Outtakes (PhDs in a Pandemic)

This month I wrote an article for the British Ecological Society about the impacts of the COVID pandemic on PhD students around the world. I asked PhD students on Twitter to respond to an online survey about their experiences. Here, I want to share some outtakes from the article—important pieces that didn’t make it through the word count.

The first thing I want to say is that the perseverance of the PhD students who shared their COVID stories astounded me. Their personal mottos demonstrate perspective, resilience and commitment.

“I’ll get through this” / “I will finish” / “Just keep chipping away” / “I have survived every single bad day so far” / “It’s not a sprint” / “You’re not the only one” / “Others are worse off” / “When everything feels like an uphill battle, just think of the view from the top”

“As awful as this time has been, it has taught me important lessons and given me a perspective I wouldn’t have gained until many years later: that I should and will in the future prioritise my own happiness… I will build my career around my life, and not the other way around.”

In the BES article I did my best to capture the incredible loss that students described.

“It has robbed me of my joy of science and research, and taken away all the best parts of the PhD experience (travel, interactions with colleagues, pursuing novel and innovative ideas)”

In addition to lost time, abandoned experiments and cancelled fieldwork, many students described the consequences of lost interactions with our academic communities—interactions they viewed as a core to sustaining progress as a postgraduate researcher and also to our wellbeing as scientists. 

“I realised just how much I had depended on a scholarly environment to keep up my mental fitness for tackling the difficult business of the PhD” / “The pandemic has made the PhD journey a lot lonelier”

Importantly, in my BES article I was unable to capture important intersections that have dramatically increased the complexity of COVID impacts for some students, including international students and parents with young children.

Remote commencing students have faced extreme social and academic isolation during the pandemic, often while cut off from their existing support networks by international border closures. Some students from under-developed countries have also suffered tremendous stress or even trauma, as their communities and families at home—who may not have ready access to healthcare or the vaccine—get sick with COVID-19. One student I know on international study in The West has been stuck overseas, while 12 family members died at home. I am certain this student is not the only one.

“It sucks. It’s lonely. It’s unrewarding. It’s frustrating.”

Students with children at home reported that dedicated research time became difficult or impossible to find—an experience many parents share from the past 18 months, when so many of us have been sent to work from home. The difficulty is that PhD supervisors and universities have not always been accomodating of students impacted in this way—impacts that may lead to (further) future disadvantage for those looking to progress in academia with children.

“Daycare was closed and my wife had to work double shifts (she’s a nurse at the intensive care unit). I had no time left to work on my PhD” / “I have had to drop to part time to compensate for lost productivity, which affects my family’s income. My self-esteem has really suffered as a result.”

As I say in the main article, this pandemic is a stark reminder that the academy does not exist in a vacuum—the impacts of COVID will tend to fall more heavily on international students, parents and others at systemic disadvantage. A consideration of these complexities should be part of how supervisors and universities assess the PhD progress of students during this time.

The article was published in The Niche magazine, the quarterly Society magazine, written by and for the community. It covers the science of ecology and the lives of ecologists through news, opinion, interviews, reviews, fiction and more. The full article is available in perpetuity for members of the Society, or via this link for the next 3 months.

For more information on the impacts of COVID-19 on university students, see this report from the Swedish National Union of Students and this report on a longitudinal study conducted at Monash university.

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