Pandemics and PhDs


The pandemic is upon us. My university is moving rapidly online with everyone who can working at home.

I’ve seen a lot on social media about how to teach online, whether to teach on line, and how to offer students support. I haven’t yet seen a lot about PhDers and their research. Well maybe a bit about labs.

Some of the people I work with are in the middle of field work, or just starting. They work in and with schools, galleries and community organisations. In other words, populous places which may or may not be closed for an indefinite period of time. Some docs are close to having enough data. Some aren’t. And because of the time-limited nature of the PhD in the UK, this data deficit might create real problems for them.

Up to three of the PhDers I work with have research which may have to be redesigned mid-way through. Redesigned so that their data is not entirely people-based, and/or not as comprehensive as envisaged. While I am confident that we will be able to sort something out, this redesigning is not an easy task, intellectually or emotionally.

The half-done problem won’t of course be confined to our small group.

I cannot imagine how many PhDers are currently worrying about whether they can do the research they want to, whether they have to start again, and/or whether they can afford the additional time it might take to get their projects done if their designs are un-modifiable.

This midpoint situation is obviously an immediate challenge not only for PhDers but also their supervisors.  I have already written to people I am working with who are in the middle of field work, suggesting that we meet straight away to discuss options (by distance mode of course as I am self-isolating after getting back from overseas, and the university is moving online.)

But the effects of the pandemic on PhDers is something that universities also might be able to do something about, sooner rather than later. They need to not wash their hands of PhDers, but be very proactive in offering reassurance and support.

For example:

Some PhDers might want to suspend their studies – and be able/afford to do so. Current rules about suspension of study usually make illness or serious crisis of some sort the only reason for suspension of studies. This pandemic is just such a crisis and ought in itself to be enough reason for leave from study if it is requested. Enrolled doctoral researchers need to be informed about this option as soon as possible.

Some PhDers may need to change their research designs and titles to reflect a necessarily changed design. In some institutions and with some research funders, such changes require lengthy and substantiated justification. In this instance, doctoral researchers need to be given permission, be told that such changes are possible in the circumstances. And ideally, research scholarship funders ought to make funding for an additional catch up period available to those people who have no possibility of changing their research mid-stream.

Some PhD designs may now look a trifle unusual. Ethnographers and action researchers for instance may now have a unique opportunity to see how their site responds to a crisis. (Others will not be able to continue, they will simply be locked out – see above.) So examiners will need to understand and respond positively to any forced change of circumstances with knock on effects on the research. The need for understanding of changes also needs to be written into institutional viva guidelines for this cohort of PhDs.

Some PhDers will find the pandemic just one thing too much. The PhD is already highly stressful. This crisis on top of the usual stresses may mean that many more people than usual will need additional support. Universities must offer extra counselling services. But graduate services might also offer online discussion group spaces where PhDers can talk about their worries and specific issues, writing and research difficulties and so on, together. Facilitating self-help support groups is surely a key function for grad schools at this moment in time. (And yes this is also something I am going to do in my own school, with my colleagues .)

I am sure there are other specific PhD pandemic issues I haven’t yet thought about. Please add those that concern you in the comments and I will spread the word through my social media networks – and I’m sure you will too.