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Robert Neubecker

Our top essays by scientists in 2020

In early March, a professor in China submitted an essay describing the anxiety and turmoil that gripped his life after the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in Wuhan. When I first read the essay at my desk in the United States, where we were just starting to feel the virus’s impact, it felt like a voice from the future calling to tell us what the next few months would look like. “I’ve spent most of the past 2 months at home … fearful of the future and wondering when life will get back to normal,” the professor wrote in the piece, which was published as part of our Working Life personal essay series.   

It was the first of many submissions about COVID-19 that poured in from scientists around the globe. We went on to publish essays about how the pandemic stalled research, disrupted peer review, generated online connections, altered student-adviser relationships, and more.

We also continued to publish essays about challenges other than the pandemic that scientists face as they pursue their careers. As we look back on this unprecedented year, here—in chronological order—are the most read Working Life essays of 2020.

I wish I’d taken my mental health more seriously in grad school

Academics shouldn’t idolize a workaholic lifestyle, argued clinical psychologist Desiree Dickerson.

My Ph.D. adviser fired me. Here’s how I moved on

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” Anurag Srivastava advised.

How I motivate myself to complete boring job tasks—and have fun in the process

Professor emeritus Bill Roebuck admitted he’s always struggled to finish tedious paperwork.

How I got through my grad school slump

After failing her dissertation proposal defense, Katherine Still decided that she needed a healthier mindset.

How a risky move put my career back on course

Professor Gursel Alici reflected on his decision to quit his first faculty job, move halfway across the world, and start a postdoc.

‘It’s OK to feel anxious.’ How a professor in China faced coronavirus disruptions and fears

Kai Liu struggled to teach online at first—but he ended up finding unexpected joy in the process.

Suffering from COVID-19 anxiety? Here’s what you can do

Postdoc Jennifer Kong shared mental health tips she gleaned from a conversation with her psychiatrist friend Steven Chan.

I grew up in the slums of India. Now I’m a scientist

Shalini Arya opened up about overcoming hunger, poverty, and discrimination to build a career in science.

Intrusive personal questions don’t belong in job interviews

After negative experiences interviewing for postdoc positions, Wen-Jing Lin argued that universities must foster discrimination-free environments for all candidates.

My first grad school adviser made life miserable. Choose yours wisely

Don’t ignore red flags, Akshata Naik advised.

Other notable essays

Why I’ve struggled with the pressure to assimilate when teaching

How I cultivated connections outside academia—and landed a job

To navigate a Ph.D., recent graduates offer these five key pieces of advice

I benefited from being an international scientist in the U.S.—until the pandemic

Why I came out as nonbinary to my Ph.D. lab

If you have an interesting career story that you’d like to share, feel free to email us at Please also check out our guidelines for writing and submitting Working Life essays here.

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