Impacts of COVID-19 on Graduate Students

June 2, 2020
Katharine Sedivy-Haley
Recent PhD
University of British Columbia
CSPC Volunteer

Graduate students occupy an in-between place in academia. They are at university to learn and obtain a degree, but most also contribute to the university's teaching, research, or both. In my time as a departmental representative for the UBC Graduate Student Society (GSS), and a member of the GSS's graduate student financial aid adjudication panel, I became familiar with the challenges that graduate students face as a result of their position in the academic structure. These challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

Graduate students are impacted by many of COVID-19’s effects on the academic community. Remote work is stressful, especially for those with caregiving responsibilities. Thesis research is delayed, fieldwork and conferences cancelled. This hinders graduate students' ability to produce the expected body of research within their program timelines. In addition, grad students are often TAs or even instructors and have had to rapidly adapt to online classrooms . Graduate students who take courses face online learning challenges from the other side.

More distinctly, graduate students typically occupy a financially precarious position. COVID-19 has increased these pressures, reflecting the fragility of the system. Graduate funding is only guaranteed for a certain number of years, and even in ordinary circumstances the guaranteed funding period is often insufficient. At UBC, funding for PhD students is guaranteed for four years while the average length of a PhD is five years . In my experience reviewing financial aid applications with the UBC-GSS, the end of guaranteed funding was a recurring contributor to these students' financial distress. Students whose timelines are impacted by COVID-19 may therefore be feeling the effects not immediately, but in several years' time, if they are unable to complete their research before their guaranteed funding runs out.

Even for students who have not run out of guaranteed funding, income often decreases over time as scholarships run out. The Tri-Council Canada Graduate Scholarships cover only one year of a Master's degree, or three years of a PhD. Students who do not lose income still suffer from increased financial strain over the course of a program as cost of living increases. These factors can result in increased stress or food insecurity later in graduate programs.

Depending on university and graduate program policies, graduate students may not be able to earn extra income as TAs. A survey of graduate students at UBC indicated that 71% rely on external funding , including employment outside the university or from an employed spouse. If this income is lost as a result of COVID-19 graduate students may be forced to choose between paying summer and fall tuition, or rent. Financial stress is particularly impactful for international students, who pay higher tuition and have fewer opportunities for funding (e.g. scholarships).

Lack of funding, and other stressors, result in a high rate of mental health concerns among graduate students. They spend a great deal of time and energy attending to their research progress, and often have limited social support or self-care habits as a result. At any time, the trainee-supervisor relationship has a huge impact on graduate student wellbeing, and the responses of principal investigators during COVID-19 have varied widely. Some graduate students have experienced pressure either from their PI or from their ticking program clock to work in the laboratory despite infection risk – a factor which requires careful consideration as restrictions on in-person research are lifted.

The transition to online doctoral defenses and graduations can be painful for PhD students. While in the wilderness of PhD research, it can be difficult to recognize and celebrate small wins – many doctoral students wait on the idea of a grand celebration once they come out the other side. This aspect of COVID-19 impacted me personally. I spent much of my Christmas holiday revising my thesis, and started the new year looking forward to having friends and out-of-province family attending my doctoral defense. Instead, on April 7th, I defended in front of a screen.

Graduate students at the ends of their programs are facing an uncertain future, with both financial and psychological implications. Highly trained graduates are now entering a challenging job market, or may have international postdoc positions delayed as a result of travel restrictions.

The Canada Emergency Student Benefit will ease short-term financial insecurity, and some universities have announced accommodations for graduate students – for example, UBC introduced an emergency bursary. However, these accommodations came slower than measures such as pausing tenure clocks, possibly because graduate students face greater challenges in advocating for themselves than faculty do. As the crisis continues, universities and national policy makers should consider ongoing impacts on graduate students, and collaborate with student organizations, to ensure that a generation of incoming researchers does not find their financial futures, their careers, or their mental health flattened by this pandemic.