Q&A Kevin Burgio: 10 rules for a successful remote postdoc

How to build productive long-distance relationships.

11 October 2019

Gemma Conroy

Django/Getty

When Kevin Burgio began applying for postdoctoral positions after finishing his PhD, he almost quit academia, because the jobs that were the best match were so far away from where his daughter lived.

“I couldn’t spend three months of my salary on moving across the country for a job that was only for a year,” says Burgio, now an ecologist at the University of Connecticut. “I had to keep a roof over my child’s head.”

In August, Burgio with colleagues drew on his experience for a paper on PeerJ Preprints titled “10 simple rules for a successful remote postdoc”.

Kevin Burgio

Its aim is to help principal investigators and researchers develop strong working relationships at a distance. Burgio says many postdoctoral jobs can be conducted remotely, particularly those involving computational research and quantitative analysis, making scientific careers more accessible to those who do not have the funds to move.

Nature Index spoke to Burgio about how working remotely can benefit researchers.

What problems is this paper trying to address?

Academia is difficult in that you often have to move to find a job that is the best match for your skills and interests. I decided early on that I wasn't going to trade my relationship with my daughter for my career, so that really just limited me to a very small geographical area in which to work.

But there are a lot of different types of people who have been marginalized and left out of science, or have left it altogether for similar reasons.

I do mostly quantitative work, which I can do pretty much anywhere. When I was applying for postdoc positions, I asked dozens of principal investigators whether they would be open to having a remote postdoc. While some were receptive to the idea, they ultimately wanted someone to be in the lab physically.

What are some barriers that need to be overcome in making remote postdocs the norm?

Some principal investigators and supervisors are sceptical of the idea, because they feel that having someone in the room with them is better for brainstorming ideas on the fly.

There’s also a fear of the unknown in terms of knowing whether someone is actually doing the work they are being paid to do. If a postdoc is working in the lab, their supervisor can walk by their office and see that they’re working, but you can’t do that with a remote team member.

But trust can be established with checking in regularly, setting clear deadlines and honest communication. It’s also important to remember that by the time someone is in a postdoc position, they are a working professional with a PhD. They have gotten this far and do not necessarily need someone standing over their shoulder in order to get things done.

What are some of the benefits of making postdoctoral positions remote?

The biggest benefit is that it normalizes remote contact and communication, because science is increasingly becoming collaborative. We have huge datasets that are collected by hundreds of people all over the world, and being able to communicate well with your remote colleagues is a really important skill.

It also broadens the representation of underrepresented minorities in science, which in turn, increases the diversity of skills and perspectives. Perhaps there are students who have kids at home and it’s difficult for them to come in for a lab meeting on the only day they don’t have classes. Or there may be researchers with social anxiety who are more comfortable with video conferencing.

In the end, everyone benefits from making remote postdoc positions the norm, because not only does it allow broader participation from lab members, it also teaches students that this style of working is normal. They’re likely going to be collaborating with people living on the other side of the world, and this is a good way to show them how to do it effectively.

How does working remotely affect a researcher’s productivity?

Being remote gives you the opportunity to make your own schedule. It allows you to block out four hours for uninterrupted writing without email or other distractions. It’s harder to do that when you’re sitting in a lab where people are walking by and saying hi or inviting you to coffee or lunch.

I personally do my best work when I just shut everything off and go somewhere where I'm usually not and just think about something for a few hours or read some papers and get some ideas without being interrupted. Admittedly you could probably just go to the library if you're there in person but I think it's a little bit easier as a remote person to do it.

Which disciplines is this style of working best suited to?

At the moment, a lot of ecology postdoctoral job listings are very analysis intensive. Basically they involve taking the data that’s already been collected and turning them into papers. These jobs can easily be made remote because you’re just writing code and manuscripts.

These types of jobs are only going to become more common with the growth of big data and bioinformatics. We’ve got the computational power to analyse these data from pretty much anywhere.

What advice do you have for supervisors and postdocs wanting to work together remotely?

The most important rule of all is rule #3: Establish a communication plan. You can implement all the other rules, like recognizing the benefits of remote postdocs (rule #1), investing in and using video conferencing (rule #4), and owning having/being a remote postdoc (rule #10), but it’s not going to work without open, direct communication. This is important in any job, but it’s particularly important in this case.

I think many early-career researchers have a tendency to keep quiet and do whatever it takes to make things work. But this can foster resentment and isn’t sustainable in the long-term. It’s also really important for principal investigators to be upfront about what they require, but also be flexible and creative in getting their needs met.

Ten simple rules for a successful remote postdoc

Rule 1: Recognize the benefits of remote postdocs

Rule 2: Prepare for success

Rule 3: Establish a communication plan

Rule 4: Invest in and use video conferencing

Rule 5: Normalize remote interactions & cultivate digital spaces for the entire lab

Rule 6: Treat remote postdocs like full members of the lab

Rule 7: A little in-person interaction goes a long way; maximize it by being creative

Rule 8: Actively work to combat isolation

Rule 9: Develop adaptive problem-solving skills

Rule 10: Accept and own having / being a remote postdoc

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Q&A Niamh Brennan: 100 rules for publishing in top journals

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