Becoming A Scholar Under COVID 19 Times

“ON BECOMING A SCHOLAR WHILE COPING WITH A GLOBAL PANDEMIC

The following story is contributed by William Gonzalo Vega Salas, PhD., a young educator, at the Universidad del Pacífico, Lima, Perú. His thoughtful piece was inspired, in part, by the GSU-CIBER webinar we ran in January 2021, on the experiences of early-career scholars. The webinar featured four colleagues who recently launched their academic careers: Steven Liu, Elizabeth Napier, Ayse Ozturk, and Sarah Ku (https://ciber.robinson.gsu.edu/perspective_early_faculty/ ). We share William’s perspectives here in the hope that it will be of interest to others.”

By: PhD. William Gonzalo Vega Salas (龚伟力)

Every change in life is difficult, and much more difficult if you are at the beginning of your career, in an unexpected environment, in an unexpected time, with unexpected people. Nowadays this is the situation faced by several scholars that have recently graduated and moved to work in a different place than their PhD university, facing publication challenges, new courses, teaching preparation, university organization tasks, etc. – all needing to be delivered under difficult circumstances such as cities coping with the isolation and new online education caused by the COVID pandemic.  I share with you some experiences and ideas from new scholars, same as me, and probably same as you, in order to help you a little bit in your new professional and personal life.

One of the main changes that we experience when we transition from being a PhD student to being a scholar is that there is no longer anybody telling us what to do. When I was in the PhD program, even though I had pressure and challenging work, was required to complete homework, manuscripts, thesis, etc. I always had a supervisor, classmates, administrative staff, and a circle of friends who helped me to know what to do, when, and how. I imagine it is the same for you; that you were able to enjoy some support to deal with the demands made of you. However, after graduation, when becoming a professor, you are in charge of your time, you need to decide what to do and what not, and in addition students and other university staff need your support. So, you have effectively moved from being supported in your PhD program to being the one who gives support. It can be daunting, to know exactly what you should be doing. Scholars enjoy freedom, without control, allowing us to decide what, when, where, how to do our work. But it is a responsibility too. Keep in mind that more people depend on your good work.

Thus, my first recommendation to you, is to use this extraordinary period of time well. During quarantine and isolation, we have a unique opportunity to know ourselves and redefine our directions. Only you know what you want, what you are good for, where you would like to go, what kind of scholar you want to become? Everything begins in this question: what is your goal? Try to be clear about this question as much as possible. Then undertake your work in such a way that it furthers your progression to what you want to become, enabling you to prioritize your resources to reach toward your dream, your happiness. Teaching, undertaking research, administrative work, and other new tasks and responsibilities to explore, to learn, to know. Only you know what you like most. We are all in transition, just let’s try to give direction to our career as early as possible.

Time is always a constraint. During quarantine we believe we have more time, but are we using that time efficiently to determine clearly our goals?  Let’s explore just three simple advices on time management: First, organize your time according to your available time. Try to establish a work schedule and respect that, turn off your social media and other distractions. Just focus on your work during those hours. Find a place for your work activities and make this place feel more comfortable, most conducive to productive work. Second, be clear about your most productive time. Then use that time to do the tasks that are most important to you. Third, organize your preferences. Strategically allocate your time. Every day you get several email, tasks that must be completed and so forth. Organize them. Prioritize them according to your goals. Several tasks may wait but others cannot.

In addition, it is important to focus on the following 4 areas:

1. Keep healthy – this is very important and it is no secret that it aids you in doing things well! Please let me reinforce this point. Recognize, that you are spending a lot of time in front of the computer, sitting down with little to no motion. So keeping healthy is more than eating healthy food, drinking sufficient water, it is also doing exercises. For example, in my case I walk every day at least ninety minutes from my house to a cafeteria where I work, where I drink two litters of water per day, eat salads and fruits. I know you will find a better way to keep you healthy – just do it. Health is the most important attribute you have; without health you may not create good thinking, no papers, no advices to your students, no good comments to your colleagues, etc. Remember your family depend on you, keep healthy. 2. Sleep. During my PhD time, I was not resting well and I damaged my body since I did not pay attention to how important it is to allocate sufficient time for sleep. We learn this lesson the hard way, exhaustion impacts not just our health but our mental health as well, so try to be as efficient as possible during your working hours and then sleep well. Your body needs to rest and rest well, so you will have a lot energy and good mood to do things better.

Staying motivated in this COVID era is challenging, I recommend you practice the following to keep alive your motivation, make stronger the reasons to accomplish your goals. First, start your day in a good mood, push yourself to embrace the world around you with gratitude.  I know we have a lot of stress and work, but remember you have one of the nicest jobs in the world, you have your family, your eager students, and the opportunity of being alive. The pandemic has taken a lot of lives, but you are alive. Celebrate it.  Second, do not underestimate your daily work. You will see your results at the end of the week. Break your long-term goals into small measurable tasks so you can control them and you will realize how well you are doing. Do not try to be perfect in everything. Every little step contributes to progress in the end. Third, do not cut yourself off from others, talk with your family, and friends. Schedule meetings with your co-authors, colleagues, students, where you share your ideas and provide some help. It will not only motivate you but also keep you updated and open to new opportunities. Also, you could join some seminars and follow your favorite authors, activities, etc. online.

Finally, some thoughts on how you can humanize and open communication with your students, create a positive environment and motivate them. The new situation brings you some frustration and stress, isolation and restrictions affect your mind and your feelings, but take a moment to imagine how your students may feel? It is necessary to change our attitude to them, viewing them not as an interruption but rather as an opportunity for you and them to grow. How? First, share with your students your experiences, not only in your academic field but also in your business field, and personal life too, exchange ideas. Share your happiness, worries, etc. If you can make a joke, do it, it is ok. We are facing a camera during classes so let’s try to humanize the class. Second, transmit positivism, enthusiasm, enliven the class with excitement. For example: during these days we are developing digital skills through homework, communications and others; we have the opportunity to socialize with people all over the world. There are more and more new business opportunities in this time of change; and our adaptability will help us to take more challenges in the future. Let’s make a problem become an opportunity. Third, open to virtual meetings instead of relying only on email enquiries. You could arrange a time for conversation with each student or in small groups. Use casual and normal conversation to clarify things, break the ice and improve their participation.

It is also important to keep focus on our research – which in these times can be challenging, so I want to encourage you to cooperate with your network and keep learning. If you want to keep doing research: First, Create trust and friendship. Keep alive your networks in your mother university. Check the new available resources in your new university. Talk with your old contacts and make new ones, nurturing trusted and long-standing relationships not only in the academic arena but also looking for real friendships beyond the workspace. Exchange ideas, proposals, offer some help. Second, follow and learn from successful scholars. Do not only learn  from their success but also from their failures. Do not worry about your failures. Failures are part of the process. Successful scholars fail frequently, if not how do we improve our research? Get up, learn and keep going ahead. Third, trust in yourself but also trust and invest in hard work, it pays off. You got several tips from your advisors, your classmates, your professors, colleagues and friends, keep them in mind and use them. They appreciate you and trust in you, let’s keep working.

Moving to a new country, new institution and team is a challenge, embrace it and be part of the team, join them. In your new institutions, there are several new processes to learn. Do not be afraid to ask questions and also offer help. Your new colleagues have been where you are today, starting afresh in a new space, they will be happy to help you. Don’t feel it is a burden to ask for help, the respondent will benefit from the same feeling you have when you are able to help someone. You are in a team, it is important to become part of that. Of course, everybody is very busy around you, so do not worry or take it personally if they take some time to answer to you. Be patient. If you have a mentor in your new university, keep in contact with him/her, share your ideas, questions, projects, etc. Introduce yourself with new colleagues, be friendly, if there is an opportunity for a cup of coffee or beers with them, take it. Scholars are very busy but we are humans too.

Finally, let me summarize the key recommendations that I hope will help you be open to new opportunities. First, forget the not-so-important things and get a direction.  Do not be afraid to take risks or make hard decisions in your career, they are necessary, and will lead you to where you want to go. It is not always possible to say ‘yes’ to everybody. Do not be afraid to say ‘No’. Learn to say ‘no’, and you will see that people appreciate that you know your direction, they will respect that you know what you want, and that you are making wise choices towards the goal you have set yourself.

Time and resources are very limited, so prioritize your goals. Second, keep open conversations with yourself. You are the only one who knows what you want, what you need, what makes you happy in order to make the right decisions. But don’t do this in isolation. Consider and talk with your family.  You could have many professional opportunities but people who love you are much more important. Remember if your family is with you, you could manage whatever, if not, whatever is gold can become dust.

In conclusion, remember that being a scholar is a privilege and enjoyable. We are paid to follow our interests, to think at length about our subject and to tell people what we are thinking about. You have the opportunity to share ideas with your students and colleagues and people around the world. Getting the Bachelor degree, through the masters and finally your PhD diploma and the beginning of you scholar career reflects that you are on the right path. Every step counts. You already dealt with pressures, stress, deadlines, and difficult situations to arrive where you are now. You were being prepared for this moment your whole life. You are ready to find the truth, discover the reasons, disseminate the knowledge and influence the world. Enjoy becoming a scholar, and welcome to the fascinating academic adventure that awaits you!

Acknowledgment: I would like to acknowledge GSU-CIBER Webinar as well as Tamer Cavusgil, Sarah Ku, Elizabeth Napier, Ayse Ozturk and Steven Liu for sharing their perspectives that inspired me for this article and the handout they created for all