The pandemic has wreaked havoc on PhD research projects and the lives behind them. After more than two years operating in survival mode, it’s time for us to take stock of the impact on this important researcher population, and what worked and what did not work to prepare ourselves for future similar events.

It’s also about time to reflect on how we can design a research training system that is more just, responsive and sustainable.

Published literature reports a range of impacts on PhD researchers; most in three interrelated categories

first, the loss of or reduced social connections with friends, family and colleagues and supervisors diminished a sense of belonging and hindered researcher development.

second, research progress has been delayed due to lockdowns/border restrictions disrupting data collection and limited access to institutional resources and facilities (library, archives, computers and equipment). Researchers had their research design changed, with others put on hold for a lengthy period. The consequence is delayed thesis submission, which led to the need (and accompanying pressure) to acquire additional funding and/or a new visa for international researchers.

third, there are personal issues, including low personal productivity due to poor working environment and struggles to maintain work-life balance due to increased work and home responsibilities (for example, home-schooling kids or caretaking responsibility for the sick. Health concerns (getting sick loved ones getting sick) and finance (loss of job or funding) were also reported.

These issues combined put a heavy strain on individual well-being and mental health, are a huge concern for graduate researchers in normal circumstances.

Overall, research confirms what we intuitively know about the impact of the pandemic: not everyone experienced it the same way. Or as Damian Barr poetically puts it ‘We are not all in the same boat/We are all in the same storm/Some are on super-yachts/Some have just the one oar.’

Inequity issues are highlighted through the differential impacts on certain groups, particularly  PhD researchers with parenting responsibilities, international students, those at mid-stage of their candidature, team-based researchers, and female researchers. (However, the gender aspect seems not to be statistically significant in Sweden and Finland.)

However, not all experiences were negative. Some of the positive aspects include improved collegiate peer support, more time to focus on work, increased work-life balance, more opportunities for research and attending conferences.

what needs be done now

While universities are transitioning back to campus with the hope that the return of face-to-face events will reinvigorate the sense of community and personal connections, there are a ways to better support our graduate researchers.

first, maintain and support flexible approaches to working and study while supporting graduate researchers to create an appropriate workspace at home.

second, continue to support the impacted researchers, especially in terms of candidature extension and funding support to compensate for the pandemic impact.

third, keep a focus on well-being and mental health, not only for graduate researchers but everyone in the university. It is important that the onus is not only on individuals but also on the institution to step up to send a clear message while initiating support programs.

fourth, adopt and develop multiple approaches and modes of communication to accommodate those who are not yet able to return to campus. Questions about how to build a sense of learning community through a combination of online and in-person events and hybrid events should be discussed.

fifth, prepare graduate researchers to navigate the virtual world. The virtual environment may have changed the way we communicate, socialise and work together. Therefore, we have to think about how to equip PhD researchers with digital literacy and capacities to navigate this virtual world effectively, safely and responsibly. Digital literacy means more than just finding and seeking information; it encompasses a range of skills required to develop their presence and interact with people virtually. In this virtual world, it’s also worth considering how on-line supervision works, and what are the pedagogical implications for doctoral education.

Finally, institutional approaches to these issues must take an equity lens. In other words, there must be a commitment from HE institutions to support researchers who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic as mentioned above. It also means paying more attention to those equity groups who may require additional support such as students with disability or Indigenous students.

Ai Tam Le, Researcher Development Coordinator, Graduate Research Academy, Deakin University, [email protected]


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