Pandemic pivot projects and learning when to say 'no'

All credit to @gbosslet et al for this academic decision algorithm

I can’t say I would recommend doing a PhD during a pandemic. At least, not one that involves travel and working alongside other people. But, a year in, I am doing some reflection on all the ways my research plans and processes have changed, for better and for worse.

This has been the Year of Side Projects (aka my pandemic-pivot-projects). Uncertain field seasons, a loudly ticking funding clock, and general loneliness drove my maximizer-tendencies to new heights. I started saying ‘yes’ to everything that came my way, research and otherwise. I told myself I was being strategic; that it was a long term necessity to be ~flexible and adaptable~. At the start, it felt like floundering. Within a few months, it felt like drowning.

Flexible or floundering?


Of course, the temptation of the side project is nothing new. It’s hard to turn down an interesting opportunity, let alone one that involves cool people. But it’s doubly hard to turn down an interesting project with cool people, when you have no idea if you’ll be able to carry out your planned dissertation. In practice, this meant it was very easy for me to break my own boundaries. My primary challenge was identifying when and how to say ‘no’.

Finding @gbosslet’s decision algorithm changed my process. It works for research, but I’ve found it applies to non-research opportunities as well. For me, it removes all the emotion and second guessing, and helps me enforce the boundaries that make me a more productive scientist.

On the whole, I’m grateful for my pandemic-pivot-projects. They forced me to pause and think more carefully about my dissertation. They also opened new doors to topics and people that I would’ve otherwise left closed. But, they showed me the consequences of saying ‘yes’ too often.

Sometimes, saying ‘no’ is good.

Nathalie Sommer
Nathalie Sommer
PhD Candidate