. If a student or major advisor believes that a limited aspect of a student’s research may qualify for such an exception, the major advisor should submit the Critical Research Inventory form requesting the exception.
Despite these restrictions, University resources that can be accessed remotely will remain available. For example, electronic resources available through the University library will continue to be available as will many computational resources. Graduate students, their advisors, and their committees are strongly encouraged to identify tasks that will allow students to continue making and that can be done from home, possibly with support from University resources. Examples include:
- Preparing a literature review, where it is possible to do so using electronic sources available through the library.
- Collating, consolidating, and analyzing data collected that has already been collected.
- Writing thesis or dissertation chapters where the research is complete.
- Writing all or part of papers intended for publication in journals or conference proceedings.
- Acquiring new research skills or improving existing skills, e.g., learning a new language, acquiring new computational skills, improving drafting or drawing skills.
- Identifying and applying for fellowship or research funding opportunities.
- Developing contingency plans for worst-case scenarios associated with interruption of research, e.g., cancellation of travel to research sites during Summer 2020, extension of restrictions on use of campus facilities through Summer 2020.
What should students do if “normal” research activities don’t resume in Summer 2020?
All of us hope that the extreme measures currently in place will be lifted as proposed, but graduate students should work closely with their advisors and committees to develop contingency plans if the interruptions to research activity continue through Summer 2020. The details of these plans will vary widely depending on the student’s academic specialty and the stage of the student’s career. They are likely to differ substantially even among students within a single program at a similar stage in their careers depending on the precise nature of the research each student is pursuing. We all hope that these preparations are unnecessary, but if students and their advisors don’t make them now, the disruption to their graduate career will be even greater if restrictions on “normal” research continue.
Here are some questions graduate students may find useful as they develop contingency plans. If you think of others, please let us know so that we can add them to the list and make it more helpful to others.
Questions for all continuing students
- What questions can I address entirely through the use of electronic resources?
- How much of my research can be done using already existing data and resources, e.g., meta-analyses or systematic reviews of questions related to my research topic, statistical or computational analyses of publicly available data?
- If my research involves collecting data out of state, do I have or can I find collaborators who could collect data for me at out-of-state research sites?
- If my research relies on direct access to physical archival materials, do I have or can I find a collaborator with access to the materials who could provide me with the information I need? Would high-resolution scanned images provide the information I need and is there a way to get them?
- If my research relies on observation of human subjects, is there a way to use videoconferencing technology to conduct interviews or make observations? Is there a way to use surveys to collect data related to the question, recognizing that self-reported observations will not be as rich and may not be as reliable as reports by trained observers?
- How will I maintain contact with members of my academic community if conferences I was planning to attend are cancelled?
- Are there fellowship or research funding opportunities for which I can apply?
Questions for students who haven’t begun or are just beginning their research
- Can I plan the sequence of activities for my research so that I can address questions entirely through the use of electronic resources in Summer 2020 and address others that require out-of-state travel, on-campus facilities, or contact with human subjects at a later time?
- Are there skills I need to acquire that would allow me to do more of my work remotely? Would those skills be sufficiently valuable to me in the future that I should spend time acquiring them now? Do I require assistance in designing my experiment or data collection strategy?
- Does the COVID-19 outbreak provide an opportunity to explore a new research question, e.g., the emotional effects of working remotely, the epidemiology of viral outbreaks, the impact of sociocultural differences on public health responses, or the molecular biology of coronaviruses?
Questions for students in later phases of their research
- What parts of my research have been completed? How much of a thesis/dissertation chapter can I write? How much of a journal article can I write?
- How much of the data I’ve collected will have been analyzed by the end of spring semester? Are there additional analyses to do? Is there now an opportunity to use more sophisticated computational or statistical tools than I had originally planned? Do I require assistance implementing my statistical analyses?
- Can I prepare an Institutional Review Board application for human subjects research that will begin next fall?
A comment for graduate faculty
If the suspension of “normal” research activities continues for several months, it will inevitably have a large impact on graduate student research. Advisors and committees should think carefully about how the standards for master’s theses and doctoral dissertations are applied.The fundamental principles are that:
- A master’s thesis must represent “an important contribution to ongoing research in the candidate’s field”.
- A doctoral dissertation must represent “a significant contribution to ongoing research in the candidate’s field”.
Those principles and the standards associated with them should not change. Advisors and committees should, however, consider whether it is appropriate to consider different types of evidence in assessing whether a contribution is “important” or “significant”.
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) Updates
- Student Health and Wellness: Information about coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
- Reopening UConn: Information for Students
- OVPR: Phased Reopening of Research at UConn and UConn Health