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Early-career scientists at critical career junctures brace for impact of COVID-19

Over the past 4 weeks, Amol Pohane—a postdoc at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst—learned that he’s no longer in the running for several faculty jobs. It’s not his fault. Four universities informed him that they were canceling or postponing job searches because of COVID-19 disruptions. He’ll have the option of reapplying—or having his original application reviewed—next year, the universities told him. But that’s little comfort for Pohane, who was banking on landing a faculty job this year.

As a citizen of India, his visa is set to expire in September. He harbors dreams of landing an academic position in the United States. But if he can’t find a job by August, he’ll have to leave the country and bring the rest of his family with him.

Compounding the problem, Pohane can’t complete his ongoing experiments because UMass started to ramp down all nonessential research in mid-March. “I wasn’t happy about shutting down my work,” he says. He was a few short experiments away from wrapping up a manuscript for submission, so the closure will impact his publication record—at least in the short term.

Pohane is just one of many scientists who have been affected by university closures. For some, the shutdowns have made it more challenging for them to complete their work. But for others, they come at a critical juncture in the scientist’s career, threatening to derail or delay a major event along their professional path—a small slice of the human suffering and inconvenience that COVID-19 has caused.

The disruptions are going to shake up the careers of researchers at all seniority levels, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor at Northeastern University. But they’ll likely have the greatest impact on early-career scientists, she notes. Problems will begin at the undergraduate level, when students begin to build their toolbox of skills at summer internships—many of which are getting canceled this year. “As a consequence of what’s happening, there will be substantially fewer experiences,” Barrett says. And when professors start to review grad school applications later, those who have little research experience will be viewed as less competitive.

For trainees already in grad school, the closures might force them to delay graduation. A fourth-year environmental science Ph.D. student in California—who did not want to be named for fear of retribution from her adviser—says that she hoped to graduate in 2021, but she is now planning on staying in grad school for an extra year. She typically collects field samples from January until June, but this year wrapped up her field season before COVID-19 made its way through the United States. With her university closed, she has no idea when she will be able to process her samples in the lab or go back into the field. “Folks who do modeling have the opportunity to complete their Ph.D. from home, whereas most of us [who rely on field or lab work] are left in the lurch,” she says.

Kathryn Salvati, a sixth-year Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia, anticipated defending her dissertation this summer. However, her program requires all doctoral candidates to have one first-author paper in press at the time of graduation. She was close to submitting a manuscript, but she had to stop her lab work when her university closed last month. “When I start doing that again is unknown,” she says.

Fortunately for Salvati, she already has a postdoctoral position lined up, so her future feels a little less precarious. But she is not sure when she will have her degree—which she’ll need before moving on to her postdoc.

Other scientists are looking ahead, worried that they’ll have a harder time securing federal research grants and other forms of funding as the economy heads into a recession. “Things are going to get tight,” says Colleen Carpenter-Swanson, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who is planning to start a faculty job next January. “Academia is [already] hard,” she says. “It’s not going to be fun in a recession.” Carpenter hopes that as she moves into her tenure-track position, her university will fairly evaluate any delays in new faculty members’ research and progress. Scott Baraban, a professor at UCSF, agrees that the scientific community may need to rethink what success looks like as the COVID-19 situation impacts researchers. “Anyone who’s not forgiving about that is pretty heartless,” he says.

For Pohane, he’ll continue working as a postdoc for a few more months—hoping that he’ll land one of the faculty jobs he applied for that hasn’t been canceled. If those don’t bear fruit, he’ll likely apply for industry jobs, he says. And if those don’t pan out either, “then I need to think of something else.”