A 'stressful, bad, ugly time': Graduate students experience research decline throughout the pandemic

Nicole Rallis is a single mother and a second-year PhD student in the department of curriculum and pedagogy. When COVID-19 hit, Rallis found herself in a dilemma.

Daycares closed down almost universally from March to September, and as a result Rallis experienced a significant decrease in her research output from having to take care of her daughter during the day and conduct her research at night.

“My story is not unique,” said Rallis.

On-campus research was curtailed March onwards due to COVID-19, with reduced access to equipment and facilities. The significant decrease in research accessibility has had a strong impact on graduate students as well as faculty.

At its September meeting, the Board of Governors released a report on a survey about the COVID-19 impacts on tenure-track faculty. According to the preliminary findings, 72 per cent of faculty indicated a decrease in research output, for a wide range of reasons.

Reasons cited by more than half of the faculty members include additional time for online teaching, home environment for remote work and time needed to be a care-provider.

The survey, conducted in June and July 2020, had a high response rate of 47 per cent, with respondents from all 11 faculties.

Grad students in a ‘sensitive position’

Nicolas Romualdi, the Graduate Student Society (GSS) VP academic and university affairs, said that the impact on graduate students is further compounded, because they are in an even more precarious situation, in relation to their housing, career or financial standing.

A survey report released by the GSS in August indicates that one in two graduate students who participated in the survey said they would be unable to continue their research without interruptions due to the pandemic.

Yotam Ronen, a third-year PhD student in the department of educational studies, said that the closing of the library and archives slowed down his research. He said he may have to change his research focus and the type of data he is relying on, and this has dramatically slowed down his degree plan.

Taylor Wright, a fourth-year PhD student in the chemistry department, was impacted by closure of labs in March. “With no lab time, we did no research,” he said.

A phased resumption of on-campus research began in June. Wright said that students from the chemistry department could return to their labs, but only on certain shifts, with lowered capacity. This was difficult for him as chemistry experiments often require long uninterrupted periods of time.

Wright added that he has been unable to work with his collaborators in different departments and universities, and the completion of his degree has been delayed by a year.

“My experiences are felt by most if not all graduate students I know,” said Wright.

Dr. Andrew MacFarlane, a professor in the chemistry department, also said that it was difficult to get anything done in the summer, and things are still progressing slowly now.

Some of his students are close to finishing their PhDs, and may have had enough data in April itself, had research centres not shut down, which MacFarlane said put them in a “sensitive position.”

Graduate students have also lost access to office space and libraries. 44 per cent of graduate student respondents to the GSS survey also said they did not have a dedicated workspace where they could carry out their academic work with minimal distractions, which Romualdi pointed out was more than a minor issue.

Support offered by UBC

According to the survey presented to the Board of Governors, 53 per cent of research faculty said they required trainee and team support, 34 per cent said they needed interdisciplinary collaborations and other support like library and office access and childcare support to increase their research output again.

“We need to really start paying attention to what the long-term effects of COVID are,” said Romualdi, suggesting that UBC should put two-pronged support in place: financial and academic.

With the severe delays many graduate students are experiencing in completing their degrees, some students may reach the end of their funding period and have to pay extra terms of tuition.

More than half of the graduate students surveyed by the GSS said they did not believe that UBC has been offering them adequate support during the pandemic.

“There is a large disconnect between the people who are organizing the return to research and the people who actually do the research,” said Wright. For instance, he added that there hasn’t been any adjustment to accommodate research work and TA work happening simultaneously.

Matthew Ramsey, the Director of University Affairs, said that UBC is working closely with other post-secondary institutions and the government to recognize and support the impact of COVID-19 on research.

“I think [UBC is] pretty receptive, especially for the students,” said MacFarlane.

Ramsey said that UBC was currently offering academic, financial and well-being support. Academic support being offered includes extensions of academic deadlines and support for online dissertation exams. Financial support has included an emergency bursary program for graduate students and delayed due dates for tuition, among others.

He added that they are launching focus groups to address the preliminary findings of the survey of faculty members.

“I believe UBC’s plan has always been a tightrope to walk, a balance between safety and efficiency, but right now grad students are the ones being strained to keep the system afloat,” said Wright. “It’s a really stressful, bad, ugly time as a grad student.”

Ramsey said that research activities are expected to gradually return to normal with the easing of health restrictions, but he added that it was important to recognize the unpredictability of the pandemic, which could get worse.

“The university needs to make an effort to not penalize the students as a result of the pandemic,” said Romualdi, “The last thing we want is to not be able to do the cutting-edge, excellent research that characterizes this university.”