Coping with COVID-19 As An Early Career Scholar – Part 2: What About My Research? (and an appeal to not so early career scholars)

By Kathrin E. Maki, University of Florida; Ryan Farmer, Oklahoma State University; and Amanda L. Sullivan, University of Minnesota

As we all continue to navigate life in a pandemic, we are attempting to manage wellness, work, family, community, and other responsibilities. Some days may go more smoothly than others. Because the SSSP Early Career Forum exists to support early career scholars and many early career scholars are worried about their interrupted research, we felt it was important to discuss considerations for research during and in the aftermath of the pandemic. That said, as noted in Part 1 where we discussed scholars’ general C-19 concerns, we also recognize that many scholars are not able to focus on research due to caregiving responsibilities, unexpected professional responsibilities, heightened stress, Zoom exhaustion, and numerous other reasons. Many of us are dealing with disastrous days under protracted disaster conditions. This post is not intended to suggest that we should all be focused on our research now (to be clear, we eschew pandemic productivity pressure); for many scholars, that simply isn’t feasible or conducive to their wellness. If that is the case, we hope you’ll offer yourself compassion generally and especially in a pandemic and that your university provides accommodations to evaluation and tenure/promotion. But for those who are interested and able to engage in research now, we hope this post will support your endeavors. 

Taking Stock

As an early career scholar, you may have received the advice to develop a three-to-five year research agenda including studies you plan to carry out, manuscripts you plan to write, and grants for which you plan to apply. Even if you do not have a highly specific plan, you have likely thought through how your research agenda will facilitate your eventual promotion and tenure or future scholarly opportunities (e.g., jobs, grants, fellowships, collaborations). Today, our research plans may feel rather tenuous because we do not know what the next several months hold. 

As school psychology scholars, many of us engage in applied research in schools and other settings now beset with disruptions and unknowns regarding the reopening and return for former operations. If you are like Katie, you may have experienced the abrupt end to a project that had barely gotten off the ground with data collection after an arduous process of obtaining parental consent. Or perhaps you were close to finishing data collection when schools closed. Many of us were running treatments with students either one-on-one or in groups, and those studies had to be discontinued. Even many basic scientists and large-scale data analysts (like Amanda) find themselves locked out of their university labs and centers, meaning most scholars likely find their research derailed in one way or another by stay-at-home orders. Taken together, this is frustrating for most and fearsome for many—and early career scholars in particular—when concerns about finding, securing, or keeping positions; achieving tenure and promotion; gendered divisions of labor at home and work and resultant research disparities; and sustaining long-term goals are on layered onto current challenges. 

Managing the Unknowns Ahead

The ongoing pandemic and uncertainties about the coming year mean planning for future research projects, particularly many types of school-based data collection, is extremely challenging. But there are other research activities in which you can engage to continue to advance your research agenda during this significant, and potentially protracted, interruption. (That said, it’s also absolutely okay to take a break from scholarship during a pandemic. These are extraordinary times.) If you endeavor to maintain research activity, consider the following as you reconceptualize what your scholarship might look like in the coming months:

  • What manuscripts have you file drawered or otherwise ignored that you could write or revise now? 
  • Are there high quality unpublished presentations, dissertations, or theses (your own or others) that you could help move toward publication?
  • Are there studies using your existing data, or viable secondary studies, that you can write up?
  • What of your recently interrupted data collection is salvageable for analysis and dissemination?
  • What remote data collection methods might be applicable to your research interests?
  • Can you adapt an otherwise shovel-ready project for remote data collection?
  • Are there secondary data sources available that are applicable to your research agenda?
  • Are there ways you can leverage review methods (e.g., systematic review, meta-analysis, bibliographic review) to advance your research agenda?
  • What non-empirical writing projects might you contribute to the field (e.g., conceptual models, theoretical essays, historical analyses, methods demonstrations, commentaries)?
  • Can you leverage past or current collaborations to assist with less disrupted projects?
  • Are there ways you might pivot your research agenda to address emergent pandemic related issues if consistent with your (general or temporary) interests and opportunities (e.g., COVID-19 rapid response grants from APA and NIH and related journal solicitations)?
  • What other activities can you engage in now or in the coming months to eventually advance your research agenda?

Answers to these questions will depend on several factors such as your topical focus, typical methods,  career stage, experience, institutional resources, current and prospective collaborations, and personal circumstances. In taking time to reflect, the goal is, to the extent feasible, to identify ways you might reclaim momentum without relying on in-person access to your university or school partnerships. 

Rebounding from Interrupted Projects

Many of us face decisions of whether halted projects are salvageable. One important consideration for your research will be the status of data collection and the quality of the data collected. If you were further along in data collection, consider if any data can be meaningfully used. For some, the existing but less than ideal data are sufficient for reporting. If part of your project can be salvaged, it will be important to further consider how you will contextualize your study within manuscripts. As applied researchers, we often experience disruptions that impact our research (e.g., student absences, snow days, field trips). The pandemic, although a more significant impact, can be similarly discussed in manuscripts so that reviewers and readers understand its impact on study limitations. Of course, it will be important to ensure that interpretations reflect the data collected and associated limitations. Perhaps the data won’t reflect your initial plan, but research questions may still be addressed differently. In addition, are there modified research questions that can be examined or different means of addressing similar questions?

For others, preparing manuscripts might not be feasible. My (Katie) project that came to a halt one week into data collection is unfortunately lost (for this year at least) because I simply did not have enough data for meaningful findings or interpretations. But, after feeling frustrated about the lost project and publication, it is helpful to think through how and when the project can be implemented in the future. Again, while the future seems somewhat tenuous now, you may be able to start the project over in the future. At the very least, in planning for your initial data collection, you prepped all the needed materials so the planning and logistics will hopefully be easier a second time around. 

Another important research consideration is how to handle grant-funded research and the associated procedures. The Institute of Education Sciences and National Institute for Health have released guidance to help grantees navigate the pandemic. If your funder hasn’t released guidance yet, you may reach out to your program officer to see if they can provide guidance on how you should move forward regarding grant administration and completion, including the research itself. Staff at your university or college a grants office may also be able to provide guidance on how you should handle the disruption to your work (e.g., requesting a no-cost extension). Even if they may not readily have the answers, they may have relationships with or understanding of funding agencies to help you navigate the process of obtaining relevant information. Regardless, your grant manager’s role is typically to facilitate the acquisition, administration, and maintenance of grants for the university, and maintaining contact and communication with them may make the process much easier. 

Alternatives to Data Collection

While it is perfectly reasonable (and likely expected) to see a drop in your productivity during this time (I’m sure we’ve all had about enough of the memes about Shakespeare’s and Newton’s quarantine productivity), some of you may be looking for ways to remain active even though you may not be able to  collect data through your typical means or otherwise engage in your typical research activities. This may be the time to turn to an existing dataset, an unfinished manuscript, archival data, secondary data (you can find some helpful sources here and here), systematic reviews, meta-analyses, or non-empirical pieces. The important thing to keep in mind is even if your research agenda has been stalled, there are many other ways to engage in meaningful scholarly contributions. 

If keeping busy is your goal but you’re struggling to engage in research, perhaps skill building to support your research in the future is a viable option.  At times, I (Ryan) have felt taxed by the constant news and the physical distancing, and that’s made it so that I struggled to write or think clearly. I spent several hours the first week of physical distancing completing modules on scientific writing  and peer review. A quick search of Coursera or other sites reveals a variety of options (I highly recommend the courses by Daniel Lakens on statistical inference and questions). Another alternative is to dedicate time (or more time) to reading journal articles and other professional resources.

Another option, particularly if you just aren’t up to engaging in research from home, is to work on other tasks in the next few months that would take away from your research time in the fall when you might be able to restart projects. For example, you might conduct more prep for course work for the fall or ramp up graduate student mentorship, helping students deal, or support for vulnerable colleagues (particularly if you are less junior), to name a few.

Communicating with Your University

Looking toward the future, pre-tenure faculty are no doubt wondering how all of this will affect their annual or tenure reviews, promotion (e.g., publication expectations or teaching evaluations), and so forth. While some universities are pausing tenure clocks or offering faculty the option to extend their tenure clocks , some may not have issued a statement or policy. Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of California at Santa Cruz wrote in the Chronicle that we should “be prepared to tell the story of the semester” including explaining this semester’s teaching strategies, and potentially addressing negative teaching evaluations, but her advice rings true for the range of academic activities we engage in. It may be worth documenting now how you are navigating the pandemic with regard to disrupted research, supporting your students, transitioning your classes to online, and preparing future research and teaching plans. 

It’s also wise to maintain open and honest communication with your program colleagues, unit administrators, and mentors. Now may be a good time to reach out to them and seek their advice on how to move forward. Hopefully, your senior colleagues and mentors are compassionate, accommodating advocates or provide you with information regarding how to advocate for yourself. Let’s remember, though, that everyone is dealing with their own complexities now; kindness and patience toward these folks should be our default.

A Note for Student Scholars

This is a challenging time for everyone, but graduate scholars are likely to feel these are especially precarious times, particularly those who’ve seen their thesis or dissertations projects upended. If you’re early enough in the process, hopefully a slight to moderate course correction via modified research questions or methods will allow you to salvage as much of your work to date. If you’re less far along, we hope you can use the recommendations above for secondary analysis or review methods (this is a great book to get started) to craft a pandemic-friendly research project. (And we hope advisors appreciate the severity and implications of this pandemic and help student scholars adjust course without major delays or unwanted extensions of time to degree because of preferences against more accessible methods such as systematic review or secondary analysis)

An Appeal to No-So-Early Career Scholars

As mentioned in Part 1, this bears repeating: As a full professor, I (Amanda) know that I am co-writing this from a place of immense privilege. I challenge myself and my similarly privileged peers to ask how we can support those without the luxuries of rank, tenure, and everything that comes with it. We must also keep in mind that the consequences of this crisis will continue to reverberate, even if/when we return to business as usual, so our grace must extend beyond the crisis. What we are seeing now isn’t simply several week’s disruption of study implementation but a global pandemic and multigenerational traumatic event that will reverberate for months and years to come. As such, even if university and school operations resume fully in the fall (unlikely given the many scenarios most universities are considering), the effects will not be as simple as a pause in research projects or the extra writing time some might frame it as or wish it to be. The setbacks to early career scholars’ research programs may be especially protracted because they don’t have the robust pipeline, collaborative network, or general experience to fall back on.

Although some scholars are experiencing increased writing time, many more are not and will not for some time given increased and unevenly distributed caregiving, teaching, administration, and service needs and obligations that are disproportionately restricting women’s research productivity, not to mention disproportionate effects of this pandemic of minoritized communities that will inevitably detrimentally affect scholars who are Black, Indigeneous, people of color, or immigrants. We must apply an intersectional approach to understanding this pandemic and be reflective and compassionate as we evaluate scholars’ accomplishments and contributions in the months and years to come.


If you’re tired of hearing about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear or how Isaac Newton discovered gravity during quarantine, remember that back then, Netflix was still only doing DVD delivery. In all seriousness, we are in the middle of a pandemic where caring for our family, our friends, and ourselves should be our top priorities. However, if research serves as a helpful outlet or you want to remain productive in light of continued expectations from your university, focusing on available tasks, adapting questions or methods, skill building, and planning for the future may be ways you can continue to be research active while caring for yourself and others.

What other suggestions do you have for early career scholars seeking to revive or re-envision their research agendas? What questions or comments do you have for the ECF?

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