Adapting to Disaster, Episode 3: Research Productivity in Disaster Conditions (Guest Post by Dr. Aisha Ahmad)

Dr. Aisha Ahmad is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, the Director of the Islam and Global Affairs Initiative at the Munk School, and the Chair of the Board of the Women in International Security-Canada. Her book, Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power, was awarded the 2017 Edgar Furniss Book Award and the 2018 Best Book in Comparative Politics Award by the Canadian Political Science Association. She is also the 2018 winner of the distinguished Northrop Frye Award of Excellence for outstanding undergraduate teaching at the University of Toronto.


Last week, I spoke about teaching in a disaster. This week’s episode of our Disaster Adaptation series focuses on practical strategies to maintain research productivity under crisis conditions. The purpose of this post is to help you set reasonable and achievable work goals in a system-wide disaster. That said, if you feel unstable and distressed at any point, please step back and review your primary security needs, as outlined in the first episode of this series. 

If you are now ready and eager to reengage with your research, this post is aimed at helping you with that transition. Be patient. Remember, we are in the early phase of crisis, and it is possible that your brain chemistry is still in emergency mode. If you are feeling disoriented and distracted, and are oscillating between waves of adrenaline and exhaustion, then recognize that you are still in transition. That said, it is still possible to be productive under sustained disaster conditions, provided that you prioritize work in a reasonable and systematic fashion.

I offer these insights based on my own experience of crises in other places. I have learned how to produce high-level academic work under conditions of prolonged insecurity, isolation, and stress. My knowledge is imperfect, but please feel free to use whatever is beneficial to you. Take what you need, and leave the rest.

Reset Priorities

This post is primarily aimed at helping you reengage with your academic research in a way that is productive, manageable, and sustainable. However, before presenting these strategies, I would like to put forward some needed context. Most importantly, if you are an academic in any field other than one that can solve the COVID-19 pandemic, then I suggest that you first take a step back and evaluate the urgency of your research. 

Four months ago, my work on radical insurgents and civil war economies was considered so critical that I was advising three-star generals and special forces commanders around the world. Today, even the extremist groups that I study are trying to contain the pandemic. These are mind-blowing changes, and they can and should affect our work priorities. Take a step back and evaluate how important your projects are right this minute.

This may be especially challenging for academics who are used to relentlessly pursuing a puzzle or problem into the depths of the ocean. Our narrow and near-obsessive focus allows us to become extremely productive within our areas of expertise, and gives birth to world-changing insights. I am not suggesting that we abandon this critical approach to knowledge creation. Indeed, this work is crucial for any enlightened and scientific society.

However, we are also currently in the early stages of a global catastrophe. Right now, addressing this crisis is much more important than the publication of research papers. Therefore, unless your research is directly related to solving this pandemic, your most important job is to serve as a support player on the team. Yes, you may be used to accolades and awards for your extraordinary theoretical innovations. You might have an ingrained sense of the value of your work. None of that is helpful or appropriate right now.

Set aside your projects for a moment and evaluate your immediate family network. If you have an emergency or essential worker in your immediate family, they are the priority. If your family member is in the emergency room, or driving a truck, or working at the grocery store, your first priority is to identify and meet their needs. Make a list and check in with them regularly to ensure they are supported. It is simply unhinged to immerse yourself in a luxurious writing bubble when your cousin is a nurse and coming home to an empty fridge. Reorient your energies to better support those on the front lines, both the people in your home, and those in your wider family and friend network.

At this critical time, we should all embrace humble labour and service. This is not the time for ego or intellectual elitism. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II drove an ambulance during WWII. No one is too fancy or important to do the grunt work. Set aside your research and watch a DIY video on how to sew homemade masks for family, friends, community, and – if heaven-forbid we run out of essential PPE – front-line workers. For many, a sewing machine is more helpful than a laptop right now.

Now, once you have done your part and put others first, you may also have a number of outstanding academic tasks that simply must get done. You may be teaching or taking classes that have to conclude by a certain date. You may have projects that are unfinished, looming R&R deadlines, and reviews of books and articles that you need to get back to anxious authors. No problem. Let’s tackle these outstanding tasks in a sensible way.

Your Research Must-Do List

Before I jump into strategy, it’s important for me to contextualize this counsel. In my experience, heavy duty theoretical development and sophisticated creative work are the hardest tasks to complete in the early stages of disaster adaptation. If you are attempting challenging conceptual problems and are finding that your mind is fuzzy, it is because you’re stressing overused faculties. I recommend this strategy in order to clear away the noise and get the wheels turning, so that you can ease into hardcore research sooner.

First, identify any work that is non-essential or superfluous, and either flush it or punt it down the road. If it doesn’t pay a return, scrap it. If it’s valuable but too laborious to execute at the moment, kick it forward a few months. If you had a fun work event that has been put on hold, postpone it for a full year but make no promises. Keep networks and projects that allow you to connect with your cool team of researchers, but make the demands super easy for the next few months. Say no to any new superfluous commitments, especially those that are not essential during this usual time. Clear away all residual debris. 

Second, pick clean the low hanging fruit in your scholarly inbox. An easy way to rev your mental engine is to complete your outstanding article, book, and dissertation reviews. If you can read on paper, that will get you away from the distraction sauce of the internet. If you must use a device, temporarily turn off your internet connectivity and try to immerse. It is much easier to evaluate than to construct, and the act of reviewing other people’s research  can massage your brain back into your own projects. The authors will thank you, and you will feel better about your ability to get back in the game. Your adrenaline-amped brain should find these tasks easier to do in this early stage of the disaster.

Third, when you turn to your own projects, write the easier pieces first. Are you working on a semi-boring book chapter that essentially recaptures and reframes your prior research insights? Are you also working on an exciting new paper that puts forward a ground-breaking theory that will change the way we see the world? Do the book chapter first. Even if you are excited about your new projects, if your brain is not yet ready to cooperate, you may spin your wheels or screw up your model. If you can, set it aside and tackle the writing projects that feel like a kindergarten project, and have the least at stake. Make an outline and paint by number. Trust that after you complete a couple of these, your brain will be ready for the juicier challenges of new and cutting-edge projects.

Finally, while it may be tempting for us all to reimagine our research in response to this crisis, that is sort of like ambulance chasing. That is not the way. However, it is perfectly appropriate to be transformed by this global phenomenon. This crisis has changed the world, and understanding the world is our work. Therefore, make time for your ideas to be changed, and give space for your assumptions to be destroyed. It is particularly courageous to abandon a project you’ve invested in because you now see it another way. Let yourself be proven wrong. We have all been so very wrong about so many things.

Final Thoughts

This episode has put forward some practical suggestions for how to ease into academic research amid disaster conditions. Of course, no one can do this perfectly. If you lose a day because you got stuck in a cable news vortex, just forget about it and move on. Try again tomorrow. Be kind to yourself. No one is going to get an A+ in pandemic productivity, and it is simply absurd to try. Embrace imperfection for each and every day of this crisis.

Looking ahead, I am happy to write more about research productivity, and the many pitfalls and setbacks that are guarantees to happen over the next three months. (Just accept it. It’s going to happen.) That said, if there are specific topics that are of interest, I am happy to share my experiences, and hear from others who also have insights on life under sustained disaster conditions. Until then, stay safe and well. 

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Adapting to Disaster, Episode 3: Research Productivity in Disaster Conditions (Guest Post by Dr. Aisha Ahmad) — 1 Comment

  1. While I think many of these points are spot-on, I feel this post doesn’t address the urgency of getting research done for contingent academics, and seems to presuppose that the academic community, if they aren’t on the front lines of fighting the pandemic, are just immersed in a “luxurious writing bubble.” Many of us have strict endpoints to our research funding and have to meet specific output goals before then to have any chances of future funding (if those still exist at that point), or need to defend our dissertation in the next few months. While these research goals certainly aren’t as life-or-death as work in the ER, they still directly impact our future livelihoods and security. But this post makes it sound like all academics have the privilege of assuming that the ‘luxury’ of research time–and financial compensation–will still be waiting for them once this crisis is over. Most of us aren’t tenured or on the tenure-track, so this just doesn’t reflect our reality.

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