During COVID, what has impacted faculty productivity most?

In a study that examined higher ed faculty in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, one factor emerged as the most significant in hindering self-reported productivity as related to promotion and tenure. Here's what it is and how administrators can help.

Taking the time to author manuscript submissions, participate in peer review assignments, fill out grant applications and attend funding panel meetings are all both markers of academic productivity and metrics for promotion and tenure within higher ed. COVID has made such activities challenging for many faculty–especially faculty who are parents of young children.

In one of the first studies to quantify academic productivity during the pandemic, researchers at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the University of Florida College of Medicine and the University of Michigan School of Medicine found that factor to impact academic productivity the most.

The study, published in the Journal of Women’s Health under the title “Academic Productivity Differences by Gender and Child Age in STEMM Faculty during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” involved surveying 284 male and female faculty members in the STEMM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) with a median age of 42 at various institutions across the country. Faculty were asked to self-report productivity across a number of categories, comparing their output in the two months beginning in mid-January to the two months beginning in mid-March.

There were no significant differences in the number of hours worked per week by gender, 45.8 for males and 43.1 for females, during the time periods. However, during the first two months of the pandemic, faculty with children age 5 and younger reported working significantly fewer hours weekly, 33.7. Faculty with children age 6 and older, or with no children living at home, reported increased work hours during the pandemic, according to the study.

“Usually parents of young children have all of their supports lined up—daycare or a babysitter, as well as additional support from relatives, including parents who are older,” says Becca Krukowski, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in the Department of Preventive Medicine and first author of the study. “That hasn’t been the case during the pandemic.”

Becca Krukowski, University of Tennessee Health Science Center
Becca Krukowski, University of Tennessee Health Science Center

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The productivity findings have potential implications on tenure and promotion, and ultimately on academic careers. That challenge “may be compounded by other pandemic-related impacts on research, such as having to close down a lab or having to change the way that research is done to keep participants and staff safe,” says Krukowski.

The study also points to the possibility that the pandemic has the potential to increase gender inequities already evident in the STEMM fields, since females perform the majority of the caregiving for the youngest children.

Four ways administrators can help

Colleges and universities whose leaders have worked to increase faculty diversity may be particularly concerned about the study’s findings. “It is critical to establish ways to prevent the loss of scientists during the pandemic, particularly those faculty who are already vulnerable to the leaky academic pipeline, such as early-career women and women of color,” says Krukowski.

She suggests taking these actions to help mitigate the impact on faculty who have been caregiving for young children during the pandemic:

  • Establish funding for faculty to rebuild research labs, for those who have lost time or valuable samples/animals due to stay-at-home orders.
  • Establish a fund for graduate research assistantships or postdoctoral fellow stipends to assist faculty with writing grants or scientific articles
  • Provide course releases for faculty who have heavy teaching loads, to allow them to spend time on writing grants or scientific articles.
  • Extend the amount of time that faculty have to use their start-up funds.

“It will also be important to monitor how the pandemic is impacting the tenure/promotion decisions, including stopping the tenure clock, by gender and caregiving responsibilities,” says Krukowski.

Officials should also keep in mind other factors that may be impacting faculty productivity during this time. The factors may include, she says, “social unrest and caregiving responsibilities for older family members, particularly among the communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

Overall, she hopes for more understanding and flexibility at all levels of the university. She notes that “‘the way that we have always done things’ may need to change to facilitate research, and there will likely be more work interruptions than usual due to repeated and lengthy quarantines if children are attending in-person school.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB. 

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