Doctoral students a vulnerable group during pandemic

Reduced productivity, social isolation and anxiety about one’s career. Many doctoral students are suffering during the pandemic. The result, from a study conducted at LiU, is in line with experiences from other universities.

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“Even in normal circumstances, doctoral students are normally a risk group regarding stress and mental health problems. During the pandemic, pressure on us has increased further, even if we also see that certain things are better now than during the first wave of the pandemic last spring. Many of us have started to get used to the switch to digital. But we also see that some have chosen to discontinue their studies and that some are mentally in a very bad state”, says Sofia Thunberg, doctoral student in cognitive science at the Department of Computer and Information Science.
She is chair of the doctoral student association LiU PhD, which, together with the doctoral student association DOMFIL, is behind the survey where two questionnaire studies were conducted during the spring and autumn of 2020.

Anxious about their career

The study shows that more than half of the doctoral students have difficulties with distance mode, while the rest feel their work is going well, under the circumstances.
“A lot depends on factors such as which phase the doctoral students are in, their social situation, how their home life is, and if their workplace at home is satisfactory”, says Sofia Thunberg.
What is noteworthy in the responses is the students’ anxiety regarding their careers. With cancelled conferences and research meetings, opportunities for social meetings and networking have disappeared.

Networking crucial

“For us doctoral students, networking, where we make new contacts in the research world, is absolutely crucial to our careers. Now we’ve got an interruption of at least one year where we can’t reach out the same way, go on exchanges or meet nationally and internationally.”
Another question that concerns the doctoral students is finishing their thesis in time, when the pandemic has made their work more difficult.
“For this reason we hope that LiU is considering extending the doctoral positions for the affected students. Lund University has given a general extension of two months”, says Sofia Thunberg.

Time stolen from doctoral position

Emilia StridEmilia StridEmilia Strid is a doctoral student at Child Studies who plans to graduate in 2022.
“The questionnaire responses resonate with me. It feels like some of your time has been stolen. You lose a lot when you can’t meet up at work, both in terms of social and professional exchange. Some of my co-workers have had trouble arranging a good workplace at home, which can lead to injuries. There’s also a risk of a reduction in productivity as a result of the difficulty in separating work and private life”, says Emilia Strid.
The positives include that supervision, despite the pandemic, has worked just as well as before, and that the transition to digital teaching has gone smoothly.
“Everyone has really helped out and enabled new possibilities. We’ve gained experience that we can use when the pandemic is over”, says Emilia Strid.

Some more affected than others

Alexander FlaigAlexander FlaigAlexander Flaig, second-year doctoral student in business administration at the Department of Management and Engineering, has similar experiences with regard to the lack of face-to-face meetings and interaction:
“That’s the biggest difference for me. We’re not able to network or collaborate in any natural way.”
He emphasizes that the situation for doctoral students varies; some are affected far more than others:
“If for instance you’re reliant on lab work or field studies that can’t be carried out because of the pandemic, obviously it causes additional problems. It’s going to ruin the careers of many young researchers.”

No general extension

Per-Olof Brehmer, deputy vice-chancellor for research at LiU, takes the results seriously:
“It’s good that the study has been done and we know that other universities have similar situations, which confirms the responses from the LiU doctoral students.”
At the same time he maintains that the doctoral students face similar challenges as all other employees.
“We were all hit by a ‘shock digitalisation’. Our aim has been to support the doctoral students in the same way as the other employees, but it has not always been easy, for instance with sorting out the home workplace in a good way. The supervisors have really tried to support the doctoral students as much as possible, which the report shows.”
There are no plans to give extensions to the doctoral students, says Per-Olof Brehmer:
“That assessment is made on an individual basis by the supervisor, and is managed at the departmental level. The indications we’ve got are that there’s no need for a general extension – although in certain instances there may be.”

Questionnaire during the spring

His impression is that there is a lot of work underway aimed at improving the work situation of the doctoral students.
“We're looking at the needs that exist and we’re on course toward meeting their requests, for instance more digital discussion forums, conferences and seminar series.”
Also, LiU will send a questionnaire to the doctoral students during the spring, about what is being done and what should be done.
“Starting in the spring we will also appoint three senior professors who will support the doctoral students in their programmes. We will also review how supervisors are trained with regard to doctoral students; supervising remotely requires a different approach.”

Link to the report from May  
Link to the report from October 

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