A global pandemic is a unique challenge we are all facing together. Dr Krystal Evans is a strongly committed IMNIS mentor in medtech-pharma in Melbourne. We invited Krystal to share her advice for PhD students and early-career researchers to help them manage and navigate this hurdle.
Play to your strengths. Do an online audit. Learn something new.

We are all going through a very unique time right now, and it is important to acknowledge that each person’s experience of the current situation may be very different. There may be many things happening in your life, apart from your research, which are outside of your control and are having a big impact on your productivity right now. And that’s okay.

Remember that it’s everyone’s first COVID19 pandemic, we’re all doing this for the first time – there is no protocol for this – no right or wrong way to journey through. The important thing is to accept what is. To acknowledge that yeah, this probably isn’t the 2020 that you planned for. It’s okay to grieve what is no more, the conferences, the collaborations, the field work, the experiments, the focus groups, the outreach that you had planned that just won’t happen now. And then once you understand what is, and accept what is not, then you can plan for what can be.

Firstly, play to your strengths and engage where you can add value. Be careful about pivoting too hard toward a COVID19 focus if you have to stray outside your area of expertise. There have been examples of what is, at best, poor quality research being put forward on the back of this pandemic. Don’t be tempted to jump on bandwagons – look to see how your existing expertise and skills can be applied to the current situation. Take some time to look at the bigger picture and think of ways to re-contextualise your research focus and the significance of your work in the current and emerging environment. This will allow you to remain relevant, whilst finding the best ways to make valuable contributions to advancing knowledge in your field.

Dr Krystal Evans facilitating an IMNIS discussion on engaging with industry in 2019 [Photo: A. Bizzarri Photography for IMNIS]

Secondly, try to understand the expectations that you put on yourself and give yourself permission to shift them. Many academics see excellence and achievement as part of their identity, thriving on doing difficult things well and rising to a challenge. You may have to accept that right now, you don’t have your usual capacity to perform at the level that you’d normally expect for yourself. This isn’t usual circumstances. You’re not working from home, you’re at home during a global crisis trying to work. Productivity is difficult in the face of trauma. So try to make your day productive for the circumstances you find yourself in. Look for joy in the little steps, the small but important achievements, and take pleasure in ticking even the most minor of tasks off your to do list. If you improve 1% every day, you’ll be 37 times better over a year. Be intentional about the small changes and improvements every day and you will gradually see the gains in productivity that you’re looking for.

“One of the biggest trends emerging from the pandemic is the acceleration of online engagement, so my advice would be to expand your digital presence”

First step – Google yourself. This is what any future employer (HR, recruiter, interviewer) will do. What do the results look like? Are they telling the right story about who you are and what you can do? Are there links to any of your online profiles? Are they up-to-date? Time to do an online audit of yourself and your online information – and give it a brush up if needed!

Now is the time to broaden your social media reach – what platforms are you on and how can you grow your footprint? The two biggest platforms I’ve see researchers use successfully to create opportunities are LinkedIn and Twitter. So, update your LinkedIn profile. Not sure what it should look like? Search for people who have the kind of job you’d like to have and look how they present their profile. LinkedIn is a huge area of growth for recruitment and I know of many STEM businesses who hire exclusively through this platform. Use the job search function to look for opportunities, but also engage with content by liking or commenting on posts to boost your presence and profile.

Twitter is a great place to establish yourself as an expert in your field and hone your communication and engagement skills. Follow the leading researchers in your field, the academic institutes and businesses that you’d love to work for. Listen to the conversations and topic areas that are important to them and find ways to add your voice to the conversation in a meaningful and respectful way.

“Reach out to people you know on these platforms and ask them if they can help you expand your networks. Networking is a very important part of job hunting and you can be very successful in the online environment if you sharpen your social media skills”

Now is a great time to think about the things that you’ve always wished you had the time or the opportunity to do. I have always wanted to be more digitally competent, in terms of virtual ways of working, so I am using this as an opportunity to accelerate my development around online collaboration tools and engagement methods. Have you always wanted to master a particular software package or application? Now is the time to watch all those online tutorials and do the training sessions that haven’t been a priority till now. When we emerge from this pandemic, the world will have a quite different shape and pace, one where digital skills and capabilities will be highly valued.

However if you’re not in a position to have the time to do new training, then think about ways to incorporate new skills into your everyday tasks so it’s not additional to your workload, but part of your everyday workflow. As a Gen-Xer, I’m challenging myself to move away from pen and paper to digital notetaking at this time, and while I don’t have time for training courses, I’ve found that committing to a new way of working is inspiring me to do things differently in my everyday work routine and teaching me a lot of new skills.

“I have been much more conscious in understanding and identifying my well-being needs and then scheduling time for them. Exercise is a big part of my mental well-being, so I have time set aside in my diary to go for a jog, three times a week”

Stay connected to your support structures, and reach out to your colleagues, your family and friends. Right now, we may be physically isolated, but we’re far more socially connected. I’ve seen terrific examples of virtual lab meetings, online trivia nights, ways to watch movies with families far apart and have remote dance lessons or choirs. Find new ways to enjoy the things you already love.

As an extrovert, I know I need people contact to be a happy human, so I’m scheduling regular catch ups with friends. And as a mum, I need to spend time where I can just focus on my family, uninterrupted, and be a present parent and partner, without screens or headsets. Investing in your own health and wellbeing is one of the most significant things you can be doing right now to set you up for long term future success, so take the time to work out what that needs to look like for you.

About the author:

Dr Krystal Evans is Medical Science Liaison at GSK and a strongly committed IMNIS mentor with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. Dr Evans is a high performing leader with 20+ years’ experience in academic research, biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries with deep networks across the Australian healthcare and medical innovation landscape. Krystal completed her PhD and post-doctoral fellowship in biomedical research with scientific expertise in vaccinology and the immunological mechanisms underlying disease pathogenesis. She is an experienced communicator with a scientific rigour that supports an evidence-based, data-driven approach to storytelling. As a strategic relationship builder, Krystal has delivered positive business outcomes by influencing and shaping the external environment through stakeholder management, government relations and corporate affairs. Dr Evans is an experienced leader who thrives in a dynamic, cross-functional team. She has a deep understanding of the Australian health and medical research environment and the challenges in delivering innovative healthcare solutions to patients. Krystal is highly collaborative and applies an outcomes driven approach to solving complex problems.