Feeling Unproductive as a STEM Student During COVID-19? It’s Okay.


As the COVID-19 pandemic drags through its second month, it is clear that life has certainly changed in unexpected ways. Research labs across the continent have enacted curtailments, and many of us haven’t stepped into the office in over six weeks. For some of us, we can perform a lot of our work at home, but almost everything has been put on hold for grad students and other trainees who have wet lab-based projects. You likely feel completely unproductive during this time.

It’s very difficult to be okay right now. You may be feeling listless, depressed or even anxious with everything put on hold for the foreseeable future. This time does present some opportunities for you to work even if you can’t be in the lab. However, it can be difficult to find the motivation to get started. Here’s our advice for dealing with the unproductive feelings you might be facing right now.

Know That There are No Expectations Right Now

This is something that I’ve dealt with personally: the feeling of not meeting the expectations of myself, my colleagues and my PI. I work in both a wet lab and a bioinformatics setting, and while I can work on my data analyses at home, there is a finite point at which I can do no more (I think I hit that point a week or so ago!). I can’t just create new data, and I feel into the motions of overthinking what I had already done.

My PI said some very wise words to me: “All expectations are thrown out the window right now.” This absolutely changed my outlook: it gave me the reassurances that we are all suffering in the same way throughout this time. Don’t beat yourself up by not being able to produce any results right now. You don’t need to.

Make a Plan for Once This is Over

You can’t compare your output to that of others right now. The goalposts have moved for all of us. There are going to be a lot of changes in how we do things once we get back to it. Everyone will be in the same situation, trying to make up for lost time. The biggest mistake you can make is going back to work without a plan. Why not use this time to craft yours?

Like you, I have a number of big experiments that are waiting for me to get back to them. These experiments are crucial to my project, so I am using this time to create a meticulous plan of how to tackle them. Make a schedule. You can use any calendar software to plan your days. If you are into journalling, do it by hand. Going through the motions of laying things out step by step will also help you to identify any weak spots.

Start on That Paper

Publications are the metric by which scientific output is measured. You might be in the early stages of your project but that doesn’t mean you can’t start working on your paper. You already know the reasons why you are doing your project, so you can begin working on your introduction. Gather your references, get words on paper and put the finishing touches on your arguments.

We previously talked about some great resources for writing your manuscript. Even just starting with bullet points will help you to identify any areas that you need to research more thoroughly. If the introduction is proving difficult, start with writing up the methods for the work you have already done. Writing is a great way to combat feelings of reduced productivity, and it will further your career.

Learn Some New Skills

There are tons of resources out there that allow you to learn new skills without leaving your home. Here is an early list we put together when COVID-19 first hit. Since then, Harvard University released a list of free courses, including many data science topics. Now is a great time to learn how to better organise your code, which you can learn using this course on Data Science: Productivity Tools.

Have Some “You” Time

We aren’t working 9-5, 5 days a week anymore. If you’re like me, half the time you don’t even know what day it is anymore. If productivity is dipping, you do not need to force yourself to sit at the computer. Like we said before, you can check in with your friends via zoom, go for a walk, or anything else that can help you get through the days without feeling guilty for not working. Anything that helps you in the future is the right thing to do now.

Take a Deep Breath

We are all struggling right now. You’re not in this alone. There is no right or wrong way to do things right now. Take a deep breath; we will get through this together.