Managing/Being a Master’s Student during a Pandemic

02 December 2021
- by Magdalena Mladenova, Anita de Waard, Thom Pijnenburg and George Tsatsaronis, Elsevier

For the past five years, Elsevier has been an enthusiastic participant in the UvA Master’s Student programme. In total, more than 45 students have been supervised by researchers across the company, which has led to 12 new recruits for our Data Science teams.

Before: Happy ADS Masters Supervisors

In April 2020, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed contingent of 12 Master’s students was eager to start a slew of projects, ranging from image classification and automated text generation to predicting customer churn and the extraction of funding information in scientific papers.

In previous years, working together meant a once-a-week gathering at the Elsevier offices near Sloterdijk, with happy comingling of students, supervisors, and any other passers-by. This often led to a productive cross-pollination of ideas, software, and job opportunities. Due to the pandemic, these in-person events were cancelled and students were left to reach out to their supervisors and coworkers via Zoom.

As we come to the end of this period and are ramping up for a new cohort of Master’s students, it is time to reflect on some of the highs, lows and lessons-learned of this ‘supervising-at-a-distance’, what to take forward as we (slowly) start meeting in person, and what to leave behind.

During: Distributed Data Science in a Pandemic

When the world deals with a pandemic, Elsevier makes virtual internships. As far as lemonades go, this was a rather sweet one, as it allowed interns to tune in from multiple locations, including the US, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Italy. The combination of virtual work and flexible working hours enabled recharging runs and interactions with pets, although some pets’ strict supervision (Fig. 1) did not do much for morale.

Fig. 1: Ryan maintaining close distance with his intern while taking a break from micromanaging.

When it comes to discussing projects with their supervisors, the Master’s students found that having multiple ways to reach out for guidance (including scheduled one-on-ones, stand-ups, and Slack) aided the prompt resolution of any issues. But it was harder to get into the same creative wavelength for in-depth scientific discussions across Zoom than it would have been in the same room. Logistics in a pandemic further complicated things. How do you get a laptop to a student working from home in Rome, or get VPN access to a place with less than ideal Wi-Fi?

The supervisors mostly figured things out together with the students, who deserve a lot of credit for their tenacity, resilience and flexibility. It became clear that they would benefit from a broader set of connections than just their immediate supervisors. We started a weekly ‘Meeting of the Masters’ Zoom where students and supervisors discussed any issues or questions. After a half hour, the supervisors logged off to allow the students to talk among themselves about work, the pandemic, or any other topic of choice.

Fig. 2: The Gather Poster Session

On the upside, fully virtual interactions allowed for more inclusive events, such as a virtual poster session in Gather (Fig. 2). This supported a much larger and diverse attendance than we have ever could have had physically in Amsterdam. It enabled people from wider backgrounds and geographies to connect with the students. In particular, the poster format was found to be a great catalyst for in-depth discussions at the event. Engaging in discussions about possible project applications enabled the students to see how their research problems fitted within the wider context of the company.

After: Lessons Learned and Takeaways

The pandemic has taught us new ways of working, new ways of efficient remote communication, and new ways of managing people and projects. Initiatives such as virtual coffees or team games clearly helped with providing an unstructured medium for chatting freely. Going forward, they could be instrumental in getting to know one’s team or connecting with other interns in a casual setting.
Regular meetings throughout the internship can be held by students working on similar topics to support the exchange of ideas. A virtual Master’s meetup can transform to involve smaller groups of students talking at a time: for example, divided into different Zoom rooms each time, or randomly grouped to mimic the natural mingling during in-person meetings.

The virtual poster session we definitely want to take forward, since it leads to much greater input from across the company. This session connected colleagues from across the company with each other and their new collaborators, who started as employees following their graduation.

In summary, we learned a lot from this virtual supervisory period. Not being able to rely on spontaneous meetings around the coffee machine, we found ways to support each other online, less spontaneously, but not less fun.

We are greatly looking forward to being able to supervise a new group of students, in a multitude of modalities!

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