COVID-19 and our profession

It has been over a year since COVID-19 first appeared in Europe. During this time, members of our profession have experienced profound changes to their work. We have cancelled long-awaited conferences and transferred others online, and we have learned to teach remotely. Some of us have redirected research energies towards the pandemic, and some have devised new remote team projects. Others have been unable to do any research at all due to caring duties.

We take this occasion to make visible the experiences of different groups of our profession. We hope their testimonies will prompt us to find new ways to support each other as colleagues and to push philosophy of science in fruitful new directions.

What is it like to be a junior scholar in a pandemic?

For the purposes of this article, we define junior scholar to mean students, those without permanent employment, and postdocs. We solicited testimonies about their experiences during the pandemic. Below are the responses we received (lightly edited for clarity).

How has your life as a philosopher of science changed in the last year?

“I have been at remote work for over a year now. I also changed my institution to a non-philosophical one during the year and I have not been able to form natural connections with the researchers in the new institution due to the pandemic. Really frustrating state of affairs, given my new project is an interdisciplinary one. Or at least was supposed to be.”

Postdoc from Finland.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic has radically changed my plans and my research projects. First, my Erasmus+ program has been suspended due to covid-19 outbreak in March 2020. Luckily, I have been admitted to a three-year PhD program with a good scholarship. Anyway, the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic make it difficult to arrange the visiting period abroad. Eventually, I wish that workshops and conferences will return soon to in-person mode: for young scholars like me, online conferences make networking hard to do.”

PhD Student from Italy.

“As someone doing a 3-year PhD in the UK, being hit by the pandemic 1.5 years into the program has translated into a complete disruption of not only my current project but more broadly my career plans. Never-ending difficulties, the most outstanding one being the lack of opportunities to share and receive feedback on research from peers, as well as to network. While the pandemic has clearly shown the potential of the online world in terms of access to events, these have been particularly detrimental for young scholars, who do not yet occupy a space within that community. I’m particularly worried about not having been able to secure long-lasting relationships with other scholars in the field.”

PhD student in the UK.

“One thing I miss about conferences is the opportunity to meet and get to know other philosophers. I feel disconnected. Philosophy has become less social, more solitary. I worry that I’m missing out on “networking” opportunities that might matter down the line when I apply for permanent positions. For some reason, I have been more successful at staying in contact with people in some of my areas of interest than others. As a result, I’ve ended up doing more of one kind of work than another, simply because I’ve found it more accessible remotely.”

Joe Roussos.

Do you think our discipline should change as a result of the pandemic?

“Philosophy of science should consider the future, not just pandemics, more in their analyses. It should be a field that is prepared to answer "How is it possible to get (science) from here to there?"”

Postdoc from Finland.

“It is clear that the discipline was already affected by obvious structural issues prior to the pandemic, but given that it has exacerbated inequalities I think powerful agents like the EPSA have a duty to help junior scholars who risk falling through the cracks in the system more than ever. That means more promotion and prioritization in events, as well as financial support. More generally the discipline should reconsider hiring practices, as given the different impact and management of the pandemic across countries, institutions, and individuals disparity across CVs will be wider than usual. In terms of research directions, while I think philosophy of science has much to offer to current debates about global health, expertise, conspiracy theories, and other matters of social relevance, I hope there is not an opportunistic take on these topics.”

PhD student in the UK.

“Online reading groups are great, and getting to watch talks around the world has been great. We flew too much, and I think we’ve learned that it isn’t necessary much of the time. But equally, much is lost with online-only conferences. I think we need to find a way to balance these gains and losses. Hybrid workshops are harder to organise, but might need to become the standard.”

Joe Roussos.

What are your hopes or fears about the future of our field and your place in it?

“My biggest fear is that funding will be cut even further when the economic impact hits globally. I also fear that this phase in my career - when I am supposed to build networks and go abroad - will have long term effects because I am obviously not doing it. Moreover, I fear that the divide between academic winners and losers gets wider.”

Postdoc from Finland.

“Personally, a rather grim future.”

PhD student in the UK.

“My fear is the unequal distribution of negative effects. As well as worries and anxiety about lack of jobs etc., I worry a lot about falling behind other candidates for jobs that might come up. I worry that because of childcare responsibilities I have personally been affected more than the average early philosopher. It is not just me obviously, and female philosophers with children in less gender equal family cultures likely suffer even more. But I think it is fair to say that most recent doctorates do not have children, and I worry that this means that those with children are likely to look a lot worse to future hiring committees than those with.

A contrast might help. Yesterday I was talking to a friend. My friend finished his PhD roughly the same time as me at the same university as me. But whereas I live with my partner and our son, he lives alone. My friend was complaining to me about being bored and needing new hobbies. He said all he has been able to do in the last year is work, and now works circa 10 hours a day 6 days a week as there is nothing else to do. Given that nurseries where I live have very reduced hours and my partner has a fixed number of hours in her work week, I have been struggling to get the time to do 6 hours of work a day 5 days a week. That means for each week he works roughly 60 hours, I work roughly 30. That is not to mention the periods that nurseries have been closed completely.

Even if those estimates are exaggerated I think it is likely that those without kids have had available at least 50% more time to work in the last year than those with. You probably know this as it is likely the same for those in permanent jobs, and I hope any future assessment of your work reflects this.

My worry is that future hiring committees will not notice this at all and continue to just count publications. This is particularly the case in areas of Europe where independent expert committees play big roles in the hiring process, as they tend to focus heavily on number of publications. It would be nice if EPSA could put out advice to mitigate this in some way and ensure that future hiring committees take into account that some people may have been very productive in the last year while others could not be, and that this may not reflect their general abilities as an academic.”

Postdoc in the UK.

“I find myself worrying about variations in productivity over the past year-plus. I don’t have kids, so I am aware that I am not in the worst situation, but I feel anxious about doing less work than planned during a fixed-term postdoc, and what it means for the rat race of publishing in order to secure permanent employment.”

Joe Roussos.

“As junior scholars, our main challenge is not to have an established place in the relevant epistemic community. Our main job is then to increase our visibility, plan and execute new research and get grants in order to have a permanent position as researchers. I do believe that the community as a whole does not sufficiently support us to achieve these goals or to grow as people. Rather, it feels as though our primary job is to play a complementary role for those who are already running the show and who already hold a permanent position (e.g., it feels like our job is to get some teaching/research job done for senior scholars who already have an established position. It feels less like we are not being prepared for a longer-term academic position). A PhD or postdoc should feel very lucky to have PIs/managers who invest in their self-development as a scholar and a person. (I must say I am one of the very lucky junior scholars).   

Now, I also acknowledge that the senior colleagues are under much pressure for getting a lot of work done, so it is natural that junior scholars support them. But, it is often uncertain what the junior scholars are expected to receive in return. For instance, PhDs are not prepared at all for transitioning into non-academic positions and are expected to work as though they will have a permanent academic career after PhD/postdoc is completed. Similarly, PhDs/postdocs are not encouraged to learn new tools and invest in interdisciplinary collaborative projects to diversify their expertise and increase their chances to survive in a rapidly changing epistemic landscape. This is a source of anxiety/fear as the chances for finding a permanent academic job look very slim, and the senior colleagues do not seem to be responsible/worried about this problem as long as the show runs, and the juniors look/sound happy.

These worries/comments are not the direct results of the pandemic. Like the other realms of life, the pandemic made these problems more visible and visceral (e.g. when you think about the solitary, narrowed down work life of a stay-at-home researcher who is worried about the economic crisis in universities while being on a short-term contract).

Some support/recognition/help should be bestowed on those average young scholars, not only to those who are on their way to become “stars” of the discipline and have a good chance of securing a permanent position and grants. Perhaps, the best way to do this is not to highlight individual junior scholars but to create avenues in which the junior scholars, as a group, are more actively present in inclusive and uncompetitive academic events. Moreover, training programs can be offered by EPSA to junior scholars (on formal tools/modeling, on how to do empirical research as a philosopher, how to conduct interviews, on non-academic job opportunities suitable for PhDs with PoS background). The junior scholars can be recruited to organize such events.”

Postdoc in Netherlands.

Takeaway lessons

These poignant testimonies clearly have common themes, all highlighting the unique vulnerabilities of colleagues who are at the start of their careers. 

Isolation and loss of contact hit them harder than others. This is because in-person workshops and conferences present invaluable opportunities for camaraderie, for learning the ropes, for informal support, and for building one’s nascent research networks. Going remote often takes away these goods exactly at the stage of career when they are most needed. Our profession clearly needs to reinvent ways for securing these goods in a way compatible with our environmental responsibility. 

Another source of vulnerability is the disproportionate penalty likely imposed on junior colleagues with caring duties (or indeed other life changing obstacles such as illness or immigration troubles). Those of us with hiring or grant-giving powers should strongly resist bean-counting tendencies. Productivity simply should not be measured by the number of publications, prestigious or otherwise. Contextual information about job candidates should be solicited and taken into account. As philosophers we should know that there is more to objectivity than following formal observable indicators.

Finally, there is the mind-numbing fear that there will be no jobs at the end of the enormous effort that is a PhD or a postdoc. Those of us who have jobs in academia have several responsibilities in this regard. We could invest extra efforts in devising projects that are collaborative rather than solitary, ensuring space for junior colleagues in our grant applications. We could get better informed about and celebrate careers outside universities, making sure that leaving the profession is never perceived as a failure. Finally, as our correspondent from Netherlands helpfully suggests, we could do more to showcase the work of junior colleagues as a class, rather than the star individuals, so that the limelight and the glory are better distributed.

We also received a testimony from a more senior colleague, who, while recognising that he was speaking from the position of privilege and security, sounded an optimistic note:

“First of all, we can fly, and, in general, travel less, with very similar results to our academic output and possibilities of collaboration. True, the feeling is different, when we are fully immersed in a two or three day congress, and the synergies for new interesting encounters might be greater in person. But, at the very least, I think academics should start really thinking, before organizing in person events, whether the environmental costs are justified. I refer to this project as food for thought. We have also discovered that teaching can be done very effectively online, if it is designed properly and adapted to the different needs of students who spend several hours in front of a screen. Online teaching opens new possibilities: I have been able to invite international scholars to my classes, to the benefit of my students, and I have had myself the chance to participate in global teaching. Moreover, we can organize activities that the students can carry out being in front of a screen. I'm not advocating moving the whole of academic teaching online, but as academics we should be at the frontline of the possibilities that remote teaching affords.”

Carlo Martini

We thank all the colleagues for sharing their experiences with us. Our hope is their testimonies will spur reflection and action about how our profession can be more inclusive, more responsible, and how it can foster the intellectual rigour and vibrancy that initially brought us all to philosophy of science.

The EPSA Newsletter Team

© 2024 European Philosophy of Science Association (EPSA)

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software