COVID-19 Stories: How PhD Students are Experiencing Disruption And Uncertainty During The Pandemic

VAS PAPAGEORGIOU, WILL KENDALL AND LIDIA LUNA PUERTA

We are graduate students at an extraordinary time. At the early stage of our careers, we were still learning how to live and work in the world of academia. Now, as the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds across the world, students globally are having to adapt to yet another way of life. This pandemic has brought changes to academic life that have highlighted the precarious position that graduate students occupy in the neoliberal university. In this blog, we highlight the disruption and uncertainty facing PhD students during the pandemic, drawing on the experience of 5 students based at universities in the UK. Some of their names were removed in this post to maintain their anonymity.

Like many working in research, PhD students are facing huge disruption to their projects. Data collection is being paused or adjusted; planned interviews can no longer happen; labs and libraries are shutting down. Perhaps more significantly, the social world that students are studying is being altered and re-made by the outbreak and subsequent government reactions. Some students are not only having to re-think research designs, but the very topics they planned to study.

On 26 March, 3 days after the UK government’s announcement of a ‘lockdown’ (1), Vas took to Twitter to see if what she was feeling during lockdown was felt by other PhD students. In just four days, 58 people responded to her poll, with a majority (67.2%) highlighting a distinct ‘lack of motivation’ for their work during the outbreak. Others began to share additional challenges they were facing, such as managing childcare or being physically distant from family. One student, Katherine, told us how she was worried about colleagues that were struggling to adapt, particularly international students in her cohort who felt isolated, but also friends who are usually more outgoing.

It has been well documented that early career researchers (including PhD students) often experience poorer mental health compared to the general population, particularly facing higher levels of anxiety and depression (2–4). Pressures to gain funding, publish and remain productive are all too common experiences for researchers across disciplines (5). These have now been heightened by the uncertainty brought by the pandemic.

On top of this, friends and colleagues of ours have faced eviction threats, the loss of casual work, and huge uncertainty over funding, deadlines, and visa status. One international student told us of how his private accommodation provider attempted to evict him with less than a week’s notice. It was only student protests and the intervention of a university director that prevented him being homeless during lockdown. He explained that “the anxiety caused by the whole affair, and the indignity of having to justify our presence –as if they were performing an act of charity– was an enraging episode amidst the health crisis.” Many PhD students also provide vital teaching activity for institutions and we have heard of some being forced to move their work online with little notice or support. While disruption to research activities may be largely unavoidable in a time of social distancing, others could be addressed or mitigated by government, funders or university management.  

In fact, pressure from student groups has resulted in the government reporting that they will now support final-year UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)-funded PhD students through a costed extension (6,7). Yet, it remains unclear what will happen to the funding of PhD students not supported through UKRI bodies, or those not in final year who have faced significant disruption to their studies. International students with Tier-4 visas face further uncertainty, with some telling us that interruption of studies would not be possible for them as it risked revoking their visas.

Some institutions have offered unfunded extensions, without the stipend necessary to pay bills and buy food. Currently, universities and funders appear to be managing these situations reactively, on a case-by-case basis, adding to student anxiety. Other students are taking on extra work to be involved in the response effort, with molecular biology student Jenny telling us how she has applied to work two extra days a week (alongside writing up her thesis) to support antigen testing for COVID-19. However, this process has been lengthy, with large amounts of paperwork and approval needed from her supervisor, institution, funder and ultimately, the UK Department of Health and Social Care. She explained that she feels that “if this was a normal part-time job, nobody would bat an eyelid, but there’s a lot of red-tape in place for people willing to volunteer their time and skills.” A recent Times Higher Education blog (8) suggests that researchers joining the scheme are unclear if they will be guaranteed pay or would require permission from their grant funders to leave lab projects, despite the urgency of the call.

Social distancing measures means students are now having to adapt their exercise and daily walks to meet requirements, including maintaining a 2 metre distance from others. Photo taken by Vas on her daily run.

On top of this, students who are carers, living with disabilities or long-term health conditions, or studying part-time may be particularly affected by the pandemic. A survey conducted by Nature last year found that graduate students supporting families often feel particularly overwhelmed during a PhD (9). One part-time student told us that the pandemic means she cannot access the health services she normally relies on. “This and the deep anxiety caused by the pandemic means my health has deteriorated and it is almost impossible for me to work on my PhD.” While she can take a sick leave of up to 13 weeks within her scholarship, this does not push back her submission deadline, meaning there will be pressure to work harder to make up for lost time once the pandemic is over. This is in spite of the fact that “my chronic illness makes working harder impossible.”

How should PhD students respond?

As COVID-19 has exacerbated the fragility of PhD life, how have PhD students responded to address their situation? At many universities, students are beginning to mobilise to confront university administrations, demanding the subsistence necessary to continue their studies. Many have necessarily put their research on hold in order to deal with urgent personal circumstances. Respondents to Vas’ Twitter question also shared activities they were conducting in order to occupy their time, maintain good mental health, or support their friends and neighbours. From participating in Mutual Aid groups (10) to developing ventilators (11), we know that PhD students are doing amazing things to support themselves, their colleagues, and their communities. Universities, funders and governments should recognise that by supporting PhD students through this extraordinary time.

As we continue to live though this pandemic, it’s important that we take care of those around us and also manage our own health and wellbeing. We hope that this blog has highlighted some common themes anyone reading this may be feeling, and that you are not alone.

Some resources that may help:

We would like to continue this conversation by capturing and sharing the stories of students, with the goal that it may help others at this uncertain time. How are you feeling and managing the changes to daily life?

Please contact us (see below) to be involved or leave a comment.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thank you to everyone who initially took the time to engage with Vas’ Twitter post and help start this conversation at this uncertain time. We are particularly grateful to Katherine, Jenny and all other students who shared their experiences with us.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Vas Papageorgiou is a first year PhD student in Public Health at Imperial College London. She has a background in patient/public involvement and her research interests include HIV, social epidemiology and marginalised populations. You can contact her at vasiliki.papageorgiou17@imperial.ac.uk or on Twitter @vaspapa_

Lidia Luna Puerta is a fourth year PhD Candidate at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore. She is exploring the potential for public involvement in health research in an Asian context, and she has a background in engineering and neuroscience. You can contact her at lidia001@e.ntu.edu.sg or on Twitter @L_Luna_P

Will Kendall is a first year PhD student in Sociology at the London School of Economics. His research is concerned with the growth in participatory research and participatory decision-making practices in public institutions and NGOs. You can contact him at w.kendall@lse.ac.uk

REFERENCES

1.              Sparrow A, Campbell L, Rawlinson K. UK coronavirus: Boris Johnson announces strict lockdown across country – as it happened. The Guardian. [Online] 2020; Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2020/mar/23/uk-coronavirus-live-news-latest-boris-johnson-minister-condemns-people-ignoring-two-metre-distance-rule-in-parks-as-very-selfish [Accessed: 9th April 2020]

2.              The mental health of PhD researchers demands urgent attention. Nature. [Online] Nature Publishing Group; 2019;575(7782): 257–258. Available from: doi:10.1038/d41586-019-03489-1

3.              Peterse Y, Lasser J, Caglio G, Stoltmann K, Rusiecka D, Schmidt M. Addressing the Mental Health Crisis among Doctoral Researchers, Part I. [Online] PLOS Blogs. Available from: https://blogs.plos.org/thestudentblog/2018/07/25/addressing-the-mental-health-crisis-among-doctoral-researchers-part-i/ [Accessed: 9th April 2020]

4.              Williams S. Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2019. [Online] Advance HE, 2019 [Accessed: 9th April 2020]. Available from: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/postgraduate-research-experience-survey-2019 [Accessed: 9th April 2020]

5.              Fochler M, Sigl L. Anticipatory Uncertainty: How Academic and Industry Researchers in the Life Sciences Experience and Manage the Uncertainties of the Research Process Differently. Science as Culture. [Online] Routledge; 2018;27(3): 349–374. Available from: doi:10.1080/09505431.2018.1485640

6.              Grove J. Coronavirus: UK PhD students urge automatic funding extensions. [Online] Times Higher Education (THE). Available from: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/coronavirus-uk-phd-students-urge-automatic-funding-extensions [Accessed: 9th April 2020]

7.              UK Research and Innovation. Government announces support for PhD students as a result of coronavirus disruption. [Online] Available from: https://www.ukri.org/news/government-announces-support-for-phd-students-as-a-result-of-coronavirus-disruption/ [Accessed: 10th April 2020]

8.              MacInnes K. Why I haven’t joined the UK’s coronavirus ‘scientific reserve’. [Online] Times Higher Education (THE). 2020. Available from: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/why-i-havent-joined-uks-coronavirus-scientific-reserve [Accessed: 22nd April 2020]

9.              Woolston C. PhDs: the tortuous truth. Nature. [Online] 2019;575(7782): 403–406. Available from: doi:10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7

10.            Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK. [Online] Available from: https://covidmutualaid.org/ [Accessed: 15th April 2020]

11.            University of Oxford, King’s College London. OxVent. [Online] OxVent. Available from: https://oxvent.org/ [Accessed: 15th April 2020]

Featured image: An empty lecture theatre is now commonplace across institutions’ globally as teaching moves online. Taken from: https://images.app.goo.gl/uDqKDyNVkjQ2NfqK6

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