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Navigating the Pandemic as an Early Career Scientist: Interview with Dr. Alia Lesnek

 

Dr. Avriel Licciardi, Research Communications Strategist

December 2020

Dr. Alia Lesnek
Alia Lesnek is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of New Hampshire. Her research focuses on using geochemical dating techniques to understand the connections between glaciers, climate, and landscape change. She has participated in field campaigns in Greenland, Alaska, and the western USA, and has published articles in journals such as Nature, Science Advances, and Geophysical Research Letters. In Fall 2021, she will be starting a tenure-track position at Queens College in New York City.


As the COVID-19 pandemic enters a second surge worldwide, concerns regarding laboratory access, lost funding, and publishing and employment opportunities rise to the top of scholars’ minds. In this interview, Dr. Alia Lesnek provides an honest account of her experience as a postdoctoral researcher during the pandemic, including how to stay on track and successfully land that increasingly elusive tenure-track faculty position.

LetPub: Thank you for meeting with us to discuss this important and timely topic. As an early career scientist—and one who has successfully landed a faculty position amid the current pandemic—your insight on navigating academia during this time is of great interest. To start, would you mind providing a brief summary of your academic background?

Dr. Lesnek: Thanks for having me. I got my Bachelor of Science in Geology from the University of Florida in 2013. While I was at the University of Florida, I worked as a research assistant in a few different geochemistry labs to get a feel for the research process. I also completed an undergraduate thesis. After I graduated with my Bachelor’s, I took a bit of time off from school and research. I went back to graduate school in 2014 and earned my Ph.D. in the Geological Sciences from the University at Buffalo in 2019. I am currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of New Hampshire. This coming August, I will be moving to New York City to start a tenure-track assistant professorship at CUNY Queens College.

LetPub: Based on your experience, do you have any tips for other researchers in similar situations?

Dr. Lesnek: As for advice, I recommend thinking carefully about the type of institution where you would like to work before sending out applications. For example, research-focused and teaching-focused schools will have different qualities that they are looking for in a new hire, and knowing what kind of institution you are applying to will help you tailor your application materials appropriately.

LetPub: Speaking of early career job seekers, many graduate students and postdocs no longer have the opportunity to interview for academic positions in person. In your opinion, what can researchers do to increase their chances of receiving a job offer virtually?

Dr. Lesnek: Prepare as much as you can! Before my virtual interview, I researched common interview questions and thought about how I would answer them. I put together lists of points related to specific topics (e.g., teaching large introductory courses and student involvement in my research program). During the interview, I actually put sticky notes with some of those points around my laptop screen so I could reference them while I talked. I also did a few practice sessions with my mentors and colleagues to ensure that I felt comfortable answering questions on the spot and sounded natural when I did so.

LetPub: That is excellent advice. What questions should interviewees be sure to ask, especially if they cannot visit the department?

Dr. Lesnek: I think researchers should remember that meeting with the faculty and students, even virtually, is a chance to find out more about the culture of the department and see how well you might fit in. That can be tough to assess from just looking at the department or university’s website, but it is very important for your happiness in the long run. I recommend asking about research collaborations among faculty, if the undergraduates conduct research projects, and what the short- and long-term plans or visions for the department are.

LetPub: Let’s jump back to some more pandemic-related questions. Some scientists have discovered a “silver lining” to the pandemic: more downtime means more time to focus on writing manuscripts. Do you think this is true? Or have you (or your colleagues) found it difficult to focus due to the pandemic?

Dr. Lesnek: I have found it somewhat difficult to stay consistently focused due to the pandemic. It was especially hard for me during the lockdowns since I live alone. I struggled with feeling disconnected from my colleagues and my work, and it was a challenge get into “research mode” when I was worrying about my loved ones getting sick. I feel like I am almost back to my pre-pandemic levels of productivity, but it certainly took some time for me to adjust to this new mode of research and teaching.

LetPub: Thank you for your candid and honest response. Along similar lines, as a geologist, much of your funded research involves traveling and working internationally, all of which is currently on hold. Are funders extending contracts to account for the disruption? Should researchers be worried about funding being rescinded or going unused if no extensions are granted?

Dr. Lesnek: That had been a concern for me initially, but it seems like the funding agencies in the US are sensitive to how the pandemic is impacting field-based research. I received a grant for a research project in Grand Teton National Park, and I was not able to travel there to complete the planned field work this past summer. The sponsoring agency extended my grant until December 2021, which should give me enough time to use the funds. Among my colleagues, it seems like many of us are trying to be more flexible with field work plans than we have in the past, and we are extending our own timelines for new projects to account for potential disruptions and lockdowns.

LetPub: On the topic of international scientists and research, many are no longer to travel outside their country and thus must rule out any graduate student and/or postdoc positions abroad. Any advice for these researchers?

Dr. Lesnek: I would say to do the best research you can at home, and then see if you can move abroad at a later date. You could also work with your potential mentor to delay the start date of your new position as I did for my start date at CUNY Queens College. It is always worth asking. Also, with more department seminars and conferences being virtual, take advantage of those opportunities to network with international researchers.

LetPub: Many early career researchers, especially postdocs, list the impact of the pandemic as a top concern regarding career progression. In your opinion, how greatly does the pandemic weigh in terms of challenges relative to other primary concerns such as the competition for funding or the economic impact of COVID-19?

Dr. Lesnek: Good question. I think the pandemic is heightening some of the other, more “normal” challenges that you mentioned. Funding for research (at least in my field, which is not related to public health at all) will likely get a bit tighter, at least for the next couple of years. That will, unfortunately, make it even more difficult to receive grants, which is already tough as it is. I have also heard from some of my fellow postdocs that there just are not as many academic jobs being advertised this year, which is putting these researchers under a lot of stress.

LetPub: I can image the stress levels are a bit higher than usual. So, you mentioned virtual seminars and networking in some of your previous answers. What has been your experience with virtual conferences and scientific presentations?

Dr. Lesnek: I have attended a few virtual conferences since the pandemic started, with somewhat mixed experiences. I appreciated the lower cost of registration for the online conferences, as well as not having to pay for travel and accommodations. However, I do feel like my ability to network was impacted by the virtual format. Perhaps if online conferences become more of a regular occurrence, I will get more comfortable with the idea of “meeting” people virtually.

LetPub: That’s understandable. Do you think there are benefits to virtual presentations?

Dr. Lesnek: Well, I do feel like this is a great time to give presentations at other universities. Since travel is restricted now, most institutions have transitioned their seminars online, and there are a lot of opportunities to share your science in places where you might not normally be able to travel. For example, I recently gave a virtual talk at University College Dublin (in Ireland) from my campus office. I recommend reaching out to your colleagues now and asking if they have any availabilities in their spring seminar series! I am sure they will be happy to fill those time slots.

LetPub: OK, only a couple more questions. When the pandemic is over, how do you think academia will respond? Will more jobs be suddenly available? Are virtual conferences here to stay?

Dr. Lesnek: I think we might see some more lasting changes to academia, like online courses becoming more widespread and increased rates of working from home. I am not so sure about virtual conferences, however. As I said earlier, the online format does have a number of benefits, but I find it hard to imagine that virtual conferences will completely replace in-person events. But who knows what will be possible with new technologies?

LetPub: Any words of wisdom for fellow graduate students and postdocs?

Dr. Lesnek: I know it is difficult out there right now with everything going on in the world but try to stay positive and do the best research you can do. Most of us got into research and academia because we love our field, so remember to enjoy it!


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