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GhostDoc'ing: Story of a PostDoc during Covid-19

As for many of us, my life has changed due to Covid-19. I have gone from being a researcher in the lab to working from home, yet despite this, I finished and defended my PhD remotely, worked under an Insigneo bridging fund, and started my PostDoc at UCL in Sep 2020. Here, I talk about the things I learned so far from being a (mainly) remote PostDoc alias GhostDoc.

For my work I am generating an image-based computational model of retinal neurovascular unit development based on advanced in vivo imaging data. Thus, my work is mainly based on biomedical image analysis, giving me the advantage that I often just need a computer and data to work. To produce the required data, I am in the lab for blocks of time, but mostly perform and develop data analysis from home.

Here, I am reflecting on the things that helped me being a GhostDoc, challenges in being a GhostDoc, and my personal takeaways. As this is my personal reflection, I cannot speak for anyone else and circumstances are clearly different for everyone, particularly for colleagues with carer responsibilities. Similarly, working conditions might be very different for pet owners, someone with a broken heating, or if there is a construction side outside the house, just to name a few; plus, all working conditions can fluctuate.

Things that help me being a GhostDoc

Firstly, and most importantly, your type of job must allow you to be working remotely. For example, a data scientist is more likely to being able to work from home than someone who is a wet lab scientist.

Working from home requires a lot of trust between the supervisor and PostDoc. This encompasses trust in that the work will get done and you don't binge watch TV all day, but also trust in that communication is maintained and that the other person is available when needed. GhostDoc does not mean being on your own!

Being connected to my supervisor and other lab members is helped by lab meetings, journal clubs, and social coffee breaks. Similarly, Slack is a great tool, allowing us to communicate effectively as a group and helps avoid E-Mail overload.

To keep track of different goals, project management software can help. However, I haven't identified the right tool for me so far, as there are dozens and each lab dynamic is different.

Working from home it can be tempting to adopt a less stringent working approach, it can be especially tempting to let your lab book documentation slide. Thus, I found it crucial to maintain my notes to the same standard like working in the lab.

Challenges in being a GhostDoc

Working remotely comes with various challenges. One of the biggest ones is the ability to create the space to focus. As mentioned above, this is particularly challenging for colleagues with caring responsibilities, but this holds also true for someone who sits in a freezing cold home with a broken heating or someone who has a construction side right outside the house. Besides various of such extrinsic factors, intrinsic motivation is also challenged when working from home as it can be difficult to maintain a working mindset when being in the comfort of you home. Procrastination can be tempting when thinking "I just have a quick snack", "I quickly check social media" or "I am just cleaning this bit". Screen-time apps or virtual writing retreats are something very useful to help maintain focus and motivation.

In addition, we need to consider physical space and resources. In order to being able to work from home, physical space and resources must allow you to do so. For example, many colleagues do not have a dedicated office space, a computer, or a printer at home. Similarly, many of us now basically share an office with members of our household, meaning we need to consider the needs of everyone in the household (e.g. different work schedules and internet bandwidth limitations).

One thing I find particularly challenging in working remotely is data infrastructure in terms of data sharing and backup. As my work is heavily based on microscopy data, data need to be shared, stored, processed, and backed up. Letting data management slide can have devastating downstream effects and not many of us have the luxury of having a server at home. So thinking early about how data will be handled is something crucial!

As we are working from home it can also be difficult to separate work from life, thus, work-life balance can easily get out of control (one way or the other). Importantly, office-based work is sedentary. Taking breaks to move and exercise is important for health, mental wellbeing, and focus. For example, I am taking regular breaks to move for a few minutes, go for a walk, and start my day with some exercise.

Another thing I found rather challenging is that as many of us are working from home, there has been a shift in expectations with some people expecting you to be free more or less all the time. Just because one works from home, does not mean they do not have a strict schedule. Short-notice meetings, seminars, or conferences can do more harm than help. Saying no is crucial!

My personal takeaways

I personally very much enjoy working from home. However, not everyone can or wants to work from home!

For me, when working in a shared office prior to the pandemic I was easily distracted and needed headphones to fully focus on my work, while at home there are less distractions for me and I can focus better on my work (again, this would be completely different if being a carer or not having the environment to do so).

Academia generally offers more flexibility than many other jobs as many of us do not have to start exactly at 9am and stop at 5pm. Working from home, I do not have to commute, which saves me a lot of time, which I can reinvest into work or other things e.g. instead of a 20 minute commute I can start the day with healthier routines such as 20 minutes of exercise. Similarly, working from home I can eat healthier as there are less interruptions during the day, I can cook rather than have something from a vending machine, and I can plan shopping trips better as I know when/how I will be working that week.

One thing that I particularly enjoy is that many conferences and seminars are now online and many are even recorded to be shared. This allowed me to attend international conferences in different time-zones and countries, which I would otherwise probably not have attended. One reason for this are the costs for registration, travel, and hotels; another being that going to a conference usually comes with a significant time investment and not being able to do anything else when attending. With events coming now to our home, I do feel that this is less the case. The best example for me was the LSFM2020 conference which was held over three half-days, allowing people from different time zones to participate and making attendance significantly more manageable in comparison to all-day conferences.

Together, reflecting on working from home is something very personal, and it is crucial to appreciate that many factors influence this (responsibilities, trust, communication, physical space, environment, infrastructure, etc.). I personally very much enjoy working from home as it allows me to work with a very high focus and the time saved on commuting can be reinvested into other things.

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