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Careers intelligence: will the virus crisis change academic careers?

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 19 May 2020

Collage of faces on computer screen

Source: Getty

“Perhaps, just perhaps, some good things will come of this crisis,” reflected Robin Grimes, professor of material physics at Imperial College London, on how the coronavirus might reshape academic life.

While it might be hard to look beyond the immediate problems afflicting higher education, there are some signs that academia could change for the better after the lockdown is lifted, said Professor Grimes. “I spoke to 200 people at a virtual academic conference the other day, and taking these events online certainly makes them more inclusive, especially to those who lack the financial support to go to increasingly expensive meetings.”

That switch to online symposia might even cause some universities to consider hiring individuals from countries whose talent they had not previously considered, said Professor Grimes, who is chief scientific adviser for the UK’s Ministry of Defence on nuclear science and technology matters.

READ MORE: Careers intelligence: surviving academic social media’s dark side

“In physics, early career researchers will go to the big scientific conferences in the US to present their research. But if you’re a promising physicist based in Malawi, you may not be able to do this,” said Professor Grimes, who hoped that online events could make this hiring situation “less unfair by levelling the playing field”.

The lockdown could also herald a shake-up of scientific leadership, said Professor Grimes, who predicted that those able to lead research projects via Zoom or Skype might find themselves in increasing demand.

“Chairing a session on Zoom is a very different skill to chairing a traditional meeting, such as how you get people to ask questions. It’s an area where research leaders will need to learn new skills,” he said.

Those able to convince interview panels of their online teaching abilities will also fare better in the post-coronavirus job market – but the bar for excellence will have been raised significantly, according to Robert MacIntosh, head of Heriot-Watt University’s School of Social Science.

“Previously at an interview, you may have encountered one or two random early adopters,” said Professor MacIntosh, recalling those who have impressed by mentioning their use of online polls and flipped classrooms.

“Going forward, everyone on the panel will likely have completed a ‘how to teach online’ course offered by their own institution’s learning and teaching specialists or a third-party provider,” he said. “Being seen as an online enthusiast, innovator or expert will be both more important and more demanding for interviewees.”

The ability to build online academic networks will also be crucial, added Professor MacIntosh, explaining that “research networks may matter even more since the ways in which such relationships can be nurtured in a post-coronavirus environment may change”.

“The familiar practice of networking with leading thinkers at conferences was already under question in terms of environmental consequences. Now there are new reasons to worry about such mass gatherings,” he said.

“Coming with a preformed research network will make you an attractive candidate,” suggested Professor MacIntosh, “but demonstrating the digital skills to build and expand that network will make you even more attractive.”

Those who can engage effectively with local businesses and the wider community might find that they enjoy an advantage, he added, sensing that a “new localism” might become increasingly important for UK institutions keen to demonstrate their public worth. “Maybe it’s a time for a new breed of local heroes,” said Professor MacIntosh, who predicted that “those who can combine international excellence with local economic impact are likely to be in high demand”.

However, Rebecca Jarrett, head of resources at Cranfield University, warned that it might take some time to see the benefits of any post-coronavirus changes to hiring and promotions as the academic job market tightens.

“We know the impact on student recruitment, so people will be reluctant to move roles, particularly if they have a permanent post,” Ms Jarrett said.

In the long term, however, she hoped that the importance of all-rounders highlighted during the coronavirus crisis might prompt institutions to rethink their approaches to hiring and promotions.

“Some people might not have an outstanding CV in terms of h-index or publications, but they might have taken on administrative responsibilities, designed online tests or led on pastoral care in this crisis,” said Ms Jarrett, who believed this reappraisal of excellence might help under-represented groups in academia demonstrate their value.

“Some institutions, such as Cranfield, will still be research-oriented when hiring, but I hope many institutions will start to look again at those without a traditional research-led profile,” she said.