In academia, graduate students are arguably the silent victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have to juggle the responsibilities of being a parent, educator, researcher and student, which can contribute to a great deal of trauma and uncertainty. What’s more, their research may have been jeopardized, causing a trickle down effect on finances, degree completion and their mental health.

Whether you’re teaching or mentoring PhD or master’s students in the winter semester, here’s a look at the unique challenges that come with obtaining a graduate education today.

Our new student survey highlights the mixed emotions that students faced entering the fall semester. But students in higher education have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the winter term. Download the report for free, here.

1. Graduate-level research is hard to replicate online

When campuses closed in spring 2020, a crucial component of the graduate school experience was lost: physical access to research facilities and equipment. In a 2020 survey by the Toronto Science Policy Network, 76 percent of graduate students reported a negative impact on their ability to conduct research remotely.1 Even worse, some students had to change their research direction altogether due to the lack of research spaces available and minimal online resources. With little access to the campus library and archives, others had to change the type of data they were looking to collect.

2. Finances don’t paint a promising picture

Most doctoral or master’s degrees come with a professional development component. This may involve teaching a number of courses in a related bachelor’s degree program. With COVID-19, institutions have had to cut back wherever they can—meaning job boards are looking rather sparse. These cutbacks in graduate programs mean that students may have had to give up a stipend that came with their research duties or teaching assistant roles. Grad students are understandably concerned about how they will finance the remainder of their degrees. This uncertainty has already started to worry students in terms of access to food and housing—two price tags that would have largely been covered by financial aid in the form of teaching and research stipends.

3. Grad school completion is prolonged

Graduate students have had to forgo some of their research and teaching opportunities due to cutbacks. This in turn has affected the anticipated time needed to complete their degrees. Data show that one in four students will need at least another six months to a year to complete their graduate studies.2 Even worse, the uncertainty around research and teaching duties is starting to affect full-time international students studying in the United States. Fifty-four percent of foreign grad students were worried about their ability to complete degree requirements before the expiration of their study permit.1

4. Mental health is suffering—but you can help

Concerns around financial support, research and teaching responsibilities are piling up. Indeed, the pandemic has been especially tumultuous for grad students. Advocating for those in your master’s or doctoral degree programs is one of the most important things you can do as an instructor or supervisor. Below, we share what graduate student advocacy may look like in a COVID-struck era.

Meetings

Host regular 1:1 meetings with students and ensure you discuss both research and non-academic issues
Organize group meetings for students to collaborate with one another virtually—employ breakout rooms to let students build camaraderie among one another
Vary the schedules of classes and meetings to make it easier for parents and caretakers to attend
Help set realistic and feasible timelines—within reason—for low-stakes assessments
Share an FAQ sheet with the above items captured at the start of the term

Support

Emphasize the importance of health and well-being in your course communications
Advocate for virtual theses defenses in the winter semester
Link students to your campus’ career support services or job opportunities
Inform students of the counselling services your college offers
Celebrate your students’ successes—no matter how big or small
Recommend a social media network and account that will inspire graduate students to share information and connect—such as @AcademicChatter on Twitter
Source alternatives to student course evaluations this semester—these aren’t the most reliable indicator of grad students’ performance as a teacher during the pandemic

References

  1. Toronto Science Policy Network. (2020, August 10). The Early Impacts of COVID-19 on Graduate Students across Canada. https://tspn.ca/covid19-report/
  2. Zahneis, M., & June, A.W. (2020, Sept. 3). How Has the Pandemic Affected Graduate Students? This Study Has Answers. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-has-the-pandemic-affected-graduate-students-this-study-has-answers

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