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‘Dear those in charge’: A scientist’s coronavirus impact statement

When the pandemic started, I feel like we all accepted that everyone faced similar horrifying circumstances and agreed that we’d happily forgive and accommodate each other until we got through those rough 2 or 3 weeks.

Now, approximately 1 million months later, job applicants—not to mention researchers up for promotions and tenure review—have been affected in unpredictable ways and are rightfully worried about their employment prospects. Luckily, many departments and employers recognize this and have started requesting a coronavirus impact statement—a document in which you explain the pandemic’s impact on your productivity—as part of a position application, annual review, or tenure package.

Finally. After years of half-sentence, bullet-listed accomplishments; vague teaching statements; and CVs that give more room to the author list from your publications than a plain-language description of your contribution, Those In Charge want a realistic account of your challenges.

Why did we wait this long? Why did it take a global pandemic for everyone to realize the benefit of impact statements even in the best of times? COVID-19 is new, but the acknowledgment that extenuating circumstances affect our daily work and career paths is not. I’ve known colleagues whose careers have stayed in limbo because they’ve faced a personal challenge—an illness, for example, or a difficult financial situation, or taking a few years off to raise children. It’s just that, until now, there hasn’t been a formal venue to discuss it. As a result, we’ve been reluctant to add any kind of impact statement to our CV, fearing it could be more dangerous to highlight a deficiency than to ignore it and hope no one notices.

The University of Texas at Austin, for example, tells faculty their statements will help reviewers “perform a fair, contextualized evaluation of the faculty member’s professional performance and contributions.”

Fair and contextualized. Exactly. When this pandemic ends, I hope we all remember that an assessment of our work has to be fair—but it can only be fair if it’s contextualized.

So let’s normalize the coronavirus impact statement. Maybe it will lead to an unprecedented openness about all other challenges we face in our daily lives.

But because it’s so new, you may not know where to start. In case it helps, here’s my own coronavirus impact statement.

Dear Those In Charge:

Thank you for the opportunity to explain the unfortunate hiccup in my professional advancement caused by an epidemiological apocalypse.

In general, as I worked from home over the past year, my productivity has waned. I’ve heard rumors that some people have been more productive during the pandemic. These people do not have young children.

First of all, as you may imagine, I have canceled many trips to meetings and conferences. In the past, I relied on such events to support and strengthen my networking prospects, professional collaborations, and Marriott points. Instead, for the past year, I have attended virtual conferences, where all participants turn off their webcams and fold laundry. I should note though, that, whereas the quality of these opportunities has suffered, the quantity has increased! This jet-setting lifestyle has taken me all the way from my basement to a different part of my basement where the Wi-Fi is stronger. So you’ll notice a longer list of conferences attended than usual—but rest assured I accomplished very little at any of them.

Second, I’ve been told repeatedly that the pandemic has given me much more time to write papers. It hasn’t, but the fact that people keep saying so has impacted my mounting guilt.

COVID-19 has impacted my teaching as well. Last March, in 1 week’s time, I transitioned from an affable professor who encourages and enjoys class participation to a rectangle on a screen who felt like I was failing to connect with my students in any way. This may be reading too much into the situation, but I thought I saw in their 1-pixel gaze a certain hollowness, a searching for answers they hoped I, as an authority figure, could provide. I had no answers. I ended class early, bumped them up a letter grade, and wished them luck in life. This experience reminded me what my students truly appreciate most: my ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, show empathy, and bump them up a letter grade.

My work-life balance has suffered during the pandemic as well. Before last March, I would sometimes bring my laptop home, log on, and work in the evenings to stay ahead. Now my laptop sits on a desk at home, permanently logged in, and I can read work emails while my kids get ready for bed. I have endeavored to convert my home into a functional workspace while maintaining it as a comfortable living space. I have failed on both counts. My daughter recently said it seems like I’m always working now. The hell of it is, I’m pretty sure I’m working more but somehow getting less done.

I’ve learned that I derive energy from being with other people. For much of my life, I thought I was an introvert, but it turns out I was a nonpracticing extrovert.

My work plants have all died.

I subconsciously fear the world in a way I never used to. Sometimes I dream I’m in a crowded location, then wake up in a panic. “I was at an amusement park,” I’ll think. “Oh, it was horrible.”

I’ve learned that I should set aside time for self-care. I haven’t done it, but I’ve learned that I should.

And, frankly, there’s one major impact I think I’m avoiding writing about. But since you asked for this statement, what the heck: The pandemic has affected my motivation. I can’t pinpoint why, nor do I know what it would take to bring it back. And I know that sounds like an excuse for a lack of effort or intention that’s totally within my control. But … I don’t know. You don’t need to accommodate me for this. I’m just saying.

Everything is harder now, you know? And I feel horribly guilty for even complaining about it. I’m lucky enough to be healthy. I haven’t lost my job, and I still have a home to live in, so what right do I have to even write a coronavirus impact statement? Why does anyone want to hear my whining when we’re all going through variations on the same thing? And what could I tell you that you shouldn’t be preemptively assuming and accommodating anyway?

So, listen, Those In Charge: If you expected 2020 to be a real banner year for my research, prepare for disappointment. I think a lot of us thrive under stress—we chose this profession, after all—but a kind of stress whose parameters we basically knew. Now we’re flying into a headwind that’s as forceful as it is invisible. There are really only two options: Either we’ll land late, or we’ll run out of fuel in the sky. 

Judge me however you wish to judge me. I don’t even have the mental capacity to care. I have laundry to fold.

Sincerely Yours,

Supplicant Applicant

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