Help, I haven’t seen my mentor in 6 months!

By Alana Jones, GS-2

I’m serious.  I haven’t seen my mentor (or any of my lab members) in-person since March 13. When you can do data analyses from anywhere, you’re not exactly at the top of the list on the campus re-entry plan. So, we’re all working remotely for the foreseeable future. And even though this has been our “new normal” for half a year, it still feels weird because we were always in and out of each other’s offices for meetings and help sessions.

Fortunately (for COVID-19 reasons) but also unfortunately (for socializing reasons), my department has been very thorough about physical distancing, but what else would you expect from a bunch of epidemiologists?  Our comprehensive exam was rewritten so that it could be taken at home (and open book, although that didn’t make it any easier).  I have yet to meet with my dissertation committee in person, and I probably won’t until I’m halfway through the PhD.  My classes this fall (and likely next spring) are fully remote and all my research can be done with a stable internet connection and a couple of statistical programs on my computer.  A few weeks ago I packed up my student carrel because another department needs the space to appropriately distance their staff. Let’s just say I’m not looking to buy another parking pass until 2022-ish.

When the pandemic hit, my lab didn’t skip a beat.  Because we had young parents who occasionally worked from home and collaborators at other institutions, we already had a standing Zoom link for lab meetings.  Our data are primarily stored in the Cheaha cloud servers and the rest could be accessed through remote desktop connections that were already set up.  At first, I was relieved.  I no longer had to commute through a massive highway construction project every day.  Our group was more productive than ever, even if Cheaha was a little slower with all the wet lab scientists doing bioinformatics from home.  And eventually, I got settled into a routine: breakfast, run analyses, Zoom/answer emails, write grant/class assignments, analyze results, go for a walk, dinner, rinse, repeat.  

My pandemic lab bench

Pre-Rona (yes, that’s what I call it), my check-ins with my mentor had been relatively impromptu unless we had a specific issue to discuss.  For most of my first year, my job was to do well in my classes and learn how to do my basic analyses.  Now I’m a “grown-up” GS-2.  I’m working on my dissertation aims and need more feedback than when I was simply replicating others’ work for practice.  There was a time when I could just walk downstairs with my laptop still open and ask the biostatistician or post-doc a question.  Now, I troubleshoot on my own a lot more because I don’t want to schedule yet another Zoom or Blue Jeans call unless I absolutely have to.

Over these past few months, the days have blurred together as I sit at my desk (or my oversized reading chair), coding and Zooming away. And being stuck in the house has given me plenty of time to think about all the times I praised the hands-off mentoring style, not realizing that one of the most critical periods of my PhD would be more physically distant than I could ever imagine. Thankfully, the quality of my mentorship has not declined. Even though my mentor and I communicate all the time via email/text, we have a standing call every other week. She gives broad instructions based on my progress, and I make a checklist to complete at my own pace. Deadlines are mostly flexible and she’s always reminding me to take breaks (I think she knows I’m a bit of a workaholic).  

I have no idea how she balances endless meetings; small kids with cabin fever; and a lab of 3 PhD students, a post-doc, and 2 biostatisticians. Yet somehow, she does so in a way that facilitates productivity without the pressure to prove to her that I’m getting work done instead of, say, watching Netflix all day.  I really don’t know the next time I’ll see my mentor in-person; at this rate, it’ll probably be at least summer 2021. What I am certain of is that I couldn’t have gone 6 months without seeing any other mentor and still retained both my productivity and sanity.

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