Social distancing and shelter-in-place orders currently in effect in response to the COVID-19 crisis have upturned work patterns of companies and academics alike. With several labs shutting down and grinding experiments to an abrupt halt, scientists find themselves now working from home—a new experience for most.
We know that adjusting to work-from-home life is not easy, especially if your routine involved working at the bench all day. There is no easy fix to the situation, but we want to help you transition into your new routine smoothly. In this post, we offer resources and tips for making working from home more effective and productive for scientists.
Set a Routine
Routine is very important in our daily life- it helps us stay on track and be productive. As your routine is disrupted, it is no doubt difficult to get into work mode. Planning helps!
- Get organized with lists: Get organized and make lists of short term (daily) plans for the week. Take that list and organize it further by day, ensuring that you complete every task you wish to by the end of the week. This time blocking technique will help you know what you are working on when you start your day. Setting goals for the day will help structure your otherwise disrupted routine.
- Manage your time with the Pomodoro Technique: Having trouble focusing is a common issue when working from home, especially if you are not used to hours of desk confinement. One of the popular methods to help optimize time management is the Pomodoro technique, which involves breaking down work into intervals of 25 minutes in length, separated by 5 min breaks.
- Separate your work from life: Having a dedicated workspace, changing into non-pajama clothes, and defining your worktimes are some of the ways that help set boundaries between your working time and daily life. This distinction is essential to avoid burnout, otherwise, you will be working day or night, checking emails as soon as you wake up and right before you go to sleep.
Catch up on Literature
The most common back-up plan for researchers working from home is to catch up on literature. This is perfect since lab experiments often leave little or no time to read the latest papers in the field.
- Understand the paper: It is true that sitting at home presents a rare opportunity to read papers, but on the flip side, since focused reading is not a part of your daily routine, it might turn out more difficult than it sounds. If reading gets tedious (and it will), here’s a great resource on how to read a scientific paper to help you with it.
- Compile your bibliography: Also, once you find papers that are relevant to your research topic, you will possibly need them again for future reading or citing. Take this chance to manage your bibliography; several tools such as Mendeley, EndNote, ResearchGate are available for the same.
- Work out your creative muscles: Literature isn’t just about reading papers, it’s often used to help other scientists come up with new ideas. After catching up on literature, brainstorm new experiments that might be added to your study question. Once back in the lab, you are now equipped with a new arsenal of tools to help you bolster your research.
- Resist distractions: This may sound obvious but needs to be reiterated because it is extremely important: Keep your phone away. Short intervals of focused reading are much more effective than interrupted reading over hours. See Pomodoro Technique described in the section above for ideas to work in short intervals.
Write that Grant/Paper/Review/Thesis
Writing is a task that definitely requires chunks of isolated time without anyone disturbing you. Being stuck at home is a perfect opportunity to write—be it the pending review, your thesis chapter, or parts of a paper you have been hoping to finish for a while.
Here are a few resources that will help you write more effectively:
- Structure the paper right: Even if you have written papers before, trust me, you will find this useful. In this article, six experts offer tips on best practices to write a manuscript.
- Keep your writing simple: Structure of a paper/grant/thesis is just one aspect of writing. Here are a few tricks to bear in mind to master the art of scientific writing.
- Figure it out: If you get bored of writing, remember that figures are an equally important part of the paper. So, take a break from writing and analyze that data or make some schematics for your intro. Biorender is a great tool for making classy biology-related images.
Watch the Webinar: CRISPR Gene Knockouts Re-Engineered
The advent of CRISPR has completely revolutionized biology, enabling scientists to study genes and their role in cellular function and disease progression. In typical knockout experiments, an individual guide RNA is used to generate nucleotide insertions or deletions. However, these individual guide edits are highly variable and unpredictable and do not always translate to functional knockouts.
Organize/Analyze Your Data
While in the lab, it always feels like you are going a million miles a minute. Not only do you not have time to catch up on literature or write your grant/paper, sometimes you don’t have time to really analyze your data. Not spending time with your data, especially large datasets, can mean you might be missing out on a result that has always been at your fingertips.
Here are a few areas that might need some organization:
- Update your inventory: Have an animal colony, or work with many different cell lines? Chances are, your inventory might not be up to date, and probably not on your top priority list on a normal day. Use this time to update that animal notebook, or that sample inventory.
- Organize your computer files: With everyone going electronic these days, not only do you have a lot of projects to manage, but you have a lot of files to keep track of. Your data folder might appear organized at first glance, but when you open it, it might be a mess. Take this time to organize your electronic work life. It will help you find things later when you will have less time.
- Take a second look: Analyzing data is not a one and done task. Take time to give your dataset(s) a second or third look. If it isn’t giving you the data you had anticipated, try to see if it can answer another question you might have.
- Turn your data into a story: When in the lab, you are gathering data all the time. And when that data isn’t what you expected it to be, you might be discouraged, and you move on. What you don’t know is, as time goes on, you might be crafting a completely different story with your data than you originally set out to. Take this time to go through all your data by putting it in one place (either Powerpoint or Google Docs) and see if there is a story you can craft with data you thought was nothing.
Expand & Share Knowledge
There’s always that “something extra” that you wanted to learn but didn’t have enough time. Now is the time to expand your knowledge.
- Sign up for online courses: We live in a digital age, so thankfully there is no dearth of online courses. From bioinformatics to scientific writing, you can learn about any topic through platforms such as Coursera or Udemy to expand your skill set.
- Check out free resources: In the same vein of online courses, ebooks, webinars, and podcasts are a great way to learn. For CRISPR related ones, check out our webinars and CRISPR Cuts podcast.
- Disseminate your work: If you want to share your knowledge, there may be several options out there to broadcast your work. For instance, if you are working in genome editing, we are happy to consider hosting your talk or poster on our website. Reach out to us at email@example.com for more details.
Stay in Touch with Colleagues
Whatever parts of your usual schedule can be translated to virtual platforms, it is highly encouraged to continue those. This not only helps everyone communicate better but the closer you stay to your usual routine, the more likely you are to relax mentally.
- Zoom in to lab meetings: Keep those lab meetings going. Granted, there might not be new data to share but you can always discuss a paper or learn from each other about the new things other people are trying. Let camaraderie and commiseration work their magic to sail through this situation together.
- Collaborate with coffee: Journal clubs or discussions about work might be a great way to get and give a holistic picture of your work.
- Spread the joy with happy hour: Social interactions in the lab are not just about work, so why should virtual interactions be limited to work talk. Hop on a virtual happy hour to chat about stuff besides work and COVID-19 to bring a sense of normalcy to your life.
Take Care of Your Mental Health
Last but not the least, remember that this is a unique situation and it is okay to slow down. There may be many things stressing you out, along with anxiety around the pandemic. Maybe you culled your mice or threw out batches of flies or discarded hundreds of cell culture plates. Maybe you are an immigrant away from your family, worried about their well being. Maybe you have kids at home that need your attention. Whatever your situation is, here are some useful tips to destress.
- Focus on self-care: If you are stressed, take a break and use this time for self-care. Go for walks, do that video workout, or meditate. Do not forget that productivity can wait, mental health cannot.
- Netflix and chill: All work and no play makes everyone dull. It is important to find ways to relax, whether it is through virtual hangouts with friends or family or chilling out solo. Tip: You can watch movies together with others using the Netflix Party Chrome extension.
- Nurture a hobby: Try cooking something new, read that book, tend to your garden, work on your art… the list could go on. Basically, do whatever it takes to keep you calm and sane.
We hope that these resources help scientists survive and thrive in these difficult times. If you have more ideas or would like to give us feedback, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay safe and healthy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meenakshi Prabhune, Ph.D.
Meenakshi Prabhune, a science writer and journalist, manages the Synthego blog content. In her free time, one can find her traveling to new places or binge-watching Netflix shows on her couch (both are equally probable). Follow Meenakshi on Twitter (@minu_pr) for her latest updates.