CAREER COLUMN

Coronavirus diaries: making plans in a changing world

John Tregoning grapples with a shifting schedule and a new UK lockdown.
John Tregoning is a reader in respiratory infections in the Department of Infectious Disease, Imperial College London, UK. He runs a blog on academic life.

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Open notebook with a sketch of a delivery van

Credit: Adapted from Getty

Planning: it’s what we scientists do. Every experiment needs to be thought through in advance. The depth of planning will vary from field to field. A small pilot study that I might do in my immunology laboratory, for example, requires less forethought than does a field trip involving the UK polar-research submersible Boaty McBoatface.

This need for planning means scientists tend to have the ‘careful, thinking ahead’ phenotype. The COVID pandemic has been particularly difficult for planning anything at all, at least in the United Kingdom, where I am based. Things change so quickly. On Sunday 3 January, I was ready for my daughter to return to primary school — which she was set to do, with her lunch packed and uniform ready — right until 6 p.m. that evening, when we found out that the school would stay closed. A new lockdown (number three, for those keeping count) in the United Kingdom was announced the following evening.

Making plans under these circumstances is tricky. As the year began, I had joked with another academic on Twitter about how their to-do list for 2021 was basically everything rolled over from 2020, with a few additions. Trying to fit two years’ work into one has always been an impossible task, even with labs open and running at full capacity. The idea, which was never serious, now seems hopelessly, hilariously optimistic as labs, transport and house-leaving grind to a halt again.

However, lockdown does feel slightly different this third time around. This is partly because we have learnt from the previous ones. Some of the stresses of the unknown are gone — knowing we are not going to run out of toilet paper takes a load of the pressure off. And we are now masters of ordering the non-essential essentials (bread flour, cut flowers and wine) online.

We have also learnt skills for dealing with changing situations. I have learnt to not put off tasks that I might be unable to do tomorrow, especially activities outside the house, which might be verboten next time the guidelines change. We are all going to spend a lot more time trapped within the four walls of our homes this winter. But this is something we’re better prepared for: at work, I’ve learnt to prioritize what can’t be done from home whenever I can. When the lab is open, I and my team get in there and do as much as possible to generate the data that can then be analysed when we’re stuck at home.

The same kind of flexibility is needed for planning your pathway in science. In the uncertain shifting sands of a scientific career, having some kind of plan feels like the only way through. Career planning is important, but there are way too many variables to ever really know what the future will hold. I have spent much of my working life daydreaming about the next step; however, my career plans have never worked out quite as expected.

There are positives to take from this uncertainty. If you plan a career from the bottom up, it’s impossible to imagine the unexpected avenues life will take you down. As a student in a PhD programme, I would not have imagined the joy of supervising and growing a science family or have predicted the pleasure I get from writing (certainly not when I was trapped writing my dissertation in an office that was so small it has since become a broom cupboard).

Knowing what’s coming next isn’t always a blessing either. It was always clear we were going to have a third lockdown, but this didn’t help in planning what came next: it just added anxiety.

If 2020 taught me anything, it is that flexibility is crucial. That brilliant idea you had might no longer fit the current funding priorities. That perfect job you thought you wanted might no longer fit your personal circumstances.

As we take our first steps into 2021, it feels like we are entering the final, climactic act of the pandemic. And, unfortunately, it’ll get worse before it gets better. Whatever plans I had at the time of writing this article (8 January), will no doubt have changed by the time it is published (15 January). This doesn’t stop me from making the plans, but I am more sanguine about them not coming off.

So, hello new lockdown. Our plans might have changed, but we’re getting used to that.

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