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Guidance for Research and Scholarship During COVID-19

Research leadership from across the University of Michigan campuses are working together to safely reengage research and scholarship through carefully managed waves, in accordance with state regulations. Faculty mentors and graduate students should work together to create individualized plans for return to research during this ramp-up period. The path for graduate students to return to research should address both the priorities of the individual student and the priorities of the PI’s research portfolio. This is clearly a different way of thinking about research, one that places even more emphasis on the team and the goal rather than the individual. In this guidance, we collect what we are learning about best practices for pursuing graduate education, research, and scholarship in the present challenging circumstances. Advice is organized in sections for graduate students, graduate faculty, and graduate program staff and leadership. Please email us your promising practices. We will periodically update this guidance with information, recommendations, and best practices to help members of the Rackham community pursue graduate education and research at this time.

Graduate Students

  • You should continue to be in regular contact with your faculty advisors and mentors. If you have not heard from your advisors and mentors, reach out to them now and ask them to work with you to develop a plan for continuing your research and scholarship under the current circumstances, which could continue for an extended period. If your faculty advisors and mentors contact you, please respond promptly.
  • You should work with your faculty advisors and mentors to find ways to continue with your academic learning, research, and scholarship under the new constraints (e.g., closed libraries, partially opened research labs, restrictions on human subjects research). How to do this will require creativity, flexibility, and good communication with your faculty advisors and mentors.
  • As part of the research ramp-up planning process, it will be important for you to identify your most urgent research questions as well as potential alternative means by which they can be addressed. The likely limited availability of cores, shared equipment, libraries, and other resources outside of research group space during the early phases of research ramp-up should also be considered.
  • It is important to maintain ties to your graduate community while practicing social distancing. If you have not already done so, consider setting up regular times to check in with friends or peers in your program or setting up weekly research group meetings with your advisor and peers as a way to stay connected. There are a variety of social media and collaboration tools that you can use.
  • Many of your planned research and scholarship related summer activities involving travel may be canceled or disrupted due to travel restrictions (e.g., training, language programs, research trips, conference plans). We encourage you to consult with your faculty mentors to develop an alternative plan, as well as to check with any sponsor who was providing you funding as to what alternative arrangements might be possible. This might include:
    • finding an alternative (remote learning) program that meets the same goals;
    • working on another aspect of your academic development in lieu of previously planned fieldwork or off-campus research;
    • submitting an abstract to present at an alternative conference scheduled for later in the calendar year.
  • If you have scheduled qualifying and preliminary exams for the spring/summer term, consult with your faculty advisors and committee members immediately to develop a way forward. The unsettling pace of recent events has generated stress and uncertainty, and it may be difficult to concentrate under such conditions. Preparing for these milestone exams is a long game. Taking a day or two when needed to step back, rest, and plan will yield dividends later this term. We also recognize that the closure of libraries means that you no longer have access to books and other scholarly materials, except for those available online, and that students who hold GSI appointments are facing an increased workload as undergraduate courses are taught remotely. To the extent that you can, we encourage you to design a reasonable plan with your faculty advisor that allows you to meet the milestone of taking your qualifying and preliminary exams as close to the original schedule as possible.
  • If you are a doctoral student, understand that the continuity of funding described in your offer of admission will be honored. For example, UMOR has indicated in their guidance that funding for staff and GSRAs on grants continues during the ramp-down, research pause, and during the new ramp-up period.
  • This may be a good time to update your written mentoring plan or develop one if you do not have one. Resources to help with mentoring plans are available.

Graduate Faculty

  • Faculty who mentor master’s and doctoral students working for academic credit in labs and other research sites on or off campus—including independent study and dissertation credit—must connect with each of their students to develop a plan for continued research progress when normal operation has been modified due to laboratory, library, or museum closures, appropriate to the degree or credit pursued. It is important to recognize that these new plans will necessarily look quite different than prior expectations due to the circumstances of the moment. In most cases, flexibility will be needed because research activities, methods, and outputs will be substantively altered and attenuated. Faculty might consider the following:
    • establishing a process for communication type and frequency. This could be, for example, weekly conferencing at set times coupled with more frequent email communications. Some groups are using collaboration tools for communication as well;
    • providing deadlines for milestones (a first draft, an outline, comments on a manuscripts) while realizing that flexibility may be needed;
    • developing a goal of revisiting work plans with each student regularly (biweekly, for example);
    • initiating a new group activity or two (e.g., joint projects, journal clubs, etc.) by video conference to maintain lab, research group, or cohort community. The threat of social isolation in this phase of off-campus research and scholarship is real.
  • In the research ramp-up phase, the path for graduate students to return to research should address both the priorities of the individual student and the priorities of the PI’s research portfolio. As needed, the following strategies can aid in the creation of the plans:
    • Faculty can engage the research group as a team to complete high-priority lab tasks in ways that accommodate the individual situations of lab members;
    • Faculty and students can incorporate variable levels of
      on-campus (e.g., lab work) and remote (e.g., data analysis, experimental design, writing) research activities into the work plans of graduate students during the initial ramp-up in ways that accommodate their individual situations;
    • As needed, the student’s academic program can work with the faculty and student to develop alternative methods for academic and research progress.
  • First year graduate students are uniquely impacted by the alteration in research activities. They are early in their development as independent scholars and are thus less likely to have a clear topic or direction on which to focus remote work. Additionally, in many fields, first year students have not yet identified their permanent mentor or have only recently done so. If you have a first year student working in your group—as a rotation student, for example—provide a remote work plan that is appropriate for their early stage yet keeps them connected. Possibilities include pairing them with more senior scholars to review and provide comments on manuscripts, helping them get started with a literature review, or asking them to create resources for your research group. Keep in mind that their research ramp-up plan will necessarily be different than more senior graduate students and postdocs as the need for low occupancy of research space and social distancing will prevent learning through shadowing and/or co-work.
  • Faculty who are teaching with GSIs should be in regular communication with those graduate students. We encourage faculty to involve GSIs in the planning for remote classes, assignments, and exams. We also suggest that faculty work with GSIs on developing lesson plans and strategies for remote discussion sections
  • Faculty with doctoral students planning to take preliminary or qualifying exams during the spring/summer period can provide additional guidance to help students complete this requirement in a timely manner while recognizing the new constraints under which students are operating—including the closure of UM libraries. Under these circumstances, faculty should consider working with students to develop a variety of options. Examples might include:
    • shortening prelim reading lists to focus on what a student has already read;
    • reducing the prelim reading list to books on hand, ebooks, and journal articles that can be accessed online;
    • focusing on the body of knowledge that is necessary for a student to begin dissertation work, rather than an abstract notion of field mastery;
    • changing the format of qualifying or candidacy examinations, depending on the program.
  • Faculty with doctoral students planning to defend and file dissertations during this time can help students finish their degrees by acknowledging the circumstances and helping students find alternative paths to finish the last parts of their dissertation. The current situation has created additional stress for students in the home stretch of data collection or writing, and in some cases, the suspension of nonessential research will constrain what students are now able to do. Under these circumstances, the dissertation committee might work with the student to develop alternative ways to write up projects that were nearly, but not completely, finished
  • Given the importance of communication in order to maintain the academic enterprise under the current conditions, we encourage you to review and update your written mentoring plan with your students, or develop one if you have not yet done so. Mentoring resources to help are available.
  • The current situation presents specific challenges for international students, including the inability to travel and join their families to provide support, and concerns about family and friends in countries where COVID-19 has been particularly severe. If you are the faculty mentor for an international student, please consider additional ways to provide support, including setting up additional one-on-one meetings (by video conference) to talk about personal concerns and facilitating group meetings with other international students who can provide support to each other. You can be a source of advice to your students about how to navigate the moment in multiple dimensions—academically, professionally, and personally.
  • Pay special attention to the often unacknowledged power differential between faculty advisors and graduate students in this challenging time. For example, some graduate students need to participate in maintaining critical laboratory research activities during the ramp-up phase, especially in fields where there are few postdocs and laboratory technicians available. Support your graduate students who are asked to participate in such research appropriately to ensure they have the option not to participate if that is their preference.
  • Remember that funding arrangements of doctoral students in good academic standing will continue during this period. For example, UMOR has indicated in their guidance that funding for staff and GSRAs on grants continues during the reduced research period.
  • Throughout this time be mindful that confidentiality of a graduate student’s individual circumstances should be maintained by the faculty mentor.

Graduate Programs and Leadership

  • Continue the program level steps in the degree progression for your students. For example, as first year rotations wrap up, be sure that students are assigned a research advisor, and that the expected transitions in funding arrangements occur. Even though we are currently in a reduced research period, and a delay in research progress is anticipated, the academic progression of your program should continue. Rackham is available to work with you to resolve special circumstances in your program.
  • Encourage faculty to be as flexible as possible with their qualifying and preliminary exam expectations, and consider introducing temporary flexibility into your processes. Remind your program that in many fields, much of the prelim preparation (especially if it relies on mastering subfied debates) becomes progressively more useful to students as they progress into candidacy. Therefore, later work can help address any gaps in field knowledge that might be present at the moment, because of the lack of availability of certain resources for learning and research.
  • Encourage faculty to be as flexible as possible with dissertation defenses that are slated to take place during the winter term. Helping students defend according to their original plans is optimal. For those whose data collection has been somewhat foreshortened, consider encouraging dissertation committees to work with students to develop alternative means to write up work that was nearly, but not fully, completed.
  • Pay particular attention to the unique needs and stresses facing first year graduate students. This is an important time to reach out to them as a group and individually to make sure that they have a remote working plan, that they understand how the research ramp down might affect the deadlines and requirements for your program, that they are aware of the resources available for them (from the graduate program and through the university), and that they are making the transition from winter term academics and rotations to summer term (off-campus) research.
  • Be aware that international students may be experiencing specific challenges in this period. They are often less familiar with Ann Arbor and university resources. Consider additional ways to provide support, including asking established student organizations in your program to set up a support network for international students, or simply asking international students if they have what they need vis a vis food, shelter, etc.
  • Pay special attention to the power differential between faculty advisors and graduate students in this difficult time. Some of your graduate students may be asked to participate in critical laboratory research. Discuss with your faculty that they need to provide flexibility and provide the option for graduate students to not participate if that is their preference.

Frequently Asked Questions About Research Reengagement Planning

Will a student and faculty mentor/PI come to mutual agreement as to when/how the student should return to on-campus research, or will the return pathway be the decision of the PI?
Graduate students and faculty mentors should work together to develop a mutually agreeable plan that allows for the student to return gradually to on-campus research. The student’s graduate program or department can help by providing specific guidance for the development of work plans describing the ramp-up.
What is the role of the department or graduate program in the graduate student’s return to on-campus research?
The student’s graduate program or department can help the faculty mentor by providing specific guidance for the development of work plans during the ramp-up. In addition, as needed, the academic program can work with the faculty mentor and student to develop alternative methods for the student’s academic and research progress, if a work plan for return to research is not mutually agreed upon.
How will the research of graduate students be prioritized during the ramp-up?
To address safety and public health imperatives, UMOR, schools and colleges, and departments may sequence the opening of buildings and laboratories. In addition, faculty mentors/PIs may sequence the restart of projects in their laboratories. Each of these decisions should recognize that every graduate student has an individual need to make degree progress, and that such degree progress is potentially impacted by the sequencing of the restart. Departments and faculty mentors should clearly communicate restart plans, so that graduate students can determine how to allocate their time between remote and on-campus research tasks during the ramp-up.
Are there resources for graduate students and faculty if mutual agreement on a research return plan is not possible?
The first resource is the student’s academic program or department. This could include the graduate program director/director of graduate students or a designated ombudsperson within the department or program. Outside of the department or program, school or college conflict resolution officers, as well as embedded ombuds offices, are important resources. Finally, the Office of the Dean of Students and the Rackham Resolution Office are available to assist.

We are seeking your feedback on what is working well in your program, lab, or research/scholarship cohort. Please email your comments about this resource. We will organize responses and make updates to this site based on them.

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