Starting a postdoc in a pandemic

by | Sep 4, 2020 | Blogposts | 2 comments

To discuss the unique aspects of starting a postdoc in a pandemic, we’re collaborating with Dr Ben Purvis, from the University of Sheffield.

Ben is an early career researcher in sustainability science, urban studies and modelling in the School of Architecture. He attended our ‘Communicating research beyond academia’ workshop following which we agreed to collaborate on starting a postdoc during a pandemic. He has learned a lot from his journey and has a lot to share with fellow researchers navigating these uncertain times.

Divisory line


starting a postdoc in a pandemic Empty city


Starting a postdoc in a pandemic

In April, mid-pandemic, I started my first post-doctoral research role, based at the University of Sheffield. Several weeks before I was due to start it became apparent that the world of work was about to change dramatically.

Still living in Nottingham where I was finishing my PhD corrections, I witnessed first-hand the sudden shift to online teaching, and the closure of the libraries, university buildings, and other facilities.

As my induction timetable transitioned from face-to-face to virtual meetings, I dropped the meticulous planning of my intended commute.

I had never had a virtual meeting before and was apprehensive as to how these would work in practice.


starting a postdoc in a pandemic Empty city 2


Adapting to a ‘new normal’

Fast forward 4 months later and I have settled into this new normal. My job is going well, and I have moved to Sheffield where I’m establishing networks of colleagues and friends, despite having not stepped foot in a university building.

Virtual meetings feel natural to me now. In fact, I’m appreciating the time saved on travel. What’s more, I can now attend seminars around the world from the comfort of my living room.

Despite this, I’m still keen to return to campus. Whilst I have now (virtually) met many colleagues, at times I feel isolated and disconnected from my department and the university, and I have noticed that working from home can sap my productivity.

In the first few weeks, I felt overwhelmed finding my bearings in a new department, a new university, and a new city.

I have written this post to share my experiences with anyone who may have recently started or is about to start a new job under these extraordinary circumstances.

Below are my tips for starting a postdoc in a pandemic to help make it easier for yourself.



Tips for starting a postdoc in a pandemic


1. Getting to know my department and colleagues

I was lucky that I already knew a couple of colleagues from previous work. Moreover, at my departmental induction, I spoke to key figures such as the head of school and departmental manager.

Here’s what I suggest doing to get to know your department and new colleagues:

  • Read staff profiles, and match faces to names in big staff meetings.
  • Reach out to colleagues with similar research interests and introduce yourself by email.
  • Read course handbooks to get an idea of what programmes exist in the department, the topics taught, and who teaches them.
  • Attend virtual events/seminars. These are a great way to contribute to the discussion and get to know other people’s work.
  • Sign up to relevant research networks and mailing lists.


Zoom conversations


2. Getting to know the university

When I started my job, there were no formal university wide tours or inductions for new colleagues. Therefore, I’ve stayed proactive by:

  • Browsing the university’s web pages and reading about its history and ethos.
  • Signing up for the University and Colleges Union and attending the meetings of my university branch. I quickly became familiar with the university’s internal politics, structure, bureaucracy and finances, as well as the inner workings of other departments and faculties. Moreover, I met other early career researchers, building solidarity and networks with other staff on fixed term contracts across the university.
  • Reaching out to the LGBT staff network, and attending their weekly online socials. Take a look to see if there are any staff networks relevant to you at your institution such as BAME, Disability, Women’s, and Parents/Carers.
  • Actually reading ALL the emails! It’s true the University send out lots of emails, but these helped me a lot. I’m doing as much as my time will allow me to get involved with university life. This has involved:
    • being paired with a senior mentor;
    • mentoring a PhD student myself;
    • a careers meeting to help me make the most of my contract;
    • various short courses for personal and skills development.
  • After moving here, I got a friend to give me a tour of the campus, and have frequently walked around it myself to get to know the layout and buildings better.

Even though getting to know the University mostly virtually is not an ideal experience, I have made the most of it and feel prepared to get immersed in my new job and its environment.


Empty university


3. Getting to know a new city

I moved to Sheffield at the start of June as soon as the lockdown had partially relaxed. Prior to this, I had only visited it a handful of times, so it was all new for me to explore. Here are a few things I did that made me feel comfortable and welcome:

  • Branded ‘The Outdoor City’, Sheffield is perfect for a lockdown summer, with numerous parks within walking distance of the city centre. In good weather, I have found places to work outside, either reading or writing, or finding various outdoor spots with Wi-Fi access. My go-to spot is Weston Park, which is surrounded by university buildings and thus benefits from eduroam internet connection in certain spots!
  • Since more businesses have reopened, I have started to spend a couple of hours every few days working in a café. I try to pick a new one each time.


starting a postdoc in a pandemic Working in a cafe


Also, I:

  • Got lost… Every city has hidden gems off the beaten track, whether it’s a green space, a side alley, or a café. I’ve found plenty to explore and I particularly enjoy coming across unexpected street art murals.
  • Bought a map. I put a map of the city on my wall to learn the city’s layout. This has helped me to visually orient myself and has made me feel more comfortable in my spontaneous explorations.


Street Murals Phlegm

Wall mural by Phlegm


Reflections and tips on starting a postdoc in a pandemic

Overall, the challenges of starting a postdoc remotely have been easier to overcome with a lot of preparation. Beyond getting to know my new colleagues, university and city, I did several things at home and in my working routine that made a difference.

For example, I made my home work station comfortable. A decent chair is a must. I found it useful to speak to a health and safety officer/team who provided guidance on assessing my workspace.

It’s also worth checking the support available from your institution. They can help you source equipment to make working from home is as comfortable as possible.


starting a postdoc in a pandemic Working


Despite the best of adjustments, I realised that working from home for long periods of time can be unproductive. I find it helpful to change my environment occasionally. Whether this means working from a coffee shop for the afternoon, working outside, or just taking a break.

I think we need to remember to carve out space for ourselves and experiment with different setups.

Moreover, when taking breaks from work, I think it’s crucial to stay proactive by:

  • identifying networks to get involved with;
  • reaching out to colleagues/relevant people;
  • reading (or skimming) generic emails – there are often hidden opportunities inside;
  • considering joining a union – they can be great for getting involved with how your institution works.

On this note, I would say to not fear online meetings. They’re not as scary as I originally thought, and save lots of time. Most likely, everyone wants to see your cat/dog/baby, so don’t feel unprofessional if they disturb you during a video call!!

Finally, be kind to yourself. Whilst we’ve had to quickly adapt to this new normal, the situation is far from ideal, everyone is struggling, and productivity issues are inevitable.


Hang in there

Thank you

Many thanks to Dr Ben Purvis (@benpurvis42) for sharing his experience and tips on starting a postdoc during a pandemic. Please comment below with your tips.

If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy reading how to deliver a successful virtual workshop via Zoom or Kate’s communication tips for engaging patients with research online.

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