The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a host of challenges for everyone. At Cultured Scene, we were particularly interested in how the pandemic and resulting quarantines and lockdowns have affected early-career researchers. We asked academics from different fields and at different stages of their careers the same six questions about how the pandemic has impacted them.


Andrew Cooke, Postdoctoral researcher

Andrew is a postdoctoral researcher passionate about animal health, sustainability, and conservation. Currently, he is looking at how natural capital can be used to improve goat health, in Southern Africa, whilst also yielding socio-economic benefits. His other work has involved cattle welfare, sheep parasite tolerance, and orangutan rehabilitation. He also works closely with policy makers and NGOs where possible.

Post-pandemic I will work from home more

Can you briefly explain how the pandemic has impacted your work on a practical level (i.e. cancelled fieldwork or experiments, delayed job start, online teaching pressures, etc.)?

Some important sampling timepoints have been lost, but not enough so to crash the experiments. We have also had to postpone field trips to Botswana. We have a team on the ground in Botswana who have continued most of the work, but they too have limitations.

We opened up 4-weeks ago for lab access, with excellent COVID measures in place, and it’s been great for getting work done as there is less demand for equipment and times are managed so you never find yourself in a lab with others, sharing equipment. Therefore, when you’re in the lab you can be at maximum productivity.

How are you coping with that, on both a practical and personal level?

Practically – fine. I see it as mostly out of our control so am not worried in that sense. We have done all we can. We have taken the time to plan ahead and to add extra work (e.g. review papers), which in the long-run could deliver a ‘better’ project.

Personally – also fine. Having not known anyone directly affected by the disease and other than concern for my fellow people, it’s been otherwise a quite relaxed and pleasant time, as callous as that may sound.

Do you think the effect on your work and career will be more short-term (for example, a delayed field season rather than a cancelled one), or will it be more long-term (for example, a withdrawn job offer)?

Mostly short-term with a backlog or delay in some activities. That will of course filter through. My one concern is that my current contract ends Q1 2021 and I recently saw a job advertised for the same time, which I shall apply for. Our project could well receive a +3-6 month extension, which would be awkward.

Do you have any advice for other early-career researchers who may be in a similar position?

I and everyone appreciates this can be a difficult time for many and we all cope differently. It’s okay to admit that and ask for dispensation. Not doing so is doing a disservice to yourself.

With regards to jobs – academia always has and always will be highly competitive. Nobody knows if the job market will be tougher or not due to this, but either way you have to put yourself out there and as most of us know, applying for academic jobs is usually a saga of rejection and frustration.

Has the interruption caused by the pandemic had any positive effects for you so far? For example, has it caused you to explore new ways of working, or to think about your research differently?

Productivity increase due to fewer meetings, being hassled etc. It allowed me to focus and get various desk-based jobs (e.g. papers) off of my desk.
Moving forward, post-pandemic I will work at home more. I never did before. Now I am used to it and have set up a great home office.

How have you been supported by your supervisor, employer, or other mentors during this time? Is there anything more you think institutions should be doing to help ECRs

My institute had a very good response. I didn’t need any support from my supervisors or employer etc., but I am confident I would have been given it if required.



Nicholas Jones, PhD student

The whole system is under pressure

Can you briefly explain how the pandemic has impacted your work on a practical level (i.e. cancelled fieldwork or experiments, delayed job start, online teaching pressures, etc.)?

I have had a half-completed experiment cancelled that I had invested 6 months of work into. Also, with a baby to care for I have lost a lot of work time – so I have been unable to complete any of the manuscripts I could otherwise have (attempted) to finish.

How are you coping with that, on both a practical and personal level?

With difficulty, it definitely contributed to stress and frustration.

Do you think the effect on your work and career will be more short-term (for example, a delayed field season rather than a cancelled one), or will it be more long-term (for example, a withdrawn job offer)?

 I don’t know, short term for sure, I may have to start the cancelled experiment from scratch. Long term, probably. I lost a lot of time and have already pulled out from a grant I was working towards because I won’t be able to submit anything decent in time. In the long term, in ‘competing’ for future opportunities with other ECRs who are younger and don’t have kids makes me feel at a big disadvantage.

Do you have any advice for other early-career researchers who may be in a similar position?

No, but good luck to us.

Has the interruption caused by the pandemic had any positive effects for you so far? For example, has it caused you to explore new ways of working, or to think about your research differently?

I don’t really have the time to explore new ways of working.

How have you been supported by your supervisor, employer, or other mentors during this time? Is there anything more you think institutions should be doing to help ECRs?

Personally, I have been very fortunate to have two incredibly supportive supervisors, Luke Rendell and Mike Webster. In general at institute level I think a lot of them are hurting too, financially and time wise. A lot of PIs are even more busy than normal, I don’t see that they can offer that much. The whole system is under pressure, especially in the UK and other countries where science and uni funding is, or is likely to, to be cut as a consequence of COVID (and Brexit)



Eva Reindl, Postdoctoral research fellow

Eva Reindl is a Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews, working with Dr Amanda Seed. Eva obtained her PhD in 2017 from the University of Birmingham, UK, where she was working with Dr Claudio Tennie, Dr Sarah Beck, and Prof Ian Apperly on the developmental origins of cumulative culture. After a short stop at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Anthropology and Museum Ethnography as a lecturer, Eva joined the University of St Andrews to work on a project on the development of executive functions in young children.

We have quite a lot of missing values in our data, which will be a challenge for us

Can you briefly explain how the pandemic has impacted your work on a practical level (i.e. cancelled fieldwork or experiments, delayed job start, online teaching pressures, etc.)?

I am currently working as a Research Fellow under Dr Amanda Seed at the University of St Andrews on a large-scale project on the development of Executive Functions in young children. In June 2019 we started the long and intense data collection phase, aiming at testing around 200 children in nine different Executive Functions tasks, spread over several weeks. We had estimated that the data collection would take us one year, up to June 2020. However, due to the pandemic, our team decided to stop data collection in the mid of March, even before the University officially stopped testing with human participants. Initially, we were hoping that we could resume data collection in early summer, but in hindsight this was of course way too optimistic. Eventually, we decided to close the data collection phase for good, also because the time in the project and our financial resources are soon to come to an end. This decision of course impacted the project: we did not reach our target sample size. Even though we do have almost 200 children in our database, many children could not complete the test battery due to our testing stop. This means that we have quite a lot of missing values in our data, which will be a challenge for us.

How are you coping with that, on both a practical and personal level?

At the beginning I felt very frustrated by the sudden stop of our work. We had already been behind schedule by some months, so we had all been putting in the extra effort to get these data as soon as possible. Data collection for this project had been the most intense and exhausting child testing experience I’ve had so far – going to nurseries every day a week for months in a row, quite long working days, constantly falling ill because you’re rotating between nurseries and picking up everyone’s bugs. But I was very determined because I knew that by the end we would have an amazing sample. When the pandemic came and we stopped testing, it felt extremely unsatisfying – we had put all this effort in for a patchy and incomplete dataset. However, now, I don’t feel frustrated anymore. It is as it is, we cannot change the situation, and actually other researchers have experienced way more severe disruptions to their work.

I am extremely lucky and grateful that I am working with an amazing team of researchers and research assistants. I had been leading a team of four people, who – alongside myself – had been collecting data for this project. When we decided to stop testing, Amanda Seed and I had to react quickly and figure out how to re-employ our team’s workforce. We decided that the team would be doing data entry, coding, data cleaning, and reliability coding – and there was lots of it. I was just amazed by how enthusiastically my team started this work – people who had all signed up to work with children, collect data, and gain experience in the field, and whom we now asked to carry out quite tedious work, on the computer, from their home, for months to come. We had a really good team spirit and made sure that we were in contact each day (via Slack). This definitely helped me to keep up the good spirit: I wanted to be a good role model for my team, but they also gave me lots of energy back.

Do you think the effect on your work and career will be more short-term (for example, a delayed field season rather than a cancelled one), or will it be more long-term (for example, a withdrawn job offer)?

For now I think the effect is only short-term: a change of plans in the project, a different dataset to work with than what was expected. In terms of job offers, I am indeed looking for positions, but whether there are fewer positions available now than if there had been no pandemic I don’t know. I have seen a couple of good job offers recently, but if there would have been more under different circumstances – who knows?

Do you have any advice for other early-career researchers who may be in a similar position?

This is difficult. In my situation, I couldn’t really do much so might not have good advice. I had to accept that there was a negative impact on the project and that it was impossible to get the data in another way (e.g., online). So for me, this was all about accepting that sometimes things don’t go to plan at all and that one has to make the best of what one has got. The pandemic also put things into perspective: while I find the success of this project really important, it is more important to stay safe, healthy and sane, and to help others stay safe, too.

I was lucky that our project was already in a later stage. I don’t know what we would have done if we had just started. This would have been a way more difficult and stressful situation, of course, and I am sure that some of your readers are experiencing such a situation.

In another project I am working on in collaboration with Dr Rohan Kapitány (University of Keele) we had planned a study on adults, to be carried out in the lab. Here, we were able to make some modifications so that we can run this study as an online experiment. I’ve also seen a PhD student in my lab modify her task for toddlers to a version that can be conducted online. So I guess that some studies our research community had planned to carry out as lab experiments before the pandemic might be modifiable so that we can still do some research even without direct contact to our participants. But of course I acknowledge that not everyone might be able to do this and I hope that there are some good examples out there of what one can do in such a situation.

Has the interruption caused by the pandemic had any positive effects for you so far? For example, has it caused you to explore new ways of working, or to think about your research differently?

Yes, definitely, I learned a lot about leadership. After we had stopped data collection, we had to re-plan the work everyone in our testing team would be doing. I had to learn how to delegate and how to ask people to do a difficult job. On a daily basis, I had to organise the team in a different way than I used to when our team was still collecting data. We learned to use Trello keep track of the pending jobs and to assign jobs to members of the team. This was a good way to monitor progress and organise and balance the workload. The pandemic made me think even more of how I can be a good role model and motivating team leader for my team members. We all had some low points during the lockdown and so it was important to me to make sure to check in with my team members on a regular basis. I aimed to create a positive work environment where we would all still feel like a team even though we wouldn’t see each other in person anymore, and where asking for help and making mistakes would not be frowned upon.

I have not really thought differently about my research. I like my research, I find it important, but it will never be as important as friendship, companionship and love. Family comes first, this I’ve realised even more during this pandemic.

How have you been supported by your supervisor, employer, or other mentors during this time? Is there anything more you think institutions should be doing to help ECRs?

Amanda Seed, the PI of this project, has supported me tremendously. She helped me with the transition from the data collection to the data cleaning phase and to re-organise everyone’s jobs. She also helped me a lot by sorting out all the budget issues, making sure that we could keep our team members employed as long as possible during this difficult time. Amanda has always been super approachable, even though she has two children who keep her busy at home! I haven’t really looked into what help different institutions offer to ECRs at the moment, so cannot comment on what else they should be doing.



Sophie Harrower, Incoming PhD student

Sophie is currently an MSc student in Evolutionary and Comparative Psychology at the University of St Andrews, and is studying problem-solving in lizards. In September, she will be starting a PhD (also at St Andrews) which will focus on understanding reciprocity in chimpanzees and rats.

I’ve learned that my neighbour likes to stand in his garden and play the bagpipes in the middle of the day!

Can you briefly explain how the pandemic has impacted your work on a practical level (i.e. cancelled fieldwork or experiments, delayed job start, online teaching pressures, etc.)?

For my MSc project, I had planned to work with squirrel monkeys at a zoo. However, due to the pandemic, the zoo closed and all research activity ceased. This meant that I had to develop a completely new project that could be carried out remotely. 

How are you coping with that, on both a practical and personal level?

On a practical level, it has been challenging at times. Working from home has led to some unexpected issues that have affected my ability to work (for example, I’ve learned that my neighbour likes to stand in his garden and play the bagpipes in the middle of the day!). On a more personal level, I’ve found working remotely to be a bit isolating and I miss the social aspects of physically being at my university. Additionally, as I’m sure is the case with everyone, there is the constant worry of a loved one getting the virus. However, I’m lucky that I have a wonderful support network – consisting of my family and friends, and my supervisors at my university – to help me cope with the current situation. 

Do you think the effect on your work and career will be more short-term (for example, a delayed field season rather than a cancelled one), or will it be more long-term (for example, a withdrawn job offer)?  

I expect the impact to be short term, as I’m lucky to have the security of a PhD position which starts in September. It is possible that the first few months of my PhD will be remote, but it (hopefully) won’t affect me beyond that!

Do you have any advice for other early-career researchers who may be in a similar position?  

In terms of advice, I would urge other early-career researchers to bring up any concerns they may have (if they feel comfortable doing so) with their supervisor(s)/employer or other mentors. I’ve found that airing my concerns – even if they seem trivial – with my supervisors has been really beneficial for my mental health. When you’re feeling isolated and trying to work under such unprecedented conditions, it’s easy for worries to spiral and lead to anxiety. On a related note: be kind to yourself! Your health and wellbeing should always come first, especially at a time like this.

Has the interruption caused by the pandemic had any positive effects for you so far? For example, has it caused you to explore new ways of working, or to think about your research differently?  

Definitely – whilst not ideal, having to completely redesign a project under these conditions has been a valuable learning opportunity for me. I decided to design a citizen science-based project, through which I’m exploring the problem-solving abilities of various lizard species. It’s given me the opportunity to be creative, and further explore my love of science communication. 

How have you been supported by your supervisor or employer during this time? Is there anything more you think institutions should be doing to help ECRs?

My supervisors have been incredible. They are both very approachable, and always make time for a chat if I am in need of advice or support. However, I feel that institutions could be more proactive in terms of providing mental health support to ECRs (potentially through starting up support groups and/or providing workshops). 



Helen Gray, Postdoctoral research fellow

Helen works as a postdoc in the Asher Behaviour Lab at Newcastle University, UK. Broadly, her interests lie in both the mechanisms of animal behaviour and in exploring ways in which behaviour can be measured and used as an indicator of animal welfare.

Two weeks in [to my new postdoc position], I left the office to work from home and haven’t been back

Can you briefly explain how the pandemic has impacted your work on a practical level (i.e. cancelled fieldwork or experiments, delayed job start, online teaching pressures, etc.)?  

I moved cities and started a new postdoc position at the beginning of March. Two weeks in, I left the office to work from home and haven’t been back.  The project I work on is centred around animal behaviour and welfare, and by now we were supposed to have conducted a face-to-face meeting with our farmers, as well as have installed equipment on site. On a more basic note, I’m yet to meet some of the team I’ll be working with in person.  

How are you coping with that, on both a practical and personal level?

Practically, I’m putting a lot of time in planning and organising for when we’ll be able to start our studies. I’m focusing my efforts on reading and trying to positively use the time to get up to speed on the literature. Personally, I find zoom and skype slightly challenging and it’s a shame to have not met the team face-to-face.  

Do you think the effect on your work and career will be more short-term (for example, a delayed field season rather than a cancelled one), or will it be more long-term (for example, a withdrawn job offer)?  

I’m lucky, in a sense, that this happened at the beginning of a new contract. Hopefully, when this position comes to an end, the academic job market will be looking up slightly, but maybe I’m being naïve.  

Do you have any advice for other early-career researchers who may be in a similar position?  

Try to avoid comparisons if you can (easier said than done!). I’ve caught myself making comparisons between what I’ve achieved and what I’ve seen from others on Twitter. I’ve also compared my productivity one day to my productivity the next. Neither of these was helpful to me.  

Has the interruption caused by the pandemic had any positive effects for you so far? For example, has it caused you to explore new ways of working, or to think about your research differently?  

It’s given me the time to properly consider the research I’ll be undertaking and to shape the study design more fully that I might have been able to do previously.  

How have you been supported by your supervisor or employer during this time? Is there anything more you think institutions should be doing to help ECRs?

My PI and university have been really excellent, and I feel very lucky that mental health and wellbeing are being taken seriously at this time. I’m under no pressure to be super productive and that’s a huge weight off.  It would be nice to understand what this is likely to mean for future funding and employment opportunities, but I’m unsure whether that’s something that institutions can currently advise on.



Jennifer Botting

Jennifer is a researcher most recently affiliated with the Inkawu Vervet Project. She completed her PhD at St Andrews examining social learning biases in vervet monkeys and capuchins, before completing a postdoc at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. She is particularly interested in the roles of individual differences and environment in social learning and is passionate about primate conservation.

If you’re just getting through each day right now, you’re doing great

Can you briefly explain how the pandemic has impacted your work on a practical level (i.e. cancelled fieldwork or experiments, delayed job start, online teaching pressures, etc.)?

My last position finished several months before the pandemic started. I had been looking for my next position for a while, but with no luck, and was beginning to get really stressed. Then the pandemic hit and things got a whole lot worse!

In February I had applied to a research job with an NGO that I was pretty excited about, but then the position (which involved overseas travel) was withdrawn. Now of course, very few positions are being advertised in either academia or with NGOs. So it’s definitely been a tough time. I’m writing a grant proposal that I’m really excited about, because it uses social learning research in a conservation setting, but I know the realities of research funding mean that there will be only a slim chance of getting it funded.

I’m in a lucky position where I can stay with relatives and so I don’t have the added stress of trying to make rent. Still, not having an income and the uncertainty of not knowing when I’ll be able to find a position is causing a huge amount of anxiety.

How are you coping with that, on both a practical and personal level?

It varies from day to day. Some days I’m able to tell myself that it can’t last forever and that I will eventually be able to find a paid position even if it’s not exactly what I am looking for. Again, I’m lucky in that I’m able to keep working on papers, grants, and voluntary projects, and working helps to keep my mind off the bigger picture.

Other days, however, it’s all too easy to start panicking about the future. The uncertainty is probably the most difficult aspect to deal with, which is something that I expect affects a lot of early career researchers, pandemic or not. Having a great support network really helps me cope on days like this, as does stepping back and working on non-academic projects.

Do you think the effect on your work and career will be more short-term (for example, a delayed field season rather than a cancelled one), or will it be more long-term (for example, a withdrawn job offer)?

I think the job market is going to be even more horrendous that it was pre-pandemic and so it will likely have negative, long-term consequences for my career and many others. This goes for academia, but also for positions outside of academia. I’m hoping that as things recover, vacancies will start to be advertised again, but who knows?

Do you have any advice for other early-career researchers who may be in a similar position?

I’m not sure I’m in any position to be giving advice…! Perhaps just that I’ve spent a lot of time in my career so far feeling like I’m not doing well enough or that I’m a failure. If you’re also in a position where you’re struggling to find a job, or your work has been knocked off course by the pandemic, please realise that it’s not due to a failure on your part. Life for ERCs was difficult before the pandemic and now it’s on a whole new level, so if you’re just getting through each day right now, you’re doing great.

Has the interruption caused by the pandemic had any positive effects for you so far? For example, has it caused you to explore new ways of working, or to think about your research differently?

I think it has given me more perspective on the things that really matter to me in life. I love my work and I really want to make a positive difference with the work that I do, but the pandemic has also thrown into sharp relief how precious the time we have with our loved ones is. To succeed in science, we’re often taught that our careers have to be prioritised and other aspects of our lives have to be sacrificed in the process. I hope this change in circumstances will help shift the culture in science away from that view.

Lockdown has also given me the time and motivation to engage more with my creative side and work on a project I never thought I’d manage to start, so that’s helping to keep me more positive.

How have you been supported by your supervisor, employer, or other mentors during this time? Is there anything more you think institutions should be doing to help ECRs?

I think this would be a really good time for institutions (universities and funders) to realise the absolute nightmare that ECRs have to navigate in order to attain something resembling a stable career and to provide them with more support. There are so many financial and emotional hardships for ECRs, and that was before the pandemic derailed even more careers.

I’ve said I’ve been able to work on some papers and grants, but I know I’m extremely privileged to be able to do that. I hope that supervisors/institutions/funders recognise that a lot of people, especially those with caring responsibilities, will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic and will provide extra support/make provisions for these researchers.