Doing a PhD during a pandemic

The intensity, speed, and satisfaction with PhD work fluctuate constantly throughout the year, and throughout the whole programme. This timeline created by PhD Comics is an accurate (and humorous) illustration of students’ constantly changing relationship to their PhD, even within the course of a week. You start the week thinking excitingly about how much writing you will get done and how many other tasks you will manage to finally do. In the meantime other things come up, both work-wise and in personal life, changing the flow and direction of your work and often fostering serendipitous and creative thinking, or on the contrary you end up doubting some of the approaches you had initially thought would be useful to the thesis. When the project becomes confusing yet again, you wonder (despite still liking the project) whether pursuing a PhD was the right choice to make a few years ago. Given that my project focuses on matters that I deeply care about and given that through the project I seek to critique the current institution of work, the act of undertaking (work for) the PhD gathers yet another level of meaning. 

And then comes the unanticipated, global event that we’re all thinking about right now. As a PhD student during the pandemic, I am doing more self-reflection and reviewing of the ‘shape’ and purpose of the project and the feasibility of previous timelines and plans. I am also reflecting on what responsibilities the role of the researcher and educational institutions should embody in these times of collective vulnerability. I have seen that across the higher education sector, both nationally and internationally, universities have been taking different approaches in terms of how they relate to the pandemic, and how they conceptualise the relationship between the pandemic and their expectations of staff and (both taught and research) students. Calls for extending temporary contracts and work arrangements, and funding and registration periods for PhD programmes are being made nationally (CoronaContract; Letter to UKRI; Letter to UKRI and other funders) and institutionally (Letter to the University of Birmingham demanding protections for fixed-term employees, workers, and PGRs; Letter to Harvard University demanding an extension of contracts for non-tenure-track faculty; see the COLA Campaign at University of California Santa Cruz, demanding a cost of living adjustment) through trade union branches and other groups. There are good news coming from allies in various institutions, and I recommend following this Twitter thread for more announcements. For instance, the Modern Languages Association in the US are calling for material support for students and staff (and the letter has been endorsed by many other disciplinary associations); The Young Academy in the Netherlands are calling for funding and contract extensions of six months: 

If we do not practice solidarity with and generosity towards our colleagues, a schism will arise.

According to reports from staff and students at various universities in the UK (published today in The Guardian), many graduate teaching assistants, support staff, early career teaching and research employees, agency workers and casual workers at all levels in various departments are now unemployed due to mass redundancies imposed very recently ‘due to coronavirus’, fearing the risk of redundancy and ‘recruitment freeze’ policies, or not having their fixed-term contracts renewed by their institutions. 50% of the staff in higher education are now on insecure contracts (UCU anticasualisation page). Many of these workers and employees are also PhD students, delivering core university activities. Yesterday, my BUCU branch published an article by a fellow PhD researcher Ellie Munro who wrote in support of the demands for protections that have been put forward by the branch this week:

The impact of this crisis will be felt most keenly by disabled students and those with existing health conditions, by those with caring responsibilities and by those who do not have access to adequate alternative financial support. If we are to maintain any pretence of fighting inequality in higher education, we cannot leave these researchers, and their vital research, behind. 

Other fears are that due to under-recruitment of international students and over-investments in non-educational projects such as student accommodation, overseas campuses, and expensive buildings on campus (paid for with institutional funds as well as loans), entire groups of staff could be made redundant, outsourced, or have their terms and conditions and contracts attacked and made more casual. Some institutions (including mine) have rightly cancelled (taught) students’ exams (and replaced them with other forms of assessment) and cancelled student accommodation fees for the rest of the academic year. More could be done to accommodate the needs and circumstances of PhD students, in terms of extending registration periods, extending Council/Charity Trust/university funding, supporting student visas, waiving tuition fees for self-funded students, and offering an emergency fund for self-funded students who need to access it.

The time we are finding ourselves in is unprecedented, and the pandemic will have implications in everything we do – not only because of its ‘natural’, ‘obvious’ and material effects, but also because of the way in which Coronavirus will be used (and already is being used) as a stand-in for a wide variety of ideologies, policies and agendas at various societal levels. We are not immune to their impact upon our lives. For instance, we do not yet know what decisions the government and funders of research will make in terms of the overall provision of funding for research (see Times Higher Education). We could expect a potential re-prioritisation of certain disciplines and a devaluing of others, budget cuts, and/or an encouragement for corporate funders and private universities to seize the moment by intervening in ‘the sector’. However, these potential scenarios are not inevitable – it is a matter of what values and approaches our universities wish to uphold, that will shine through when we follow the developments within the sector over the next few months and years. 

Work-wise, this is not a time for ‘business as usual’, for a myriad of reasons, some of which can be due to: personal, institutional, state-based circumstances; disablement; cuts to social care; needing to care for ourselves, relatives, and friends; self-isolating to protect ourselves or others; helping neighbours with shopping and cooking; being involved in mutual aid groups; helping fellow trade union members with advice; experiencing bereavement; dealing with a redundancy; experiencing COVID-related domestic abuse and feeling trapped; assisting someone who may soon pass away due to COVID; searching for jobs or applying for social security support and not managing to get through to the DWP; experiencing COVID-related panic attacks and secondary trauma; being in pain and managing symptoms of COVID; experiencing COVID-related fatigue; being hospitalised; asking for help with shopping and other tasks (and having to wait for them, while knowing that you might not be able to eat that day or for a few days); not knowing whether your personal assistant and/or social worker will visit you; not having access to equipment, archives, or any other tools for research; not having appropriate workspace, a quiet environment and fast enough internet; not having a routine (that for many neurodivergent students/researchers is very important to be able to work and function) and a clear space-based separation between work and home; not being able to visit your therapist or anyone else whom you were expecting to work with/see; not being able to support your care assistant (employee) as much as you would like; not fitting in the categories that allow you to access state support; dealing with delays in receiving prescriptions; being evicted or not having a home; being afraid of not having enough medicines and access to them; being afraid of being easily detained and not treated with dignity under the Coronavirus Act 2020; being afraid to go to the hospital because of how the state might treat you due to your migration status; not being able to see your loved ones in person; being afraid of chronic illness flare-ups; having an operation scheduled or delayed during the pandemic; experiencing flare-ups; being afraid of government inaction and following unsettling news; experiencing any other illnesses and/or impairments (new or old); keeping online company to relatives who live away from us and are on their own; keeping on top of government and university advice; keeping on top of deadlines of all kinds; paying expensive bills and high rent while not being able to work or while chasing up payments for work you’ve already done; experiencing loneliness; experiencing mental distress while you’re on your own; not knowing whether your interviews can be moved online; searching for (and not finding much or any) headspace, energy, ‘spoons’; resting; living; recuperating – and the list can continue endlessly. Of course the above situations and experiences can happen at any time, but during the pandemic they are all embodied differently and more powerfully, and they all have a different and longer-lasting effect on us. It is not surprising therefore that PhD students (myself included) are finding it difficult to focus on their work in the same way that we used to, prior to the pandemic, and a leave of absence (which means having your registration, funding, and other ties to the institution cut off entirely) or an extension requested at the end of the programme are not real solutions to address the above. This is not a time for ‘productivity talk’. Structural support is very much needed, and urgently.

Universities face a choice: they can support their temporary – but vital – workers or risk an unprecedented backlash at a time when morale is low, stakes are high, and the purpose and value of higher education is frequently under scrutiny. 

Charlotte Morris, The Guardian, 2nd April 2020