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Jenny Baker
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TIP-TOPics for Students: Virtually Indestructible: How to Thrive in the Digital World as a Graduate Student During COVID-19

Andrew Tenbrink, Mallory Smith, Georgia LaMarre, Laura Pineault, and Tyleen Lopez, Wayne State University

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students at all stages of their studies are feeling especially uncertain about the future. This is compounded by the additional demands of adjusting to routines that have been modified for a new reality. Current circumstances (e.g., closed campuses; remote learning, research, and work) leave us isolated from our peers and mentors. Milestones that were previously defining features of the graduate experience (defending one’s thesis/dissertation, commencement, attending conferences and symposia) have been cancelled, postponed, or converted to virtual formats. The elimination of in-person opportunities to showcase work and engage in networking poses additional barriers for graduate students who rely on these events to disseminate their research and make valuable connections in their field.

It is not yet clear what the longstanding impact of COVID-19 will be on future of I-O psychology (and the world of work, more generally). To what extent will work-from-home arrangements, online learning, and virtual milestones become the “new normal”? How well will our past experiences equip us to meet these new realities? Although it’s normal and understandable to get overwhelmed with the uncertainty of the future, I-O psychologists are in a unique position to offer insight and engage in conversations about the new nature of work. Many of these “new” demands of a virtual world were, in fact, trends that existed prior to this global pandemic (e.g., the “changing nature of work,” shifts to flexible work arrangements, online networking, job searching, and interviewing). We as I-O psychologists have been studying the advantages, best practices, and implications of virtual work on employee job performance and well-being for decades. Now, we have an opportunity to leverage and embody these recommendations to hone our “virtual work” skills and build competitive advantage in a post-COVID labor market.

Our approach in this article is to acknowledge the realities of the changed circumstances in which we find ourselves while offering resources to build resilience and cope with these new demands in adaptive, empowering ways. In the following sections, we summarize advice from experts in virtual communication to help graduate students get the most out of their remote work situations.

Becoming a Virtual Meeting Expert

Effectively leveraging technology to reach others is an essential skill for thriving in virtual spaces. However, interacting in virtual environments for the first time can be a huge adjustment for graduate students. Many of us already feel the negative side effects of synchronous (i.e., real-time) online activities, such as Zoom fatigue, frustrations with tech, and managing the distractions of working at home. As New York Times’ Op-Ed columnists Michelle Goldberg and Frank Bruni rightfully called out, “to zoom or not to zoom” is truly “the quarantine question.”  Although video conferencing has been marketed as the blanket solution to various challenges posed by physical distancing measures, both in peoples’ professional and personal lives, this method of communication poses its own challenges. Most of us have discovered first-hand how unnatural and uncomfortable on-screen interactions can be, in addition to being cognitively draining and uniquely challenging to get right.

Counteracting the adverse effects of these digital stressors is possible by implementing best practices for being “present” online and setting clear boundaries around virtual interactions.

Brittany Ernst, organizational scientist at University of North Carolina at Charlotte (whose master’s thesis and dissertation focused on virtual communication), provided actionable tips for effectively connecting and interacting with others in virtual meetings:

  • “Be present in the meeting.” During synchronous meetings, Ernst advises to “focus on the agenda and devote all your attention to the current conversation.” Avoid the temptation to multitask during virtual meetings, both out of courtesy to your colleagues and to reduce the cognitive load of competing demands for your attention.
  • “Enhance your social presence with visual and auditory cues.” Realistically, we are not always able (or comfortable) enabling video in web conferences. Instead, strategically using different features of these technologies can help approximate the socially fulfilling aspects of in-person interactions. Consider enabling video for small meetings of close colleagues. In situations where using video or speaking up is not feasible, Ernst recommends “us[ing] the chat box, hand raising, and sending reactions such as the “thumbs up” to indicate that you’re actively listening.”
  • “Enhance others’ social presence.” To achieve a “mutual sense of social presence” in your virtual interactions, make sure that you acknowledge the contributions of others as well. Ask and answer questions, share feedback, and generally encourage others to engage in the interaction.
  • “Match the complexity of your task to the communication medium.” Not everything needs to be a Zoom meeting! Quick questions or updates can be achieved using email or instant messaging (e.g., Slack). Conversely, a chain of back-and-forth emails may be better suited for a phone conversation. “Matching the communication medium to the task at hand will save time and improve productivity.”

These strategies will allow you to preserve your reputation as an engaged graduate student and make progress towards your academic/professional goals. That said, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the conflict that exists about when to enable video. If you are able (in terms of technology access, the nature of your work-from-home environment, and personal comfort level), enabling video may help you connect better with others. Conversely, no one should feel pressured to enable video when they choose not to.

Many organizations are sensitive to these issues. IBM’s “Work from Home Pledge” includes a clause to “support ‘not camera ready’ times”:

I will not ask people to turn their cameras on while on video calls. While I encourage the use of video during meetings so we can feel more connected, there will naturally be times when it’s just not feasible given home circumstances. During these times, I want everyone to feel comfortable that they can simply turn the video off as needed.

In response to the rising prevalence of video fatigue, IBM’s pledge also highlights the importance of setting boundaries around meetings while working remotely by decreasing meeting time (e.g., 20- and 45-minute meetings over 30-minute and 1-hour meetings).

Although the ability to collaborate on interdependent tasks is certainly important in determining team effectiveness (particularly so in virtual formats), we know that being present and connected at all times can be exhausting. Graduate students must judiciously invest their finite time and energy resources in order to meet a number of competing demands. Therefore, we call on academic advisors and administrators to follow IBM’s example by communicating and reinforcing similar expectations around video conferencing with their graduate students. Overemphasizing virtual “face-time” may indivertibly drain energy that could otherwise be directed more productively.

Although we graduate students are accustomed to completing work on our computers, we are not used to relying on technology to achieve other personal and professional goals (e.g., building relationships, developing new skills, marketing yourself, and disseminating your research). Having established the general importance of building a virtual presence synchronously through live video conferencing, we now turn our attention to cultivating your virtual presence when you’re not live on video screen.

Virtually Networking on Social Media

Face-to-face networking has historically been considered the "gold standard" method of forming professional connections. Meetings for professional associations, career-development workshops, and large-scale conferences pride themselves on providing convenient, personal access to valuable relationship-building opportunities. Now, graduate students are missing out on in-person networking, especially with professional associations having been forced to cancel in-person programming (e.g., the SIOP, AOM, and APA annual conferences). In light of this, we face the challenge of developing online networking skills amid uncertainty about whether our efforts will provide us with the same access to social capital that is important both in our training and job-search efforts. Fortunately, virtual networking isn’t entirely uncharted territory: with the rise of professional social media like LinkedIn, networking was becoming increasingly digital, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The best approach to networking in any context requires strategic leveraging of the breadth and depth of the connections you create, understanding that each relationship will offer opportunities for unique exchanges of mutual value.

Many graduate students (us, included!) find the thought of networking to be daunting, not to mention logistically challenging. Thankfully, social media has made modern networking much less confronting by decreasing the perceived power imbalance between I-O newcomers and experienced pros in the field. With a bit of thoughtful ingenuity, the virtual world provides myriad platforms and channels through which to connect with knowledgeable, influential people—even from the comfort of your bed or couch! The following tips will help you kickstart your networking efforts in a targeted way.

  • Think about your virtual networking objectives. Are you trying to get more broad knowledge of possible career paths in I-O? Alternately, do you want to target your search to connect with thought leaders in a particular area? Articulating your goals up front will help you focus your efforts productively. Brainstorm the names of people and/or organizations that you’d like to connect with. Do an Internet search for key words to find virtual spaces where you might find opportunities to connect. Social media has many groups dedicated to specific areas of practice, such as the RaceAhead LinkedIn group for people with an interest in diversity and inclusion.
  • Find others with shared interests by perusing industry publications (e.g., TIP, IOP, annual reports) that provide in-depth information about current trends in I-O psychology. This is good practice both in terms of professional development and for scoping out new potential network contacts. When you find an article, podcast, or social-media post that you find insightful, reach out to the author and let them know! Send a Tweet, a LinkedIn message, or use good old-fashioned email with a note acknowledging the work they put into the piece, and ask if they’re willing to continue the conversation one-on-one. This is a great way to enhance the social presence of others while also communicating your shared interests.
  • Attend (or host) virtual events. From formal webinars and virtual conferences to informal Zoom “coffee chats” and happy hours, there are many opportunities to stay informed, get involved, and engage with new people in a virtual space. In larger events where it may not be feasible to interact directly with individuals, make note of who is giving interesting presentations and making insightful comments. Then, reach out afterward with a thoughtful question or compliment on their work.

If you can’t find an event that interests you, why not host your own? Find contacts in other I-O programs in your area who may want to virtually “get together” to discuss a topic, or simply get to know one another. Here is a sampling of different virtual events and opportunities bringing the I-O community together:

  • SIOP 2020 has gone virtual, and still offers opportunities for emerging I-Os to connect.
  • Dr. Juliet Aiken (University of Maryland) hosts a weekly “Coffee House” every Wednesday at 10am EST to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion during COVID-19. All are welcome! Email iocoffeehouse@gmail.com to receive a calendar invitation.
  • The Otherwise Invisible Consulting has an open call for I-O graduate students to provide pro bono consulting for organizations and individuals impacted by COVID-19 globally. If you’re interested in learning more, please email theotherwiseinvisible@gmail.com.
  • Attend virtual events hosted by your local I-O groups and related organizations, such as the Society for Evidence Based Organizational Psychology.

Leveraging Your Virtual Network for Skill Development and Self-Learning

Social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), academic social networks (e.g., ResearchGate), and open-source online platforms (e.g., Open Science Framework; OSF) are not just beneficial for facilitating e-networking and increasing your visibility as an emerging scholar. Being active on these platforms can also enhance your self-directed learning. The field of I-O has an active e-community, with researchers constantly crowdsourcing ideas on Twitter and LinkedIn, publishing preprints or open-access course materials on OSF, and conversationally engaging with each other’s ideas. Building your network on these platforms provides access to a living library of curated research and learning materials.

Without diminishing the personal and professional challenges brought on by COVID-19, we see a silver lining—arguably, there has been no other time in recent history that academic content has been so widely accessible. These changes represent long overdue reform around information access, which can be seen as a benefit to us in academia. In the age of open access and social media, students’ learning opportunities are less tied to their finances, geography, or pedigree. The virtual world today is a portal to a wealth of free and low-cost resources, such as statistics seminars/self-teaching materials, online conference presentations, and podcasts. The onus is on you to engage with the content! Here is a sampling of open-access materials and virtual talks that you can leverage to bolster your skills:

Holding Up Your End of the Bargain by Translating and Disseminating Your Research Online

Social media interactions bear the same inherent reciprocity expectations as other interpersonal relationships; “taking” your network’s posted content (whether that be reading a posted article, learning about events, or directing your own online self-education using open-access course materials), “giving” your own curated content, and the cycle continues. One way to curate your own content is to share a simple, easy-to-read summary of your recent research. Due to widespread disruptions in organizational operations and people’s lives more generally, many research projects and data-collection efforts have stalled or become infeasible to continue during a pandemic. In an effort to remain productive, many of us early scholars have shifted our attention to writing, whether that be developing a conceptual review for research or finally writing up that manuscript (or two) that sat dormant, half-written for too long. As you spend more of your “research” time in the writing phase, consider writing up your research findings twice: once in a traditional academic-focused format (i.e., for an academic audience, including peer-reviewers and other scholars) and another “translated” version for a broader, lay audience. Why, you ask? The latter can be used as the foundation of a brief article for social media or even be transformed into a YouTube video to explain your work.

As author of several successful LinkedIn articles, Dr. Ernst provided two trade secrets to translating your own research into practical insights: (1) remove any jargon, technical language, and extra fluff; and (2) add a sentence or two to clearly highlight the value and/or primary contribution of your work (referred to informally as the “So what, who cares?”). By “translating” your research and making it publicly available online, you move from being a passive recipient of online academic content to an active contributor.

Looking to the Future of Virtual Graduate Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions in the lives of many across the world. Overall, we are lucky if adapting to virtual school, remote work, and online community building are the greatest challenges we contend with in these times. That said, we believe that this period of change represents an excellent opportunity to revitalize the spirit of a professional community that can offer social support and the open sharing of resources. As the past few months (and the entire body of organizational change literature) have demonstrated, it is impossible to fully anticipate the obstacles we will encounter. Nevertheless, we forge ahead into the future, acknowledging the ambiguities, opportunities, and challenges that are yet to be perceived. This is at once a heartening testament to the resilience of our field as well as an indication that we have reached an important juncture where we must stop and reflect on how best to proceed. Although some aspects of the future may be uncertain, taking action to build personal resilience while elevating our community through mutual support is sure to illuminate the path forward to better times.

The content for this article was inspired by e-interviews with Dr. Brittany Ernst and Dr. Juliet Aiken. See this PDF for a full transcript of Dr. Ernst’s interview.

 

Team Biographies

Andrew Tenbrink is a 4th-year PhD student in I-O psychology. He received his BS in Psychology from Kansas State University. His research interests include selection, assessment, and performance management, with a specific focus on factors affecting the performance appraisal process. Currently, Andrew has a 1-year internship working as a research, development, and analytics associate at Denison Consulting in Ann Arbor, MI. Andrew is expected to graduate in the spring of 2021. After earning his PhD, he would like to pursue a career in academia. andrewtenbrink@wayne.edu | @AndrewPTenbrink

 

Mallory Smith is pursuing a Master of Arts in I-O Psychology. She earned her BA in Psychology and German from Wayne State University in 2017. Her interests include factors influencing employee attitudes, efficacy, and perceptions of justice during organizational change. Following graduation, she is interested in an applied career in the private sector—ideally in a role where she can help employees and businesses anticipate, prepare for, and navigate periods of uncertainty. smithy@wayne.edu | @mallorycsmith

 

Georgia LaMarre is a 3rd-year PhD student in I-O psychology. Originally from Canada, she completed her undergraduate education at the University of Waterloo before moving over the border to live in Michigan. Georgia is currently working with an interdisciplinary grant-funded team to study the workplace correlates of police officer stress in addition to pursuing interests in team decision making, workplace identity, and paramilitary organizational culture. After graduate school, she hopes to apply her I-O knowledge to help solve problems in public-sector organizations. georgia.lamarre@wayne.edu

 

Laura Pineault is a 4th-year PhD candidate in I-O psychology. Her research interests lie at the intersection of leadership and work–life organizational culture, with emphasis on the impact of work–life organizational practices on the leadership success of women. Laura graduated with Distinction from the Honours Behaviour, Cognition and Neuroscience program at the University of Windsor in June 2016. Currently, she serves as a quantitative methods consultant for the Department of Psychology’s Research Design and Analysis Unit. Laura is expected to graduate in the spring of 2021. After graduate school, she hopes to pursue a career in academia. laura.pineault@wayne.edu | @LPineault

 

Tyleen Lopez is a 2nd-year PhD student in I-O psychology. She received her BA in Psychology from St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Her research interests include diversity, inclusion, and leadership—particularly regarding ethnic minority women in the workplace. Tyleen is currently a graduate research assistant and lab manager for Dr. Lars Johnson’s Leadership, Productivity and Wellbeing Lab at Wayne State. Tyleen is expected to graduate in the spring of 2023. After earning her PhD, she would like to pursue a career in academia. tyleen.lopez@wayne.edu

 

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