bear with face mask and sign quarantine - home office

#45: 20 great ways to stay productive when Corona (COVID-19) has locked you out of university

The recent Corona virus outbreak is changing the way many PhD students, Postdocs and Researchers can conduct their work. Universities and research institutes around the world have or are about to shut down their business and send staff into home office. Does the pandemic spread of COVID-19 also affect you? Or are you afraid it might happen very soon? With this post, we want to express our sympathy with all the researchers affected and to help by suggesting great tips on how your time in home office can be effectively turned into productive research outcomes. 

>>> Check our video with great tips for researchers working from home office! <<<

The pandemic spread of the Corona virus (COVID-19) is affecting economies, public and private lives of people around the world and causing tremendous delays in productivity (see WHO for latest update). The global research community is also strongly impacted by the development. While institutes in the field of virology, pharmacology, and biotechnology are drumming up their efforts to find ways for how to cope with and combat the disease, other researchers are faced with suddenly being cut off from their most valuable resources and their research offices. Some academics saw their institutes, labs, offices literally closed overnight which interrupted the necessary access to resources, information, data, and networks and left them without a plan for how to deal with this new situation. 

If you’ve found yourself in such a situation or fear it might become a reality very soon, you have our full sympathy. It is anything but a funny situation to find yourself in, but there is perhaps a secret silver lining! Once you realise that you are locked out of the office and must work from home there’s the benefit that you: 

  • have to exchange your super-power computer with your 6-year old private laptop where you can listen to your favourite music, 
  • can no longer enjoy the fancy and probably unhealthy food from your cantina
  • have to substitute your fancy lab and the stylish office desk with your apartment’s kitchen table next to the fridge and
  • can no longer complain about the many noisy conversations of your office mates. 

Your work life has suddenly changed. You didn’t see it coming and it hits you hard because your plans were totally different. You can’t return to business-as-usual, and at the moment, you don’t know how long this will last. 

The first intuitive reaction to your new work-life might be to conclude that since you cannot do your most of your research from home anyway, you could instead

  • spring-clean your apartment, 
  • binge-watch all episodes of the Bing Bang Theory to find out what Sheldon and friends would have done in such a situation, 
  • sift through your closet and donate the old sweaters not worn since your undergraduate years,
  • do some excessive online-shopping, or 
  • spend your day talking to friends who are in the same situation and bemoan the circumstances together, after which you all feel more miserable! 

Once you got over the first shock of how your working situation has shifted, you will realise that this actually contains a rare chance! While you might be barred from a few resources, it’s a fantastic opportunity to get important work done, which normally gets sidelined during a busy day at the institute. If you adapt this mindset, you can turn your working from home days into a productive boom.

To help you brainstorm which activities might work even better from home (because you’ve always said you cannot find the time to do this when at work), we’ve created a list of 20 great tips to stay productive. We’ve ordered them thematically, so you can take the short-cut to the most relevant for yourself!

I. Planning & further education:

1. Organise the perfect working from home day 

You might have more freedom to arrange your day, so it is important to decide on a structure, so you don’t get lost. In the morning, sketch out the three most important things you want to work on during the day, and how much time you want to allocate to each. In addition, plan for a bit of time for admin work, preferably after you have completed your three most important tasks. Then write down the start and end-times of your workday, and schedule time for a lunch break and 1-2 smaller breaks in between. Try to plan something enjoyable during your breaks, as well as in the evening! Sticking to a plan like this will help keep your focus and avoid getting lost in social media distractions – for more helpful hints how to avoid this, see our post #14: Social media/www distractions at work: 5-step-cure! It can be pure bliss to arrange the day just as you like! 

2. Plan for upcoming deadlines to avoid last-minute stress

Browse through your calendar and check the upcoming deadlines for the next few months. Do you have any conference abstracts to write, proposals to submit, papers or book-chapters to draft, or work-packages to complete? It’s completely possible to work on a couple of tasks simultaneously, but it needs careful planning. If you want to get into a productive yet stress-free habit of submitting high-quality work on time, get our post #8: 7 easy steps to avoid deadline disaster.

3. Join online-courses to educate yourself further 

In times like these, digital courses that are provided live online or for download can open up a whole new type of learning and interacting. They are no longer an add-on to a seminar or face-to-face lectures but open up whole new opportunities of learning and getting things done. You can learn at your own pace, wherever you want and you can usually benefit from interacting with a larger group of fellow participants, which makes it even more fun. Wasn’t there a topic you always wanted to know more about but you never got around to do it? Check whether you can find an online course and get it done from your kitchen table. 

By the way, we are offering a free digital PhD Master Class to teach PhD students how to complete successfully. If you are interested in joining, sign-up here and we’ll give you a shout when it will start. Hopefully, we’ll be able to help you finish that PhD project sooner than you expected!

II. PhD-related tips:

4. Nail down the topic for your PhD project 

You may have heard that postponing the decision on the exact topic of your PhD is one of the main causes for PhD student delay. If the answer to the above is ‘no’ – you better check out our expert guide ‘5 reasons why PhD students delay and how to avoid’. So why not use the time you have now, to start this decision process and finally make a choice, with the help of our fabulous suggestions from post #29: How to find the topic of my PhD, where you can also find a super helpful 6-step guide that will take you all the way to your PhD topic! 

5. Inform yourself on the PhD thesis requirements 

Do you know exactly what the requirements are for the thesis you have to hand in at the end of your PhD or to publish your thesis? Really? If not, this is a great one to sort out now! Simply download the PhD regulations from the university’s website and carefully read the respective sections. Thesis requirements vary greatly from one university to the next, and even from one department to another, so make sure you’ve got the right one in hand. If you have a choice between the traditional monograph or a paper-based dissertation and you’re uncertain which one is best for you, have a look at our post #6: Dissertation dilemma? Hand in a monograph or papers?

6. Update your planning for the remaining months of your PhD to see what is needed to complete on time

Are you realising that time is flying and your PhD time is eventually going to come to an end? Having a few working from home days is perfect for taking stock of what you have achieved already, updating your project plan, and goal-setting for the remaining months. Compare your earlier planning with your current progress and aspirations. Ask yourself, what major steps do I still need to complete in order to make it on time? Identify eventual hurdles or problems that might be in your way. If you lack focus, or you have not started writing on your dissertation yet, see our post #4: How to find time for research?

7. Have a video-meeting with your supervisor 

Now that you have a bit more time to reflect on your PhD project, there may suddenly be a lot of aspects that you want to discuss with your supervisor. Don’t be shy – simply ask for a video-meeting at their convenience. Giving guidance is a supervisor’s prime responsibility, and it is crucial for your PhD to see your supervisor regularly. We give you many more insights on the characteristics of good supervision in our post #10: Good PhD-supervision: What you can expect.

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III. Publishing tips:

8. Set up a publishing strategy

Instead of racing from one paper topic to another and seeing which paper you can eventually publish from among the many activities you are doing, why not use some time now to develop a strategy that tells you what the most promising publications are from which part of your research? Get an overview on the potential content that could end up in your papers. Think about what type of journals you want or have to publish in and how long it will likely take you to write these papers. Many of us need to write papers, but how many can you actually realistically produce? How important are these papers for your further career development? Get clarity on these questions by devising your own publishing strategy. It will guide you through the important steps to give your career a boost. Check out our post #38: Why you need a publishing strategy including a free checklist to help you create it. Now is the best time to get started with the strategy so that you know exactly what to focus on.  

9. Start writing your next paper 

Wasn’t it true that you were never able to find the right time or right mood to write your next paper in the office? Take the chance now to sit down and think about the work you have already done and how this could be translated into a journal paper. Start with looking for a research question that you can answer, then think about the audience and the journal before you draft the outline and the first sections of the paper. To help you, look at our posts #5: How to get started with writing papers? and#28: What type of journal paper to write? Our post #17: Predatory journals: How to identify them? will prevent you from falling for predatory journals. 

10. Complete a review-report for that journal 

Probably a few weeks ago, you got an email from the editor of one of your key journals asking you to help them to review a paper for their journal. As many researchers do, you agreed and then postponed reviewing and returning the report to the journal. Week after week, this behaviour has caused long delays in peer-review, which neither the journal nor the authors are happy about. Look at this paper now and draft your recommendation to the journal. They will be glad to hear from you, not to mention, reviewing somebody else’s paper is always a good exercise for writing your own! If you need some ideas for what aspects experienced reviewers first look at in a paper, check out our post #9: What reviewers of your paper first look at

11. Complete the revision of the paper that you received from the journal

If you received a request for a revision from a journal you had submitted a paper to but you haven’t completed the revision yet, do so now. Use the time to work on the revised paper and go through all the comments and suggestions from the reviewers. Probably, you’ve gotten a bit of distance from the paper already? This is good because then you will read the reviewer’s comments with new eyes and possibly try to implement as many of their suggestions as possible. There are a few ways How NOT to react when you receive review reports (see our post #32) and in post #34: Seven features of a good response to reviewers, where we show you many good ways of how a good response to reviewers can be written and help to get your paper published. 

12. Send your paper draft to your co-authors and ask for comments

Academics are always telling us about the huge problem of getting feedback from co-authors on their papers. Your new situation could actually be helpful here. Think about specific questions, problems or aspects where you would need input from co-authors. Then contact them by email, video chat or phone and discuss these problems with them. Your co-authors might be locked out of their institutes as well and therefore be far more available and willing to give you helpful input. Our post #23: What to do if my co-authors don’t contribute? gives you some suggestions for how to reactivate passive co-authors. 

13. Think about how to rewrite the paper that was rejected

Just in case you’ve had a paper rejected and kept it out of sight ever since, now could be the moment to take it out again and reconsider it. Why was this paper rejected? With a bit of distance from the rejection, you might be able to see the editor’s decision letter in a different light. Think about whether it is possible to change the paper and resubmit it. Usually, a rejection is not the end of a paper you might still get it published! It just needs a bit of work and thought. In our post #42: My paper got rejected! What now? we describe in detail the options that you have once your paper has been rejected. 

IV. CV-update and applying for a job:

14. Brush-up your CV

If you’ve always wanted to update your CV – now’s the time! First, inform yourself on the exact requirements of a great academic CV. It’s got to be organised in a very specific way and there is a clear difference between a resume or an industry CV. It’s not a massive amount of work, but you do need to structure this correctly in order to end up with a highly competitive CV. We make this step easy for you with our post #31: 6 smart strategies for a strong academic CV

15. Write an application letter

Are you about to start hunting for a new position in the coming months? You’ll need a detailed and compelling application letter, which will help to convince the hiring institute that you would be a great candidate and lands you an interview spot. Avoid the most common mistakes in your letter with our expert guide 8 common reasons why application letters fail! 

16. Identify topics for your job talk and start preparing the talk

An invitation for an interview often comes with very short notice! Therefore some advance preparation on your side can be a smart strategy. Think about the highlights in your research and teaching that you would want to emphasise and how you would ideally communicate these in a job talk. One particularly tricky aspect is to make sure you can manage to communicate complex scientific concepts in an easy to understand and elegant way! In our post #16: Your job talk: 5 tips to make it a success!, we’ve outlined the 5 most important tips to make your job talk a success! 

17. Go through common interview questions and prepare answers

Have you realised that a stellar performance during a job interview needs immaculate preparation? Get a head-start now on preparing answers to common interview questions before your next invitation! Be prepared to give concise and compelling answers about your research, teaching and responsibilities in the academic administration. You definitely want to read our post #27: The 8 mistakes you shouldn’t make in a job interview. 

V. Presentations: 

18. Prepare your next conference talk 

At the moment, many conferences, meetings and other scientific gatherings are cancelled, but there will be a time when these events will be rescheduled. Why not prepare for this occasion and think about your next presentation that you could deliver at a conference? Too often we hear from presenters that they didn’t have enough time to prepare their talks properly. You have the chance now to turn this trend around. If this is your first talk ever, check our post #26: First conference presentation? 17 life-saving tips. 

19. Go through common questions from the audience and prepare answers 

If you were about to go to a conference which is now cancelled or postponed, you have probably already prepared your conference presentation. However, now you can’t deliver it. Well, you could, of course, upload it to asocial media channel and share it with your peers. But, if you’re hoping the conference you planned to go to will take place just a bit later, why not prepare a bit more for this event? Your talk might be ready to deliver, but what about your preparation for the discussion after your presentation with its question and answer period? Check out our post #30: Questions from the audience you should be prepared to answer which will give you an overview of the most common questions at conferences that you should always have an answer for. 

20. Prepare a conference poster   

A poster is a great opportunity to get started with conference presentations. If you have not been to too many of such events, try it out and use your time to get started with your first poster. Luckily, you don’t need a large printer these days as the whole poster can be designed on your laptop, and some are even presented in digital form. In our post #15: 5 smart strategies to get most out of a conference poster we tell you how to utilize a good poster presentation for your future academic career. 

Conclusion: 

The Coronavirus outbreak is a serious and unfortunate event for so many, and it is sad you are locked out or stuck at home, but there is no reason to despair and get stuck. We want you to turn the situation around and make the most out of it. Probably, you can make the “Corona-time” one of your most productive work periods in long while. We hope that the 20 tips above will give you some inspiration and of course, we hope for a rapid reprieve from the disease for those being affected. In the meanwhile, enjoy your time in the home office and don’t forget to back up the good stuff you produce on the kitchen table on your old laptop! 

P. S. Stay healthy and sign-up for our free PhD Master Class. 

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