Flexible Working as a Senior Academic in Lockdown

As part of our blog series where we share experiences, tips, and tricks of living and working during lockdown, Nicola Curtin, Professor of Experimental Cancer Therapeutics, shares an insight into how she has restructured her day to meet the demands of work while being at home.

Firstly, let me say I am in the very fortunate position of : 

  • Being a research academic who is no longer tied to the bench and loves just thinking  
  • Being over 60 so I don’t have to manage home schooling or cooped-up teenagers,  
  • having a house that is big enough for my husband and me to work in separate rooms (a necessity when we are both having Zoom meetings) and  
  • Having a garden to go out in when it’s fine. 

I am finding the lockdown fits pretty well with the way I work, allowing me the freedom to structure each day according to the weather to a large extent. Other than Zoom meetings there is no defined structure or length to my day. It makes no difference whether it is a weekday or a holiday my day will be a mixture of academic work, domestic work (pretty limited – I hate housework) and either gardening or having a post-prandial snooze in the sun (got to keep up my vitamin D levels). This is my favourite time of the year, when the trees at last have some lovely fresh green foliage and everywhere is looking so much more colourful. It has been lovely to have the opportunity to watch the birds – who’d have thought that a tiny wren could be so deafening.  

It isn’t all snoozing in the sun though, I have 3 PhD students and an MD student in their final year so they are busy writing theses and papers and 2 post-docs who are writing grant proposals and papers. We continue to exchange documents and have weekly progress meetings. I really enjoy sharing thoughts about the data, what it means, and how to make it an interesting story for examiners and reviewers. The zoom meetings are largely successful and sharing our screens means it’s actually not so different from our face to face weekly meetings. Without the distraction of getting the next experiment done it has allowed them time to really think hard.  We have been surprisingly productive so far with several papers completed and in various stages along the publication route. 

We have always had fortnightly lab group meetings with a presentation from one member of the group. Rather than 10 of us trying to squeeze into a meeting room these are now zoom meetings from each of our homes where other family members make an occasional (sometimes regular) appearance. It is rather nice actually, so I do hope that in the future we have a much more flexible approach to meetings and tolerate the odd interruption. Of course, it doesn’t always work and sometimes my husband has cut me off by sending a large document when I’m in the middle of a meeting. 

Meetings with groups outside of the University have continued too. Now at least I don’t have to get up at an ungodly hour to get to a 10.00 am meeting in London, so definitely a plus there. Scientific meetings have been cancelled, but they have been rescheduled as virtual ones – it will be interesting to see how that goes. If it works, it will be a lot less draining than travelling to America for a 3-day meeting, although the networking opportunities will be lost. 

On the domestic front, I do miss seeing my daughter and her family, particularly darling Freddie who is 2 and a half and just so delightfully entertaining. Thankfully, we have video calls several times a week. Our neighbours have a WhatApp group and share a lot of information (including photos of the postman, who is dressing up for the occasion) and the Thursday evening Clap for Carers has become an opportunity to reconnect and share seedlings etc. I miss my Zumba and dance classes too but our teacher has put them online. It’s not quite the same as being in class as I miss my weekly catch-up with friends there too but it still puts me in a good mood.  

I do miss seeing my students and staff face to face though and the casual contact for spur of the moment discussion of an idea or problem solving, or even just a good laugh (although we do manage a few of those in zoom meetings, particularly with the family interruptions). I also miss my daily walk to work across the Town Moor, the sky is so big and the sound of the larks is so cheerful. I don’t miss the cows though. I am so looking forward to walking in to see everyone. And getting my hair cut, but isn’t everyone? 

So to sum up, what has worked for me is: 

  • Scheduling meetings according to need, of appropriate length and at a convenient time of day. Enjoying the interruptions from children and pets, it’s an opportunity to understand others different circumstances as well as to support and motivate. 
  • Working according to my own schedule as far as possible. As long as the work gets done it really doesn’t matter when, it might be working furiously all Sunday or late into a Wednesday evening. 
  • Getting outside as much as possible and taking pleasure in looking at the environment. 
  • Having some quiet time just to think (not worry) and maybe re-evaluate priorities. 
  • Staying in touch with friends and family and making new friends with the neighbours. 
  • Thinking how great it will be when the lockdown is over, even if it won’t be the same as before.  

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